Thursday April 1st, 2010

Rick Neuheisel was one of the first UCLA players to go "over the wall." He understands the Bruins' ditch day better than the players who want to keep the tradition alive.

A few days after UCLA beat USC in 1980, safety Kenny Easley led his teammates off the practice field in a gesture of celebration and solidarity. At the time, Neuheisel was an impossibly blond walk-on quarterback from Arizona. Even after skipping one practice, UCLA crushed Oregon State in Tokyo, and a tradition was born. Every year, the Bruins would ditch one practice.

Somehow, that tradition morphed into skipping a spring practice. Neuheisel, now the coach at his alma mater, managed to keep his players on the right side of the wall for all 15 practices last year, and the Bruins improved by three wins to 7-6 in Neuheisel's second season. Neuheisel opens his third UCLA spring practice Thursday with most of his offense returning and a few holes to fill on defense. He hopes his current Bruins understand they have the chance to do something special this season -- but they'll need all 15 practices. "I'm hopeful cooler heads will prevail," Neuheisel said.

Neuheisel understands how it looks. What UCLA players consider a bonding exercise looks, to the rest of the college football world, like a team that doesn't take football seriously. "There is zero lack of commitment," Neuheisel said. "It's just a fun thing that sometimes gets written as a lack of interest in being a great team. Because of that negative spin, it's worth not doing it for that reason alone."

Neuheisel understands better than most how the perception game works. He's often referred to as the guy who got fired at Washington in 2003 for participating in a high-stakes NCAA tournament pool. He's rarely referred to as the coach who, in 2005, won a $4.5 million settlement from Washington and the NCAA. So, when it comes to going over the wall, Neuheisel would prefer his players embrace the tradition as originally conceived, by ditching an early pre-bowl practice to celebrate a great season.

For now, the Bruins need to work on the great season part. Because of a brutal September schedule, UCLA must improve dramatically this spring. UCLA opens at Kansas State, then returns home to face bruising Stanford and high-octane Houston. After the Bruins endure a barrage of Case Keenum passes, they get to travel to Austin for a date with Texas. "Other than that, it's a pretty easy month," Neuheisel said. "But because of it -- and I'm grateful for it -- we are going to get to business early in spring ball. Our intensity has got to be at an all-time high in spring ball."

If not for the loss of left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, who is serving a two-year Mormon mission in Tallahassee, Fla., UCLA would return its entire line intact. That's a far cry from Neuheisel's first year, when the Bruins had just nine scholarship offensive linemen. Only two had experience, and before UCLA played a game, one of the experienced linemen gave up football because of his aching knees.

That first year, Neuheisel also had to start Kevin Craft -- who entered spring practice as a third-stringer -- because of freak injuries to Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson. This year, Neuheisel returns redshirt sophomore Kevin Prince, who threw for 2,050 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. Prince will enter spring practice as the starter, but Neuheisel expects a push from sophomore Richard Brehaut, the touted recruit who backed up Prince last season. "Kevin Prince is going to get a chance to be the starting quarterback from the beginning," Neuheisel said. "But I would be very disappointed if Richard Brehaut didn't make that very difficult for us."

On defense, the Bruins have to replace stud defensive tackle Brian Price and linebacker Reggie Carter, their leading tackler in 2009. Of course, UCLA does return junior safety Rahim Moore, who led all FBS players in interceptions last season with 10.

Moore is an example of the type of player UCLA should have at every position. A graduate of L.A.'s Dorsey High, Moore declined scholarship offers from Georgia, North Carolina and several Pac-10 schools to attend UCLA. It doesn't make sense that Bruins didn't already have more top recruits such as Moore in the program.

UCLA is an academic paradise located at a prestigious address in a metropolitan area that produces scores of FBS-quality football players every year. Its facilities may not rival those at Texas or Alabama, but Tuscaloosa also isn't next door to Beverly Hills. At any rate, the brick-and-mortar compares favorably to that of crosstown rival USC.

But talk to any elite recruit in the country, and USC is somewhere on his wish list. For most, UCLA doesn't immediately come to mind. Neuheisel sank into a leather chair in his office this week and explained why.

If you're an 18-year-old football prospect, Neuheisel said, for the eight or so years since you realized you were a special athlete, USC has been great. UCLA hasn't won a Pac-10 title since 1998, and it's been more than 20 years since the Bruins could claim any kind of dominance. "It's been a one-horse town," said Neuheisel, whose team opens spring practice Thursday. "For them to learn about what happened in the '80s is like listening to mom and dad's music. To sell that story, you have to spend a lot of time. That's where the work comes in."

Neuheisel has been working. He didn't know in advance that the school's marketing department would take out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times in August 2008 declaring an end to the football monopoly in the City of Angels. Neuheisel's first reaction was, "Damn." Some creative Photoshopper had fun with the ad, but, like any good politician, Neuheisel realized he was better off endorsing the message. "I didn't see it as a bad thing," he said. "That's what we want to be. We're not going to hide. I'm not going to apologize to a recruit because I want you to consider something else. We're going after 'em. And congratulations to them for being the one we're coming after, for being worthy of that."

Neuheisel believes he has made progress. In 2009, he beat the Trojans head-to-head for several recruits. On National Signing Day in February, he beat first-year USC coach Lane Kiffin for Fontana, Calif., linebacker Josh Shirley and La Canada, Calif., safety Deitrich Riley. Neuheisel also signed Portland, Ore., defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who was coveted by most of the top 25. Still, it only reinforces how far UCLA still must go to close the recruiting gap with USC that Kiffin closed the Trojans' top-ranked class by signing Seantrel Henderson, the nation's top-ranked offensive lineman.

Neuheisel also knows that none of the victories in February mean anything if they don't translate to wins against USC in November. "All that happens under the surface doesn't make for anything until you beat them on the field," Neuheisel said. "But are we gaining on them in terms of all the things I can measure? I think so."

It's not that Neuheisel has forgotten that Arizona, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford also will field excellent teams this year. The Pac-10, he said, "is cannibalistic. We eat our own." But Neuheisel knows if the Bruins can win L.A., they can win the Pac-10. If they can accomplish that, they probably deserve a ditch day.

"I want unity, but I just want to be better as a football team," Neuheisel said. "If we get to a place where we're winning Pac-10 championships and vying for national championships, maybe the coaches will take a wall day."

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