RICK NEUHEISEL'S perpetually cheerful disposition is a natural fit on UCLA's sun-drenched campus. "I need surgery to remove the smile from my face," says the former Bruins quarterback and 1984 Rose Bowl MVP, who returned to his alma mater as coach in December. But even Neuheisel had to cringe last Thursday after UCLA's top two quarterbacks, fifth-year seniors Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, were injured on consecutive plays.
Cowan, who early in spring camp was picked by Neuheisel and new offensive coordinator Norm Chow to be the starter next fall, was lost for the season with a torn left ACL. Then Olson broke a bone in his right foot. He should be ready to practice in August, though he has yet to make it through a season without missing games because of injury.
Neuheisel, most recently the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator after going 66--30 in eight seasons as coach at Colorado and Washington, was hired to get the Bruins back to the top of the Pac-10. UCLA was 13--13 over the last two seasons and has not won a conference title since 1998. Within days of his hiring, Neuheisel enlisted Chow, the renowned offensive coordinator from rival USC's 2003 and '04 national title teams who spent the past three seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Their plan was to simplify the West Coast attack run by Neuheisel's predecessor, Karl Dorrell.
At last Saturday's spring game, however, it was clear—particularly on offense—that a turnaround won't come overnight. UCLA has only two linemen who played last season; top tailbacks Kahlil Bell and Raymond Carter are recovering from torn right ACLs; and the three quarterbacks still standing, junior college transfer Kevin Craft (No. 1 by default), junior Osaar Rasshan and redshirt freshman Chris Forcier, completed only 19 of 37 passes for 207 yards combined.
On the bright side there is holdover defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker's unit, which ranked in the top 15 nationally against the run in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive tackle Brian Price stood out in spring drills and combined for eight tackles (two for losses) in the finale. And Neuheisel remains his optimistic self. "UCLA football has been a national player before," he says. "It's time to be one again."