Spring Football: Thoughts On UCLA's Offensive Line

Williams (62) (until he got hurt) and Harris (65) will be looking to build upon their steady 2009 season. Photo Credit: jgtitan (flickr)

Let's finish up our look through the team's depth chart by going through what many will consider the biggest question marks heading into this spring camp: the offensive line.  Before looking at the depth chart I wanted to take a look at the numbers from the first two seasons in Rick Neuheisel era:

Year Rush Attmpts Rush Net Yds Rush YPA Rush YPG Rush TDs Sacks PG Pass Yds Pass TD/Int
2008 379 993 2.62 82.75 10 2.92 2406 9/21
2009 421 1490 3.54 114.62 12 2.23 2896 10/12

Stats taken from NCAA: 2008 and 2009.

In terms of metrics those are probably the key categories by which we can measure the performance of an offensive line.  Although the passing numbers may not be directly correlated with the OL, I would submit that the kind of protection (or complete lack thereof) Kevin Craft received in CRN's first year in Westwood had some impact on the horrific interception numbers from that nightmarish year. Sure Craft had his share of struggles in terms of getting used to Norm Chow's offensive scheme but he was probably playing behind the most talent depleted OL ever assembled at UCLA.

With the infusion of Colorado transfer Kai Maiva at center, talented freshman LT XSF (who has left the program for two years to fulfill his LDS mission) and JUCO transfers Eddie Williams (RG) and Ryan Taylor (C/RG), I think the UCLA offensive line took a step forward this past season. The numbers are still not where we ultimately want a Norm Chow coached offense to be. However, over all I was more than ok with the discernible improvement the line made in Bob Palcic's second year in Westwood. By the second half of the nucleus of Maiva, Williams, Baca, and Taylor formed a pretty good interior core for the Bruin OL and further strengthened by XSF at LR.  When Williams went down Taylor did a pretty good job of stepping up, while Mike Harris was steady over at RT.

The first question this year is going to be how the Bruins will be go about replacing XSF. Well here is how the depth chart is shaping up at this snap shot of time:

LT LG C RG RT
Nik Abele (6-4, 276, Fr.**) Jeff Baca (6-4, 307, Jr.) (13) Kai Maiava (6-1, 300, Jr.**) (12) Eddie Williams (6-1, 327, Sr.) (6) Mike Harris (6-5, 331, Jr.**) (13)
Brett Downey (6-7, 298, So.**) Stan Hasiak (6-5, 315, So.) Ryan Taylor (6-3, 300, Sr.**) (2 at RG) Greg Capella (6-4, 320, Fr.**) Sean Sheller (6-5, 290, Sr.**)
Wade Yandall (6-4, 300, Fr.) Connor Bradford (6-5, 260, So.**)

CRN had the following to say about this group on our official site:

"The offensive line has grown and developed together the last two seasons," Neuheisel said. "A lot of the guys have gained significant starting experience which will pay dividends this season as most of them have now been through the wars together playing along side one another. We will look to identify our best unit and combinations this Spring and work to make them the best they can be for the Fall."

Let's talk about how the coaches will go about molding this unit after the jump.

Here is the general overview from the official site:

True junior Jeff Baca (6-4, 307) will be looking to start for the third straight season. An athletic big man, he was on the field for the opening offensive snap at left guard in all 13 games last season and has 21 career starts to his credit.

Redshirt junior Mike Harris (6-5, 331) has started the last 18 straight games at right tackle. He looks to continue to build on a solid sophomore campaign.

Redshirt junior Kai Maiava (6-1, 300) started all 12 regular-season games last year at center. A transfer from Colorado where he started nine games at guard in 2007, he also brings plenty of experience to the table.

Redshirt senior Eddie Williams (6-1, 327), who transferred in after earning junior college All-America honors at Mt. San Antonio College, started the first six games of 2009 at right guard until sidelined by a fractured left ankle.

Redshirt senior Ryan Taylor (6-3, 300) figures to add depth along the line at the center and guard positions after appearing in three games last season. A transfer from Tyler (TX) College, he started contests last season at right guard against Oregon State and Washington before being sidelined by a foot injury.

A trio of redshirt seniors will also look to join the mix. Tackle Micah Kia (6-5, 331), who started 15 games in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, returns and is working himself back to playing condition after suffering a knee injury which kept him on the sidelines last season. He will be limited to non-contact work during Spring drills but should compete for the left tackle spot in Fall camp. Darius Savage (6-4, 330) is another experienced candidate at the guard position. However, he is not expected to be ready for action this Spring following back surgery. He saw action in all 13 games in 2009 on special teams and some limited duty at guard after starting seven games there in 2008. Sean Sheller (6-5, 290) has returned to offensive tackle after spending the 2009 season on defense. He saw action in three games on special teams and will compete for playing time this Spring.

True sophomore Stan Hasiak (6-5, 315) also figures to compete at the guard positions. A youngster with potential, he appeared in three games last season, missing most of the year with personal medical issues.

Redshirt sophomore Connor Bradford (6-5, 260), like Sheller, returns to the offensive side of the ball this season and will offer depth at a tackle position.

Redshirt sophomore Brett Downey (6-7, 298) saw his first game action last season at Washington State. He has impressed the coaches with his hard work and will get a long look at tackle this Spring.

A pair of redshirt freshmen are also ready to compete for playing time. Nik Abele (6-7, 276) spent a productive season on the scout team in 2009 and is ready to battle for a spot in the rotation at tackle. Greg Capella (6-4, 320) is a strong young player who will put his year of scout team experience to work for him this Spring at a guard spot.

There is a lot to digest. I think the encouraging news here is that the Bruins will have some pieces to work with. Don't forget the excerpt above doesn't include incoming true freshman Wade Yandall (6-4, 300) from Carson, CA HS (who is already enrolled and will compete at guard or tackle in Spring drills, Kody Innes (6-5, 273), from Saguaro HS in Scottsdale, AZ and Chris Ward (6-5, 300) from Santa Ana, CA Mater Dei H. I think any of those guys will have a legit shot at making the 2 deep at RT positions. We will see. As for the other guys here are my notes:

The guy to keep an eye on this spring will be Nick Abel at LT. From the OC Register:

[A]bele (pronounced Uh-BELL), who originally came to UCLA to play defense, atop the depth chart. He began last fall camp on the defensive side. That lasted two days. Palcic asked immediately if he could have the Irvine product because he thought he could be a great offensive lineman.

Abele remained there all season and was one of three Bruins to earn "outstanding" scout team honors on offense. The coaches might use the same word to describe him should he play at a comparable level to Su'a-Filo in the fall.

If Nick can step up this spring and win that starting spot, it would be a huge boost for the team. If Abel can't lock down that spot, the coaches might look to shift Baca over to LT. Baca's talents suit him better in the interior but he is someone who is multi-dimensional enough to play tackle if needed.

Behind Baca there is much discussed Stan Hasiak. Here is what CRN had to say about Hasiak's mindset heading into spring camp:

"He's so excited. I just hope and pray like heck that he can make the most of this. He knows perfectly well that there is a team that is above all else. Individuals have to figure out how to be a part of this team. If they can figure out that marriage, then they will flourish. One of the great lessons - and it happens in many programs - when I first went to Colorado in 1994, I was an assistant. I came from here - '93 had been a less-than-stellar year for the Buffs, by their own standards - and they had great talent and it didn't parlay itself into the kind of year they wanted. They had this thing where they were all about the team - they felt in '93 they were too individual-oriented. Well, we go 11-1 and we get all these individual awards, Heisman Trophy winner, so many NFL picks - but truthfully, we were very unselfish. The accolades poured in, though. There's more than enough to go around if you just focus on the team.

"Hopefully Big Stan can figure it out."

I'd like to be cautiously optimistic about Big Stan. What I found encouraging here was how Stan could have easily given up how he was essentially suspended from the team right before our bowl game. Instead of quitting on the program and going the transfer route, he seemed to have developed a discipline routine of sticking with his classes and own off-season conditioning to get himself another shot. FWIW I think that counts for something and I am hoping he will now take advantage of this opportunity. If he emerges as a factor in the two deep, it will make Coach Palcic breathe a little easier heading into Fall camp.

Micah Kia is another interesting puzzle. Micah had an up and down career at UCLA and it sounded like he was on the verge of having a solid senior season in Westwood before he got hurt with an ACL injury last August.He is not going to sit out from contact drills this spring because it takes about an year to complete rehab from an ACL injury. From CRN:

"Micah Kia will be out there in uniform and go out in non-contact drills. He had suffered the ACL injury in August, so it'll be a full year and a full recovery by then. We won't risk anything by spring ball."

From what I have heard he has been doing everything the coaches expected of him during this rehab stint. Let's hope Kia can finish his last season on a positive note.

Speaking of positive notes, Maiava will be looking to redeem himself from the late season embarrassment last year when he had to sit out the bowl game due to academic reasons. At least on the field Maiava IMHO lived up to his hype by emerging as a very dependable center who brought in a new attitude of aggression into the UCLA line. Hopefully he will not let us down again in classroom this year and take another step forward on the field. He has the potential to become an all conference player by the time he is done at UCLA.

Lastly, I want to leave the discussion on OL with following quote from Palcic towards end of the last season (when the OL was really coming along):

"When everyone talks about protection, they always just think it's with the offensive line," offensive line coach Bob Palcic said. "It's the receivers running the right routes at the right depth, it's the quarterback reading the right coverage and knowing where to go with the ball, and it's the offensive line holding up and preventing penetration."

"It's a three-pronged attack that has to work together."

Should be fun to find out how all of these guys have come along this spring. 5 more days to go.

GO BRUINS.

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