LOS ANGELES — So UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel wasn't an immediate hit at his alma mater. Pete Carroll's first team at USC didn't exactly take this town by storm, and look how that's turned out.
Yet if Neuheisel wants to keep the goodwill and confidence of a student body and alumni base eager to get out of the Trojans' shadow, the coach knows his sophomore season had better show them something — and the former Bruins quarterback believes progress is on its way.
"We laid the foundation for a lot of good things last year, and we're intending to build on them this year," said Neuheisel, whose Bruins went 4-8 last year and missed bowl eligibility for just the second time in a decade. "We're still not the most experienced team, so we've got to grow up quickly."
UCLA can only get that experience by taking its lumps, and nine starters are returning to an offense that was mostly awful last season: 116th nationally in rushing, 73rd in passing and 109th in scoring, along with 29 turnovers.
Coordinator Norm Chow doesn't yet know the identities of his starting offensive linemen, but he has picked a quarterback. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince beat out Kevin Craft, last year's starter in every game, for the top job in the spring.
Prince epitomizes much of what's good and bad about the Bruins: His talent is remarkable, but it's all untested potential.
"He's wise beyond his years," Neuheisel said of Prince. "He's got all the physical things you look for. He can stand in the pocket. His arm is dangerous. He can make all the different throws. He's got a great grasp of the offense. I believe he's going to give us a chance to exploit all places on the field."
Prince will have skilled position players around him, with receivers Terrence Austin and Taylor Embree alongside running backs Derrick Coleman and Christian Ramirez, who had a strong spring after missing last season with academic woes. None of it will matter if the offensive line that gave up nearly three sacks per game and never established a consistent running attack hasn't improved.
The defense seems much more solid, despite the departure of coordinator DeWayne Walker to become head coach at New Mexico State. Four of the Bruins' top five tacklers from last season have returned, including star linebacker Reggie Carter, veteran cornerback Alterraun Verner and defensive end Korey Bosworth.
Defensive tackle Brian Price, who might turn out to be the Pac-10's top stopper on the line, also is back for another year. If Price and Bosworth can be consistent disruptive forces, the Bruins' above-average secondary will be in position to make even more plays — and perhaps win some games for the young UCLA offense.
That sounds like a game plan to Carter, who isn't content to write off his final season at UCLA to the rebuilding process.
"I like being part of creating a tradition here," Carter said. "We're setting down the groundwork for the next guys to come along. We want to get back to being a winning program this year, go as far as we can go, and then the younger guys will take it from there to put UCLA back on top, year after year."
UCLA's schedule isn't easy after its opener against San Diego State. The Bruins must make a trip to Tennessee for a rematch of last season's overtime victory for UCLA at the Rose Bowl, followed by a visit from Kansas State before conference play begins.
Although the Bruins aren't expected to contend for the Pac-10 title, bowl eligibility seems a legitimate goal. Neuheisel isn't willing to set his sights so low, however.
"We won't limit what we can accomplish," Neuheisel said. "We're headed on the right path, and the work ethic is exactly where it needs to be to rise in the ranks of this great conference. I believe great things are in store for our program."