Prelude To 2010 Preseason Camp: UCLA Offensive Line Depth Chart Analysis

Hoping for consistent moments like this from the Bruin OL in 2010. Photo Credit: Telemachus

Now that we are done looking through the immediate (LBs, DLs, & DBs) and long term projections of our defensive depth chart, let's move over to offense.  We will start with the biggest question marks heading into this fall camp: our offensive line.

While the offensive line is a question mark, I don't think Bruin fans need to get anxious and gloomy about our OL like we were two years ago when CRN took over the program. As seasoned and well informed observers of our football program know the offensive line heading into CRN's first season was a total disaster given the scant and at times negligent attention given to this unit under the previous coaching regime. At the time we knew rebuilding the UCLA program was going to be a 4-5 year project, given the utter devastation of talent level under the prior head coach.

Well two years into the program there has been tangible progress. If one wants to go beyond lazy analysis, he or should would notice the forward steps the OL took under one of the best coaches in the game in Bob Palcic. Production level on both on the ground and via air moved upward in CRN's second season. The offensive line also gelled as a unit as it went through a stable core of starters through a 7-6 bowl winning season. Despite this incremental progress and CRN's steady effort to recruit OLs (he has brought in  12 new recruits in his first 3 recruiting classes,  15 and counting if we include the commits from next year's class), question marks remains around this unit due to some attrition during this off-season.

Still there is no reason to think the sky is falling around this unit. Right now, here is how the depth chart looks heading into this fall camp (based on spring depth chart and current roster info):

LT LG C RG RT
Micah Kia (6-5, 321, Sr.) Jeff Baca (6-4, 305, Jr.)(13) Kai Maiava (6-1, 298, Jr.**) (12) Eddie Williams (6-1, 329, Sr.) (6) Mike Harris (6-5, 319, Jr.**) (13)
Sean Sheller (6-5, 300, Sr.**) Chris Ward (6-4, 318, Fr.) Ryan Taylor (6-3, 298, Sr.**) (2 at RG) Greg Capella (6-4, 320, Fr.**) Wade Yandall (6-4, 329, Fr.)
Brett Downey (6-7, 302, So.**) Casey Griffiths (6-4, 280, Jr) Darius Savage (6-4,330, Sr) Kody Innes (6-4, 279, Fr.)

() game started
** indicates redshirt season
Italic indicates player who sat out spring due to injury but is expected to return

When you look at the chart, it becomes obvious that Bruins are returning a pretty solid core with a lot of starting experience from this past season. Kai Maiavia, the captain of this unit would have had 13 starts (along with Jeff Baca and Mike Harris) if not for his academic issues right at the end of the Fall season. It sounds like Kai is back on track. He did sit out spring due to nagging injuries, but he should be ready to go. Eddie Williams was flourishing at RG before his mid-season injury. It appears that he is pretty healthy and ready to go.  So the key question marks are going to be how the Bruins will be replacing the immense talents of XSF at LT, and get some quality depth due to the recent losses of couple of other talented underclassmen.

First, let's review  a bit about how Bruins have had to deal with some attrition since the end of last season. After winning the Bowl game, we lost uber talented freshman LT Xavier Su'a Filo who departed for his LDS mission.  That was a blow (even though not a total surprise) as XSF made one of the more spectacular debuts a lineman has made in a UCLA uniform as a true frosh)  During spring Bruins lost redshirt freshman tackle Nick Abele "due to medical issues related to his neck."  Then just this week Bruins lost sophomore Stan Hasiak for the entire season due to academic issues.  As CRN said in the UCLA release it was "an unfortunate situation" but there is no reason to give up on him yet:

 "I expect Stanley to work hard to ensure this situation does not occur again. We expect him to help us on the scout team this year and work himself into a contributor for 2011."

It would be prematurely irresponsible for anyone to give up on Hasiak. As Chris09 astutely noted in the comment thread that it wouldn't be prudent to consider this as a "strike 2" situation:

Without full details of the situation, it seems highly likely to me that his suspension from the team and returning home for a while and his now being academically ineligible are related. I wouldn't be surprised if the coaching staff knew this would be a possibility when they brought/allowed him back on the team. With all the time he spent away from campus it's logical that he would have fallen behind on coursework/units. My point being, until we know for sure, I'm willing to believe that he has recommitted himself and that this is just lingering effects of his extremely rough first year. Hopefully he's on track now.

Sounds reasonable to me.  It would also be unwise to dismiss this young man's chances to come back strong given the effort he gave during spring practices. By all accounts he had himself a very productive spring at least in the practices following his flare-ups in the first couple of quarters. Hasiak on at least one occasion played the role of peace-maker when practice skirmishes broke down between the offense and defense.  As observed by MaltBaa after the first spring scrimmage, CRN "let Hasiak lead the team" in "a breakdown cheer of some sort." Number of observers saw him having fun during those practices, which was also evident in highlights from a video promoting spring football game.  The freshman certainly made an effort to get along and adjust on the field.  So nothing wrong with hoping he will show the same effort in classrooms this year, and come back ready to contribute as a complete student athlete next season.

Now, with the departures of Able from the program and unavailability of XSF and Hasiak, coaches have been working to figure out how to stabilize the left side (Prince's blind side) of the Bruin OL. They will at least have some viable pieces to work with next few weeks and it will be interesting to see the results during Fall.

In terms of the left tackle position, the results from this spring was encouraging.  Coach Palcic offered up the following observation on the LT spot:

"It is too early, but I think Sean Sheller is getting back to the form he showed me my first year here. Then he went through that knee reconstruction, and it's taken him this long to finally get back to his original playing form. I'm hoping he continues to progress. Then Micah Kia comes back in the fall, and we have some depth at the position."

Sheller's performance this spring has been pretty welcome development.   As mentioned by Palcic, he should be getting a fierce competition from Micah Kia, the returning fifth year senior who was in red-shirt most of the spring practice. Kia could have a slight edge in this battle due to his starting experience. He started 15 games during 2007 and 2008 season.  He is also one of the team's four captains, who stepped up with his leadership skills, by helping to clamp down any thoughts of replicating the silly "over the wall" stunt this past spring. From what we have heard from him he is going to be very hungry to go out on a solid note in his last year at UCLA. Well Sheller is going to have the same mindset as well. So it will be fun to see those veterans competing for the starting job. Perhaps they don't have the freakish talents of an XSF, but they are going to bring experience, desire and work ethic with a veteran perspective that could be very valuable to this unit.

Palcic also had lot of nice things to say about walkon Brett Downey (6-7, 302, RS Soph) who was in the hunt for a spot in the regular 8-9 men rotation (Palcic likes to use) at LT. While he got off to a great start he faded a bit towards the end of the spring. I think he could make another run for a spot this Fall, giving both Kia and Sheller a strong push.

With the aforementioned attrition in context, the recent signing of JUCO transfer Casey Griffith makes a lot of season. Bob Palcic was extremely excited when Casey decided to come on down to Westwood right away. I think we can make a reasonable assumption that the coaches will be looking to give the Bruins depth at the guard spot (as they anticipated the loss of  Hasiak).  Speaking of newcomers, it will be interesting to see whether Ward ends up red-shirting his first year or he ends up in the two depth. I put him in the two deep sport at LG given the rave reviews about him during the recruiting process. Perhaps Griffith with his experience beyond high school will beat him out. We will have to see how that plays out.

As for the core guys, Kai the emotional leader of this crew, should be ready to go this spring. Kai had a very good start to his UCLA career as he IMHO emerged as one of the better centers of the Pac-10 conference. He has an aggressive, mean streak at OL that seems infectious and did have a positive effects on rest of his team-mates who gained confidence as a unit during Palcic's second year in Westwood. T

True junior Jeff Baca (6-4, 305), is perhaps the most complete player in this unit as he will be looking to start for his third straight season in Westwood. Baca brings the solid combination of athleticism and grasp of what coaches are looking for him on the field. He was on the field for the opening offensive snap at left guard in all 13 games last season. To date he has 21 career starts to his credit.

Redshirt junior Mike Harris (6-5, 319) is the other anchor (besides Kai and Baca) for this unit. Harris has been a steady presence as he has started 18 straight games at right tackle. Looking forward to see him build on a solid season from this year.  Redshirt senior Eddie Williams (6-1, 329), who transferred in as a JUCO All-American (from Mt. San Antonio College)  started the first six games of 2009 at right guard until sidelined by a fractured left ankle.  He should be healthy and ready to go.

Redshirt senior Ryan Taylor (6-3, 298) should be providing quality depth as he is one of those guys who can provide Palcic flexibility as he played both center and guard positions last season. Speaking of providing depth, it will be interesting to see whether Greg Capella can break into the regular rotation this Fall. Have heard about him having a pretty decent first season in the scout team showing the kind of mean, grinding out mindset we saw from Kai. Will be interested in hearing about specific reports from Spaulding practices this August.

Bruins will also be interested in seeing what Darius Savage (6-4, 330), who sat out spring practice due to recovering from back surgery will bring to the OL equation. He is another experienced guard. 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. If Savage could come through and give us some depth at the guard positions, it will be really huge. However, back surgery is serious stuff. So, we should keep our expectations in check.

Capella is not the only underclassmen practice observers will want to keep an eye on this Fall. Wade Yandall, who enrolled early as a true frosh and hung in there (according to our coaching staff),should have a shot to compete for one of the tackle positions. At least on paper Yandall has putting in the work as he has gained 20 lbs from this past spring, upping his weight to 320. Besides Ward and Yandall, Kody Innes (6-5, 279), from Saguaro HS in Scottsdale, AZ is the other incoming freshmen OL. Innes, I am assuming will be looking at a redshirt season.

Ideally all of our incoming freshmen will be slotted for redshirt season in their first year. However, the long term rebuilding situation at OL due to the mismanagement of previous regime, which set this program back for almost a decade, it will not be a surprise if one of these guys see some action this Fall.

There is another factor to keep in mind while tracking the development of this year's OL. This goes back to the integration of revolver formation into our offensive scheme. Using the revolver formation more often could mean that our offensive line will be engaging in a heavy dose of zone blocking (Nevada's pistol offense, which is the inspiration of this formation was organized around core zone blocking principles).  There was an excellent post over at Tomahawk Nation last year explaining zone blocking:

It's actually exactly what it sounds like.  Offensive linemen are looking to block zones instead of assigned men.  Each lineman, either by himself or in conjunction with an adjacent linemate must account for and block a designated space.  This is different from man blocking, in which each lineman must block a specified man.  Zone blocking is very socialist.  It is a team concept, not a collective individual concept.   With zone blocking, the lineman will advance to their designated area, and block any player in that area in an attempt to "win" the zone.  If the zone is initially empty, they will continue through their zone, possibly help out an adjacent lineman, or proceed to the 2nd level, (LB's and defensive backs).  You may find it useful to think of this in basketball terms, with zone and man defense.  The concept is for two adjacent linemen to come off in unison and attack a defensive lineman to the play side.  Unlike man blocking, where each player has an assigned man to block; zone blocking creates an initial double-team with two players blocking a single defensive lineman. This allows the offensive linemen to be very aggressive because they know they have help from their linemate..  It is this initial team that creates movement at the point of attack, and from which the runner will make his read and find the developing hole.

And why teams use zone blocking:

Zone Blocking developed as a response to the increasingly athletic defensive linemen seen over the past 20 years.  These defensive linemen would kill plays before they even began by achieving penetration in the backfield.  The more traditional style, "man blocking", required players to block a specific player, often one of those elite defensive linemen (think FSU beating on Kansas in the Meadowlands in the '93 Championship year).    It was very difficult for teams to find five offensive linemen who could man up and block their specified player, particularly when that assignment was shifting before the snap and running in all different crazy directions after the snap.  To do so would require exceptionally strong, smart, and athletic offensive linemen, and those type players do not come around too often.  As a counter, coaches began to devise ways for their players to deal with these freak defensive linemen.  Instead of blocking each lineman one on one, what if the entire offensive line blocked the defensive line, functioning as a unit?  Instead of each lineman having to adjust to the pre-snap movements, stinting, and post-snap twisting and stunting, the offensive line adjusted as a unit?  What if linemen worked as a unit instead of chasing around these freaks that teams were now employing at defensive tackle?  Welcome to zone blocking; the thinking man's way to block.  Again, the entire goal is to eliminate penetration.

So given our situation at OL which is still in rebuilding mode and doesn't have super freakish talents peppered throughout its depth chart, using zone blocking schemes (through deployment of revolver formation) could make a lot of sense. Yet, as jtthirtyfour explained in his incredibly informative post on zone blocking here on BN, it takes a while to master this scheme.

It takes a lot of time and practice to teach the blocking rules for zone. Linemen need to understand what they are supposed to do and how they should react to stunting linemen. Once you understand how to block zone and have practiced it over and over, it is very adaptable to various fronts and you don't need to spend time on it later. It eliminates complicated blocking rules for each position and for each specific front. For the most part the entire OL has the same blocking rules and is looking at the same keys depending on whether they are covered or uncovered by a defensive lineman.

However, it is a system that you need to "marry" - you won't see the full benefits if you just "date" it because it takes a lot of reps to get down. I can't think of any team that only runs zone once or twice a game - teams that run it (which is almost everyone) generally rely on it for about half of the run game, if not more. Fortunately it has become very commonplace at every level of football so I don't think that any NCAA program has to worry too much about recruits who have not encountered it in some form or another. However, each team may have their little wrinkles about blocking rules and footwork and it is important that everyone is on the same page.

So we will have to see how it all turns out. FWIW as noted in spring,  Palcic's comments to Jon Gold following the second full spring scrimmage were pleasantly encouraging:

"This is the best spring we've had since I've been here. I'm pleased with their work ethic - we've had a few more injuries than I would've liked - but I'm happy about the way they're progressing. We're running the ball better. Things are going very well."

Hopefully he sounds as cautiously confident during August. No doubt the situation at OL is not perfect. It is not ideal for a program in the middle of steady progress. Yet as detailed above, the situation is nowhere close to hopeless.  Let's keep our fingers crossed for a relatively healthy August and Fall and total focus from these guys in the class room. If these guys can navigate through this Fall camp healthy and continue to gel based on experiences from last season, we can be optimistic about continued steady move forward.

Lastly, we should also note that the depth chart above is fluid. As happens during this time of year, we have to make educated and reasonable guesses in terms of how various pieces fit in.  I imagine there could be convincing arguments to shift them around different. If you guys have thoughts on how the chart should be shifted around, I would love to read that analysis in the comments. Figure this would be a fun way to pass through these last two weeks leading up to camp.

GO BRUINS.

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