April 29, 2008

In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of . . . blitz pickups?

Around the blessed time that sun dresses start to appear on campus, football players begin buckling their chin straps for the less cheery rite of spring practice. The football field in March and April becomes a laboratory and proving ground.

Little known fact: NFL teams with a new head coach are awarded an extra minicamp, giving players time to digest strange schemes and terminology. Not so at the (ahem) amateur level. The NCAA allows each Division I-A team -- new coach or not -- 15 spring workouts over a 29-day period.

Offensive packages are installed; underclassmen, especially freshmen who red-shirted the previous fall, are given long and searching looks; and depth charts come into sharper focus. SI checked in on four programs where the urgency was especially intense.


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." -- Stewart Mandel


Will the offensive linemen be able to eat their way to respectability? A diet designed to add bulk was one of the elements of a super-sized off-season conditioning program mandated by coach Charlie Weis, who last year had only one starter and a total of four linemen weighing at least 300 pounds. The Fighting Irish ended spring drills with all five starters, including four returnees, weighing 300 or more (10 total).

The measurable gains stem in part from the group's affinity for Bruno's, an Italian restaurant in South Bend. "We had a nutritionist and a weight program to help us add bulk," says right tackle Sam Young, a junior who checks in at 330 after finishing last season at 287. "But I'd be lying if I left out that we cleaned out that buffet spread every week." (For the record, the players were checked weekly to make sure their body fat was in line.)

The coaches expect that added size and experience will turn around a line that was arguably the worst in the country. Only four teams in Division I-A rushed for fewer yards than Notre Dame (75.3 per game) in 2007, and no other unit allowed more sacks (58). Absorbing a good amount of the punishment was quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has bulked up as well, adding 18 pounds to his 6' 3" frame since the end of last season.

"I don't talk to my guys about last year," says offensive line coach John Latina. "It's a completely different situation. We have five guys who've played together. They're bigger, stronger, more physical. This spring we looked better than we ever did last year in goal line and short-yardage plays."

The spring workouts were also marked by a feistiness that was noticeably absent during last year's 3-9 debacle. Fights broke out at one practice, and the spring game featured a highly charged scuffle. "When you're worrying about screwing up, it's tough to play as a group and be nasty," junior guard Eric Olsen says of last season. "There's a whole different tone here this year." -- Mark Beech


During an April scrimmage backup quarterback Christian Ponder stepped to the line, scanned the defense and spotted a weakness in coverage. The sophomore checked out of a running play and threw a touchdown pass to wideout Greg Carr. Later Ponder told reporters that last season he probably wouldn't have seen the soft spot, much less have had the nerve to change the play.

When those comments got back to offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, he cracked a smile. "When you haven't had success, you're scared to do anything," says Fisher, who was hired from LSU before the 2007 season to resuscitate an offense that had flatlined. "You don't want to make a mistake." Apparently Ponder and other Seminoles have finally gotten over that fear.

Fisher hopes the newfound confidence will carry Florida State into the end zone more often. Though the offense produced 3.2 fewer points a game than departed coordinator Jeff Bowden's 2006 unit did, the Seminoles gained 38.9 more yards per game and Drew Weatherford cut his interceptions from 11 to three. Still, the team went 7-5, then lost to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. That's far below expectations at a program that ended each season from 1987 through 2000 ranked in the top five.

Fisher's top threat is Carr, a 6' 6" senior who can create matchup problems. Also counted on to be a playmaker is hybrid receiver-tailback Preston Parker, whom Fisher plans to use in the manner that Florida plays speedster Percy Harvin, but Parker's arrest last week on gun and marijuana charges raised questions about his future with the program.

Even without Parker, the Seminoles should have more big-play potential than they did in '07. They'll need it early on, when at least six key defenders serve three-game suspensions to open the season in the wake of last year's academic scandal. --Andy Staples


The announcement did not inspire confidence in the Wolverines' offense. "We're on schedule mentally," coach Rich Rodriguez stated, following his team's rain-drenched final scrimmage. "Physically, we're behind." In other words: We know what we're supposed to be doing. We're simply incapable of doing it.

Earlier RichRod had sat in his office recalling the first day of spring practice. "If you don't know where you're supposed to go," he had informed his new charges, "then just run in place.... I had a hundred guys running in place."

With his bridge-burning exit from West Virginia in December, Rodriguez, who replaced the retiring Lloyd Carr, brought his ballyhooed spread offense with zone-read principles to Ann Arbor. Four months later there's the realization that his new team is ill-suited to run that attack.

Among the missing from Michigan's roster are athletes like Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, the diminutive but lethal-in-space weapons Rodriguez left behind in Morgantown. Three offensive linemen bailed out of the program, including returning starter Justin Boren, who transferred to Ohio State (and is known in the maize-and-blue blogosphere as Judas), and highly touted quarterback Ryan Mallett, who bolted for Arkansas after only one season. What's more, Terrelle Pryor, the top dual-threat quarterback in high school last fall, chose to play in Columbus over Ann Arbor.

Thus did the Wolverines' spring quarterback battle boil down to a pair of unproven pocket passers. Steven Threet, a redshirt freshman who transferred from Georgia Tech last fall and is learning his fourth offense in two years, finished slightly ahead of sophomore walk-on Nick Sheridan.

If Sheridan looked very much at home, slinging a 17-yard completion on his first pass in the final scrimmage, that may have been because he was playing on his old high school field. With the Big House under renovation and the practice field a muddy construction site, Michigan scrimmaged at nearby Saline High.

That wasn't the only reason the play seemed high school caliber. While both quarterbacks made some nice throws -- several of which were dropped -- there were many tipped passes, interceptions and fumbles.

"This offense would've been tailor-made for me," said a fiftysomething spectator -- former Wolverines All-America Rick Leach, a dual-threat quarterback before dual-threat quarterbacks were cool. During one slapstick interval featuring three picks and a fumbled pitch, Leach showed that, among his other gifts, he is diplomatic. Next fall, he said, "the defense is going to have to really step up." --Austin Murphy

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