Feb. 24, 2000
LOS ANGELES - In the first year of the new millenium, the goal of the UCLA football program is a return to the excellence it enjoyed during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Last year, the Bruins won just four of 11 games after compiling a record of 20-4 in the prior two seasons. During that time, the Bruins won consecutive Pacific-10 Conference championships for the first time since the 1982 and 1983 seasons, won a school-record 20 consecutive games and earned back-to-back Top 10 rankings for the first time since the 1987 and 1988 seasons.
UCLA returns 17 starters from last season - seven on offense and eight on defense plus both kickers. In addition, three 1998 starters who redshirted a year ago also return. On offense, the Bruins return all five starters on the line, including tackles Brian Polak and Blake Worley, guards Oscar Cabrera and Mike Saffer and center Troy Danoff, plus tight end Gabe Crecion, quarterback Cory Paus and wide receiver Brian Poli-Dixon, a 1998 starter. On defense, the returnees include dominating end Kenyon Coleman, a premier All-America candidate, the linebacker trio of Tony White, Robert Thomas and Ryan Nece, tackle Ken Kocher, end Rusty Williams, cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr., safety Lovell Houston and two 1998 starters -- cornerbacks Jason Bell and Marques Anderson. Punter Nate Fikse and place kicker Chris Griffith round out the returning starters.
Other key returnees include leading receiver Freddie Mitchell, 1998 leading rusher DeShaun Foster at tailback, tight end Bryan Fletcher and quarterback Ryan McCann on offense and tackle Anthony Fletcher, linebacker Santi Hall and 1998 starting safety Jason Stephens on defense. Key losses include wide receiver Danny Farmer, UCLA's all-time receiving yardage leader, leading rusher Keith Brown, fullback Durell Price, wide receiver Brad Melsby, leading tackler safety Joey Strycula, defensive tackle Pete Holland and cornerback/kick returner Ryan Roques.
Despite all of the returning starters, the Bruins have just 12 scholarship seniors and could open with just five seniors in the starting lineup. UCLA will face a tough schedule that features eight schools that participated in bowl games during the 1999 season, including non-conference foes Alabama, Fresno State and Michigan.
OFFENSESeven returning starters, including the entire offensive line, plus several other performers with starting experience return to form the nucleus of the offense. UCLA, as it was throughout Toledo's tenure, will feature a high-scoring balanced attack, thanks to experience at every position.
The Bruins return three quarterbacks from last season, including two who gained starting experience in 1999.
Sophomores RYAN McCANN (6-4, 218) and CORY PAUS (6-2, 209) figure to compete for the starting job. A decision at this position will not be made until Fall camp. Both demonstrated their potential at times during last season but both obviously were learning on the job. McCann and Paus will receive the bulk of the snaps during Spring Practice, but Paus will be limited to non-contact drills while recovering from off-season surgery on his left shoulder and his fractured left clavicle. McCann, who possesses a strong arm, size and escapability, finished the year as the starter. After seeing limited snaps against Oregon State and Arizona, he became the backup prior to the Washington game. When Paus was injured against the Huskies, McCann led the Bruins to a 23-20 overtime victory, completing 12 of 23 passes for 146 yards. He started the following week against USC and completed 17 of 29 passes for 204 yards with three interceptions.
Paus, who split time with Drew Bennett in the first two games before being named the starter, completed 95 of 197 passes on the year (48.2 per cent) for 1,336 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He started seven games in all. An outstanding leader who throws well on the run, Paus was at his best in the victory over Oregon. In that contest, he threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, the fourth highest passing total by a Bruin freshman. He missed almost two full games with rib and shoulder injuries and suffered a fractured left clavicle early in the Washington contest and was sidelined for the rest of the year.
Junior SCOTT McEWAN (6-3, 199) will be the team's No. 3 quarterback in 2000. He appeared in four games and threw 15 passes.
"Spring Practice will be a great opportunity to work with Ryan and Cory," said Toledo. "I think that both of them have the potential to develop into outstanding college quarterbacks and we are going to devote all of our engergies to the two of them, unlike last year when we split the snaps between five players. Ryan has outstanding athletic ability and a strong arm while Cory throws well on the run and possesses the intangibles you need in a great quarterback.
"The bottom line is that we have two talented youngsters at this position and it will be exciting watching them continue to learn and implement our offensive system. Scott will also see some action during the Spring and we expect him to be a capable No. 3 quarterback for us this season."
Junior DeSHAUN FOSTER (6-1, 217) won the starting tailback job a year ago and held it through the first month of the season. On his way to a 100-yard effort against Stanford, he suffered a high ankle sprain which handicapped him for the remainder of the season. He played just three of five games in October, carrying a total of five times in those contests.
Foster, who has the talent to be UCLA's future great tailback, finished the year as the team's second-leading rusher with 375 yards, leading the Bruins in rushing in five of the six games in which he carried the ball more than twice. He also led the Bruins with six touchdowns (his 38 points were second only to Chris Griffith's 64) and ranked fourth on the squad with 17 receptions for 114 yards. Foster enters his junior year with 18 touchdowns and 1,084 rushing yards.
In 1998, despite not starting a game, he set a school rushing record for true freshmen and was the team's leading rusher with 673 yards (5.3 average) despite missing one full game and much of two others due to a sprained knee. Foster scored a UCLA true-freshman record 12 touchdowns (10 rushing and two receiving) and tied a school record with four TDs against USC. In addition to his rushing efforts, he ranked third (tied) on the squad with 16 receptions, good for 163 yards and two scores. He also averaged 26.6 yards on eight kickoff returns and 7.1 yards on eight punt returns.
Senior JERMAINE LEWIS (5-7, 174) will again battle Foster for playing time. A year ago, he was the team's third-leading rusher with 216 yards and also made 10 receptions out of the backfield. A tough inside runner who is hard to tackle, Lewis started nine of 12 games in 1998 and finished the season as the team's second-leading rusher with 553 yards and a 4.3 average.He led the Bruins with 13 touchdowns, including a school record-tying four at Houston.
Sophomore KEN PRITCHETT (5-9, 189) and redshirt freshman AKIL HARRIS (6-0, 209) will also be competing for playing time. Pritchett carried the ball five times for 28 yards a year ago. Harris rushed for 2,660 yards and 30 touchdowns as a prep All-American in 1998.Senior MIKE VANIS (5-9, 181) a non-scholarship player, will add depth at the tailback position.
Junior MATT STANLEY (6-3, 242), a former walk-on, enters the Spring as the No. 1 candidate for the starting fullback job. The primary backup a year ago, he is a good blocker who enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime last year when he scored a touchdown on a 67-yard reception at Ohio State, in a return to his hometown. Junior ED STANSBURY (6-2, 259) will make the switch from linebacker to fullback during Spring drills and should provide quality depth at the position.
"We feel we have several talented running backs with whom to work," Toledo said. "DeShaun is an outstanding talent. He possesses great vision as well as breakaway speed. Now that he is healthy, we expect him to have a great junior season. Jermaine has been a valuable member of our running back corps for the last two years and we expect him to assume a leadership role as a senior. Akil and Ken are two young players who we are excited about coaching during Spring ball. We think they will add quality depth to our tailback position. At fullback, Matt did a good job for us a year ago and we think Ed will be able to make a real contribution at this position."
Leading the way is junior FREDDIE MITCHELL (6-0, 188). One of the most exciting performers on the West Coast, he was the Bruins' leading receiver in 1999, making 38 catches for 533 yards. He made at least four receptions in six of his 11 games, including nine for 149 yards versus Fresno State and five each versus USC (88 yards) and Oregon State (58 yards). His nine receptions against Fresno State rank seventh (tied) on UCLA's single-game list In 1998, he quickly established himself as a big-play performer. In the opener versus Texas, he made four receptions for 108 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown, threw a 34-yard touchdown pass, ran 30 yards on a reverse and returned three kickoffs for 78 yards. He suffered a fractured right femur the next week at Houston but was able to return for limited duty in the Rose Bowl and threw a 61-yard touchdown pass against Wisconsin.
Junior BRIAN POLI-DIXON (6-5, 218) returns after missing virtually the entire 1999 season. His year ended early in the third game when he suffered a fractured wrist (he had made eight receptions for 101 yards and one touchdown at the time of his injury) and he was granted a medical redshirt. In 1998, Poli-Dixon started the final 10 games of the season at split end and enjoyed one of the most productive sophomore seasons in school history. He was the team's No. 2 receiver with 44 catches for 712 yards and a team-leading 10 aerial touchdowns. Only J.J. Stokes (728 in 1992) ever gained more yards as a Bruin sophomore and only NFL veteran Mike Sherrard (48) and Kevin Jordan (44) ever made more receptions.
Poli-Dixon's 10 receiving touchdowns tied for the Pac-10 lead. Seven of his receptions measured at least 30 yards and five resulted in touchdowns, including 61-yard TDs against Houston and Miami. His nine receptions at Oregon State rank seventh (tied) on UCLA's single-game list and were the most by a Bruin since Stokes made 14 in the 1994 Rose Bowl. He accounted for a career-high 130 receiving yards at Miami and had two catches of at least 50 yards versus the Hurricanes.
Several youngsters will be competing for playing time in the receiver rotation behind Mitchell and Poli-Dixon. Juniors JON DUBRAVAC (6-4, 213) and CODY JOYCE (6-1, 214) are the most experienced of the group. Originally scheduled to redshirt before injuries hit the receiver corps, Dubravac made four receptions for 52 yards after making three catches for 39 yards as a true freshman. One of his receptions in 1998 was a 30-yard touchdown toss from Jermaine Lewis at California. Joyce appeared in nine of 11 games on offense and made three receptions for 50 yards.
Sophomore PAUL NELSON (6-2, 199), considered the top prep receiver in California in 1997, has returned to this position, where he practiced throughout the 1998 season, after spending last year helping the Bruins in the secondary. Two freshmen - JERRY OWENS (6-3, 194) and RYAN SMITH (6-3, 201) - will benefit from their first Spring Practice. Owens, a prep All-American considered the top receiver in the West in 1998, made 63 receptions for 1,376 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1998. Smith, a second-team All-Texas selection as a senior, caught 57 passes for 744 yards and seven scores as a senior.
In addition, senior DREW BENNETT (6-5, 205), who has spent most of his career at quarterback, will be trying to work himself into the receiver rotation. An outstanding all-around athlete, he switched to his new position midway through last season. Two years ago, he caught a 53-yard Hail Mary pass in the overtime win over Oregon and he made an 18-yard reception last year at Ohio State.
Several walk-ons will also be trying to earn playing time during Spring drills, including senior RYAN WILKINS (6-0, 199), junior DEVON REESE (6-0, 189) and redshirt freshman GARRETT LEPISTO (6-1, 194).
"Freddie and Brian have both proven themselves to be dependable receivers," said Toledo. "They can both make the big play, but we need for them to take their games to the next level and become a consistent threat on every play in the mold of J.J. Stokes, Kevin Jordan, Jim McElroy and Danny Farmer. Freddie was hampered by his 1998 injury last year but I expect him to be in top form this season and the same is true of Brian, whom we really missed a year ago. We also need both of them to assume leadership roles in what is an otherwise young and inexperienced group.
"We are excited about the potential of some of our young receivers. Jon and Cody have shown flashes over the last two years and we need for them to mature into dependable receivers during Spring Practice. Paul, Jerry and Ryan all have the talent to contribute this season, but they must work hard during the Spring to develop that talent. I also expect Drew to contribute, even though this is a new position for him, because of his maturity, experience and athletic ability."
The tight end position is one of the strongest on the team with three experienced players, plus one redshirt freshman, vying for playing time. The depth is important because the Bruins utilize several multiple tight end formations. The competition during Spring Practice should be interesting to watch.
Junior BRYAN FLETCHER (6-5, 230), a gifted all-around athlete, won the starting job midway through the season. However, he suffered an ankle sprain that caused him to miss three full games and he was able to play a total of just five snaps in two others. In the six games in which he was healthy, Fletcher made nine receptions for 90 yards. He started a total of three games in 1999.
Senior GABE CRECION (6-5, 241) led the tight ends with 12 receptions for 164 yards (13.7 average) and scored touchdowns against Boise State and Oregon State. A good receiver and blocker, he is the most experienced of the tight ends, having redshirted in 1998. He played in all 11 games a year ago and started seven times. Sophomore MIKE SEIDMAN (6-5, 252) appeared in 10 games as a true freshman. The nation's top high school tight end in 1998, he has great speed and hands and is an outstanding blocker as well. In limited duty, he made two receptions for 28 yards. Redshirt freshman BLANE KEZIRIAN (6-6, 240) figures to add depth at the position with continued development during Spring Practice.Junior walk-on DENNIS FOX (6-4, 235) will also compete at this position.
"This is a position of strength for us this year," Toledo said. "The tight end is very important in our offensive scheme and we have three players capable of making major contributions at the position. I would expect that we will throw more to our tight ends this season than we have in the last few years because of their talent and experience."
Last season was one of growth for the offensive line as UCLA had to replace three starters from the 1998 campaign. During the latter half of the 1999 season, numerous injuries crippled the unit. By the end of the year, only one player had started all 11 games and he did it at two different positions.
The outlook is different for the 2000 season. All five starters return, led by seniors OSCAR CABRERA (6-4, 303) and BRIAN POLAK (6-4, 325) who will both be in their third year as starters. A left guard, Cabrera is a good all-around athlete who started the final nine games of the campaign, playing at least 65 snaps in seven of them. He is particularly adept at pulling on running plays and is a good pass blocker.
Polak started every game a year ago, shifting from right tackle to right guard for the final two games and playing at least 50 snaps eight times. The plan is for him to remain at right guard this season. He has fine all-around athletic ability for a man his size and is especially effective as a run blocker. Both rank among the best players in the Pac-10 at their respective positions. Polak will be limited in Spring Practice due to off-season surgery to remove scar tissue in his petellar tendon.
Sophomore BLAKE WORLEY (6-6, 302) started 10 games a year ago, nine at left tackle and one at right tackle. He will compete with Polak at right guard. An aggressive performer who improved throughout the year, he split time at left tackle, playing at least 50 snaps on five occasions. Redshirt freshman SHANE LEHMANN (6-5, 282), one of the top offensive line prospects in the West as a senior in 1998, will battle for playing time at left guard.Third-year sophomore ED ANDERSON (6-5, 285) will also compete for playing time at right guard.
Sophomore BRYCE BOHLANDER (6-6, 272), who started the final two games at left tackle, will open Spring Practice listed first at this position. A good all-around athlete, he appeared in every game as a true freshman, playing at least 20 snaps seven times and over 60 in each of his two starts.
Sophomore MIKE SAFFER (6-5, 304) will open Spring Practice at right tackle after spending the 1999 season at right guard. A fine all-around athlete who has an aggressive streak, he started seven times a year ago and played at least 65 snaps in five of those contests.
Depth at the tackle positions will be provided by seniors MICAH WEBB (6-6, 290) and JOSH WEBB (6-6, 295). Micah did a fine job in his first year on offense (he started 10 games at nose guard in 1998), appearing in every game. He played at least 20 snaps in seven games and started the finale at right tackle against USC. Josh missed the entire season due to shoulder problems that required surgery and will test it during Spring Practice.
Fourth-year junior TROY DANOFF (6-4, 294) returns after starting the first nine games of the season at center. Danoff, who possesses good overall athletic ability, is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will be limited to non-contact drills during Spring Practice. Prior to his injury during UCLA's bye week, he had played at least 50 snaps in every game and at least 70 on seven occasions. Redshirt freshman STEVE SANCHEZ (6-4, 291) will get a crash course at the position during Spring Practice so he can provide depth in 2000.
"This group gained valuable experience last season," said Toledo. "We have six outstanding linemen, including all five starters from a year ago, and Spring Practice will further enhance their development. We have shifted the positions of a few of the players to take advantage of their strengths. We feel confident that this group will continue to mature into a fine offensive line."
DEFENSEOver the last two seasons, UCLA has utilized many young performers while building a foundation for the 4-3 alignment instituted last year. In 2000, the Bruins have numerous players with starting experience at the core.
Coach Toledo is excited about this area. There is a blend of talent, experience and youth along the front four and this promises to be UCLA's best defensive line in several years.
Senior KENYON COLEMAN (6-6, 278) has developed into a dominating defensive end. Despite numerous double teams, this Lombardi Award and All-America candidate enjoyed his best season a year ago. He made 50 tackles, including nine at USC and seven at Stanford, and ranked second on the squad with 3.5 quarterback sacks and nine tackles for loss. He also broke up eight passes. A gifted athlete who possesses great size, strength and speed, he started all 11 games at left end a year ago and played at least 60 snaps on nine occasions.
Third-year sophomore RUSTY WILLIAMS (6-4, 259) started all 11 games at right end in 1999 as a redshirt freshman. An aggressive player, he was tied for second on the squad with 3.5 sacks and recorded eight tackles for loss among his 28 stops. He played at least 40 snaps in eight of 11 games.
Two veterans -- third-year sophomore SEAN PHILLIPS (6-5, 294) and fourth-year junior STEPHEN SUA (6-2, 267) and two redshirt freshmen - twin brothers DAVE BALL (6-5, 263) and MAT BALL (6-5, 262) - will compete for playing time at defensive end. Phillips, a highly-recruited performer from Texas, appeared in every game as a reserve, playing at least 15 snaps five times. He made 11 tackles, including three for losses. Sua appeared in seven games on defense, playing at least 15 snaps on four occasions, and two tackles. The Ball brothers, both of whom earned All-America honors as prep seniors in 1998, were standouts on the scout team a year ago with their aggressive efforts.
True juniors KEN KOCHER (6-4, 311) and ANTHONY FLETCHER (6-4, 292)anchor the interior of the Bruin defense. Both possess the size, strength and quickness to make running up the middle a chore for Bruin opponents in 2000. Kocher, who should be one of the top tackles in the Pac-10 this season, started nine games a year ago and played at least 50 snaps in seven of his 10 games. He made 43 tackles, including eight at Ohio State, and five were behind the line of scrimmage. Fletcher started three times, including the final two games in place of an injured Kocher, and played at least 40 snaps in five of his 11 games. On the year, he made 32 tackles (four for loss), including seven versus Fresno State and six at Ohio State.
Third-year sophomores STEVE MORGAN (6-3, 285) and SAIA MAKAKAUFAKI (6-3, 281), redshirt freshman RODNEY LEISLE (6-4, 293), senior walkon KORY LOMBARD (6-1, 293) and junior ROB KOLACZYNSKI (6-1, 250) will compete for playing time at the two tackle positions. Morgan and Makakaufaki both played defense for the first time a year ago after practicing with the offense in 1998. Morgan appeared in all 11 games and made four tackles while Makakaufaki played in two games on the year and had one tackle for loss. Both have outstanding potential, as does Leisle, who starred on the scout team in 1999 after earning prep All-America honors in 1998. Lombard played in seven games defensively, including 24 snaps versus Arizona.
"I think this area of our football team made great strides a year ago," said Toledo. "We became much tougher in the trenches and with virtually everybody returning from last year, I expect our run defense and our ability to pressure the quarterback to be much improved. Kenyon has matured into a dominating player with a rare blend of size, strength and speed. Ken and Anthony are a formidable duo that will solidify us in the middle and Rusty did a fine job in his first year as a starter. The other players will provide us with quality depth. We expect our defensive line play to be a strength of the defense in 2000."
This unit has had to utilize a lot of young players over the last two years. In 2000, the linebacking corps figures to be one of the strengths of the team because of its experience.
Leading the unit is senior TONY WHITE (6-1, 247). A starter two years ago at inside linebacker, he made a smooth transition to an outside position in 1999. He appeared in nine games a year ago, starting eight times and playing at least 40 snaps six times. He accounted for 53 tackles, tied for fourth on the squad, including six for losses.He made at least seven tackles on five occasions, including 12 versus Arizona.
Junior ROBERT THOMAS (6-2, 239) is the anchor of the unit at middle linebacker. The nation's top prep linebacker in 1997, he won the starting job last year because of his aggressiveness and his ability to roam from sideline to sideline. He played in eight games a year ago, starting in all of them and playing at least 50 snaps six times. Thomas ranked second on the squad with 68 tackles, one behind leader Joey Strycula, and his average of 8.5 tackles per game was the best on the team by a wide margin. He made at least nine tackles on five occasions, including 14 against Fresno State and 11 versus Washington.
Junior RYAN NECE (6-2, 224) is the third member of this experienced trio. A two-year starter at outside linebacker, he is an oustanding athlete who is adept at pass coverage as well as run support. A Freshman All-American in 1998 when he was credited with 85 tackles and six quarterback sacks, Nece ranked third on the squad with 65 tackles in 1999 and his average of 7.2 per game ranked second behind only Thomas. He appeared in nine games, starting them all, and played at least 50 snaps on six occasions. Nece made at least 10 tackles four times and averaged 9.8 stops in the final four games of the year, making at least nine tackles in each of those games
True sophomore MARCUS REESE (6-2, 208) will push for playing time, and a possible starting berth, at outside linebacker. A multi-talented performer who was highly recruited as a prep senior in 1998, Reese played in all 11 games as a true freshman, playing at least 25 snaps eight times. He made 37 tackles on the year, including nine at Ohio State.
Junior SANTI HALL (6-2, 252) and senior BILLY PIEPER (6-2, 229) are other experienced players who will be vying for playing time at outside linebacker. Hall, a starting outside linebacker in 1998, switched to defensive end a year ago after playing at linebacker for the first two games. He started once at OLB and made 20 tackles, including a team-leading four quarterback sacks. He played at least 25 snaps in each of his 10 games. Pieper started the year's first two games and played in eight of 11 contests. He made 13 tackles on the year, including six versus Boise State.
Two redshirt freshmen -- ASI FAOA (6-4, 268) and DENNIS LINK (6-2, 210) will also be competing for practice snaps during Spring drills. Faoa did an outstanding job in double days a year ago and played 29 snaps in three games (one start) before injuring his back and missing the remainder of the year. He was granted a medical redshirt. Link, a prep All-American in 1998, excelled on the scout team a year ago and the coaching staff is excited about the potential of these two young linebackers.
Third-year sophomore CHRIS JACKSON (6-3, 261) switched from tight end to linebacker a year ago and enters Spring Practice as the No. 1 reserve at middle linebacker. He appeared in one game on defense a year ago.
"We are really excited about this group," Toledo said. "In Tony, Robert and Ryan, we have three outstanding linebackers with starting experience to solidify the middle of our defense. Marcus, in our minds, is a fourth starter because of his physical talent and we have additional experience in Santi and Billy. In addition, we have an outstanding group of young players who will make this area a strength for the next few years."
Six players who have started at least three times over the last two years will form the nucleus of the secondary in 2000. The Bruins are blessed with plenty of experience, especially at the cornerback positions.
True sophomore RICKY MANNING, JR.. (5-9, 178) burst on to the scene a year ago. A tremendous all-around athlete who possesses fine cover skills as well as the ability to stop the run, he moved into the starting lineup in the season's third game and became a fixture in the secondary. He excelled at making the big play, leading the team with 10 tackles for loss, including two sacks, and ranking fourth (tied) on the squad with 53 tackles. He also made two interceptions and broke up nine passes. He played at least 60 snaps in 10 of his 11 games and made at least seven tackles four times.
Third-year sophomore JOE HUNTER (5-11, 169) will also contend for a starting berth after gaining valuable experience a year ago. He appeared in all 11 games, starting the first four and playing at least 25 snaps on eight occasions. He made 22 tackles, including five in his debut against Boise State, and two interceptions. True freshman DASHAUN McCULLOUGH (5-10, 204), who entered UCLA in January, will also compete for playing time at cornerback.
The Bruins will also benefit from the return of two former starters who were sidelined in 1999 -- senior JASON BELL (6-0, 182) and junior MARQUES ANDERSON (6-0, 206). Bell missed virtually the entire year due to tendinitis in his left heel following surgery to remove bone chips and was granted a medical redshirt. In 1998, he started all 12 games and was team's top cover corner, leading the Bruins with 14 passes defensed and making 38 tackles. Last year, he made 13 tackles in the two games he played before being sidelined. Anderson, a good all-around athlete, missed all of last season due to an off the field situation. In 1998, he started six games and made 58 stops (tied for sixth on the squad), defensed 11 passes and led the team with four forced fumbles, including the one that preserved UCLA's 28-24 victory over Stanford.
The two safety positions are wide open and the competition during Spring Practice should be interesting to watch.
Redshirt sophomore LOVELL HOUSTON (6-1, 183) started three of the final four games at free safety (he missed the finale due to a concussion). A fine athlete, he played well down the stretch and has a bright future in the secondary. On the year, he made 19 tackles and also contributed as a kick returner.Redshirt freshman RYAN WIKERT (6-2, 185) and senior JASON ZDENEK (6-0, 190) will also compete for playing time at this position. Wikert redshirted last year after earning prep All-America honors in 1998 while Zdenek has seen limited playing time over the last two years. Redshirt sophomore AUDIE ATTAR (6-0, 207) enters Spring drills as the front runner at strong safety. This hard-hitting youngster appeared in five games on defense and contributed on special teams a year ago, making nine tackles.
Junior JASON STEPHENS (6-2, 199) returns to challenge Attar for the starting position at strong safety. Another "heavy hitter," he appeared in every game last year, starting once, and finished the year with 17 tackles. As a redshirt freshman in 1998, he started the final seven games of the year and ranked sixth on the squad with 58 tackles, including five for losses. Redshirt sophomore JULIUS WILLIAMS (6-0, 186) will also compete for playing time at strong safety. He appeared in all 11 games a year ago, starting twice, including the final game of the year against USC, and played at least 20 snaps on seven occasions. Redshirt freshman KEVIN BRANT (5-11, 191), a 1998 prep all-star, will also compete for playing time during the Spring.
"We have to show improvement in the secondary this season," Toledo said. "We played a lot of young people a year ago and it was a trial by fire for many of them. Now it's time for them to put their experience to work. We are excited about the future of young players such as Manning, Houston and Attar. Add in the experience of Bell and Anderson and I think we have the ingredients for a successful secondary."
An area that began as a question mark a year ago and is one of the UCLA's strengths this season. Both of last year's kickers return for their sophomore seasons and the team is also well stocked with kick returnees.
True sophomore NATE FIKSE (5-9, 183) did an outstanding job as the team's punter. He won the job during double days and averaged 42.0 yards on his 68 kicks, including 49.0 against USC, 47.0 versus Stanford and 46.9 against Oregon State. In all, he averaged at least 42.0 yards in six of his 11 games and had 16 kicks of at least 50 yards. He was also an outstanding place kicker in high school and could compete for that job this Spring.
Redshirt sophomore CHRIS GRIFFITH (6-2, 193) handled the place kicking chores in 1999 and has earned a scholarship for the 2000 season. In his first year as the Bruin kicker, he led the team with 64 points, including 51 in the first six games. He made 13 of 18 field goal attempts, ranking first in the Pac-10 in field goals per game, and converted all 25 of his points after touchdown. Griffith made three field goals against Washington, including the 22-yard game-winning kick in overtime.
Junior JEFF GRAU (6-4, 254) will be in his third season as the long snapper for both field goals and punts. A former walk-on, he was a steadying influence for a pair of young kickers a year ago and has earned a scholarship for the upcoming season.
The coaching staff has numerous candidates to return kickoffs and punts. Sophomore LOVELL HOUSTON (6-1, 183) averaged 24.2 yards on 18 kickoff returns a year ago. His 95-yard touchdown at Stanford, on his first career return, was UCLA's first touchdown of this type since 1980. Junior FREDDIE MITCHELL (6-0, 188) averaged 17.4 yards on seven returns a year ago after averaging 31.3 yards on four kicks as a redshirt freshman and senior JERMAINE LEWIS (5-7, 174) averaged 19.7 yards on six returns.
Sophomore RICKY MANNING, JR. (5-9, 178) is the team's top punt returner. A year ago, he averaged 10.2 yards on 10 kicks, including one for 43 yards. Mitchell can also contribute in this area.
"Special teams is an important part of every football team," Toledo said. "Both Griffith and Fikse did a good job for us last year. They give us a fine one-two punch. We also have some outstanding return specialists who will give us good field position throughout the year. We are fortunate that Grau is back to handle the long snapping."