U.C.L.A. Spring Football: Pushing Forward with the Offensive Line

The U.C.L.A. Offensive Line must improve its pass protection for the Bruins to have success on the scoreboard this season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Let's continue with our preview of the 2011 U.C.L.A. football team with a look at the offensive line. With all due respect (which usually means you're about to disrespect someone) to my fellow front pagers, you can forget the excellent previews of the D Line, Linebackers, Def Backs, and Special Teams. The Offensive Line will be the key to the Bruins' success in 2011.  Line wins games.

The offensive line was an enigma last season.  Injuries, academic problems, a Mormon mission, and a lack of stability and consistency from 2009 prevented the Bruins from starting their ideal top five players. Despite that, OL Coach Bob Palcic deserves a ton of credit for converting a patchwork line into the most overachieving unit on the field last season.  In adapting the new Pistol offense, the self-named Filthy Five vastly improved on a feeble running game from 2009, as evidenced by their utter dominance in the Texas game.  However, pass blocking remained a major problem throughout the year, and that inability to pass allowed opposing defenses to stack the box and bottle up the Bruins' run game, and the offense sputtered as the season progressed.

If all goes as planned this year, the Bruins should not suffer the same problems. Though the OL lost 4 seniors who saw significant playing time from last year's squad, this year's unit will benefit from the return of 2 starters from the 2009 team who were unavailable last year. They will join 2 regulars returning from last season, and there are guys with playing time battling for the fifth spot. The result for 2011 will be an OL that is improved on talent and better for experience.  This should by the best OL that Bruin fans have seen during Neuheisel's tenure in Westwood.  That said, the play of the OL as a single well coordinated unit is crucial.  While our projected starters have all seen time on the field, these 5 have not lined us next to each other in this manner before.  The coaching staff has its work cut out getting this group to come together as a cohesive unit that can communicate well and read and react off each other.  There may be a learning curve for this OL, but unlike previous years, the ceiling should be very high. 

Extended thoughts on the projected depth chart, players, the coaches, and the prospects for this unit after the jump.

My projected depth chart (subject to review by the actual coaching staff and an official depth chart) looks like...

Left Tackle

Left Guard

Center

Right Guard

Right Tackle

Jeff Baca

*Jr, 6-4, 304

Sean Sheller

*Sr, 6-5, 315

Kai Maiava

*Sr, 6-1, 318

Chris Ward

So, 6-5, 325

Mike Harris

*Sr, 6-5, 334

Sean Sheller

*Sr, 6-5, 315

Stan Hasiak

*So, 6-5, 301

Greg Capella

*So, 6-4, 310

Wade Yandall

*So, 6-4, 329

Brett Downey

*Jr, 6-7, 305

Connor Bradford

*Jr, 6-5, 278

Casey Griffiths

*So, 6-4, 286

Kody Innes

*Fr, 6-4, 285

Luke Gane

*Fr, 6-1, 246

Sam Saultz

*Fr, 6-2, 322

 

Jay Barlow

*Fr, 6-2, 303

 

* denotes redshirt

Redshirt sophomore Casey Griffiths will miss spring practice due to back issues. 

Our incoming freshmen, Jake Brendel, Will Oliver, Torian White, Connor McDermott, and Ben Wysocki are all expected to redshirt for the 2011 season.  White, you may recall, was the prized OL recruit who shocked the Bruins on Signing Day by committing to *$c on TV, and then changing his mind and recommitting to U.C.L.A. when his family realized where his heart truly was.  Of these 5, Wysocki likely has the best chance of moving up to the playing squad in the fall.

The Bruins OL prospects for 2011 got some very good news this past January.  Last year's starting left tackle Sean Sheller, who missed the 2006 and 2008 season due to knee injuries, was granted a medical redshirt and will return for a 6th season. His experience on the field and in the locker room will be a steadying influence on the developing unit, and Neuheisel said he is "looking forward to him becoming a real leader for us".  Though he started at left tackle last season, Sheller is likely to move over to left guard to make room for the return of redshirt junior Jeff Baca.

Baca was a 2 year starter at tackle and guard during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but missed last season when he was academically inelligible.  This was not an case of bad ballroom dancing, however.  Baca, a physical sciences major who plans to be a doctor, took on too heavy an course load in the spring and was forced to drop a class, which caused him to fall below the yearly total needed to remain eligible by the NCAA.  Respect the South Campus.  He redshirted last year to correct his academic issues and also to heal a stress fracture in his leg.  Back on track now, Baca will bring added talent and depth to the critical left tackle position, and looks to regain the form that won him extensive playing time as a freshman and sophomore.

The OL took a hit in last year's fall scrimmage when starting center and Rimington Award watchlist center Kai Maiava suffered a broken ankle on the third play of the game.  After surgery and a year of rehab, the starter from 2009 is set to regain his previous form when he was one of the top young centers in the country.  Maiava began his college career at Colorado in 2007 and started 9 games there as a freshman before transferring to Westwood, so he brings two seasons of playing time back with him as well.

The right guard positon seems to be the least clear at this point, with true sophomore Chris Ward looking to be the leading candidate to fill the position.  However, Wade Yandall, Casey Griffiths, and Stan Haisak will be competing for playing time and could see some action at this spot.  As for Hasiak, the rocky start to his U.C.L.A. career with personal issues and academics have limited his opportunities.  However, he remains one of the OL's more talented and acclaimed recruits in Neuheisel's years, and we are hopeful he will put it all together soon and become a major contributor on the OL.  Jay Barlow, Luke Gane, and Sam Saultz come off the scout team and will add depth along the OL.

While the rest of the OL has looked like musical chairs, right offensive right tackle has been a position of consistency for the Bruins.  Mike Harris has filled the spot for the last 2 and a half years and returns for his senior season.   At 6-5 and 334, he is the biggest body on the line, but that still makes him smaller than Josh Smith.  With the other four line positions showing a new face in the starting lineup, the returning presence of Harris on the right end will be most welcome.

Jay Barlow, Luke Gane, and Sam Saultz come off the 2010 scout team and will add depth and competition along the OL.

Coach Neuheisel admits the lineup is not set...  

"The offensive line has grown and developed together the last few seasons," Neuheisel said. "We have some veterans with starting experience to form the nucleus and some young, talented guys eager to get a look. We will identify our best unit and combinations this Spring and work to solidify the line for the upcoming season."

While Neuheisel and Palcic have a lot of returning parts to evaluate and slot, they are still missing one of their best offensive linemen.  Sophmore Xavier Su'a-Filo started every game as a freshman, then left school to go on a two year Mormon mission.  With the changes in the coaching staff this offseason, there was speculation that he may seek a transfer after completing his mission.  However, Gold wrote last month that XSF reaffirmed his plan to return to U.C.L.A. for the 2012 season.  So while our OL will miss the outstanding young player this season, he will be an excellent addition when he returns the following year.

The OL will again be led by Coach Palcic who enters his 4th year in Westwood.  This is actually Palcic's second tour of duty with U.C.L.A., as he also coached the Bruins in 1993 when they featured some guy named Jonathan Ogden. Palcic has coached football for 40 years in both the college and NFL ranks.  As I said above, Coach Palcic should get a lot of credit for putting together and coaching an OL that has struggled with consistency of personnel, and getting them to play at a level few of us expected.  But there is still a long way to go with this unit, and Palcic will have to continue to develop this unit in all aspects of play. 

Some important goals for the OL this season will be a continued familiarity and fluency with the Pistol offense, as well as incorporating more Pro Style sets under our new OC, Mike Johnson.  Hopefully, more cohesiveness in the offensive coaching staff will translate for a smoother system for the offensive unit as a whole. 

The single most important factor for the OL, however, will be improvement in pass blocking.  U.C.L.A's pass offense ranked last in the Pac-10 by a literally a quarter of a mile behind 9th place Cal, and even worse, #116 in the country, which was 4th from last in the nation.  Great Bruin QB's like Beban, Aikman, McNown, and well, Neuheisel, should be embarrassed by this.  The 4 teams below us included Air Force, Army, and Navy, (and Ga Tech), so I guess we could claim the Commander-In-Chief's passing trophy, if such a thing existed.  Some of the passing woes could be attributed to inconsistent play from the quarterbacks, and the consistently poor play from our receiving corps.  However, our QB's never enjoyed the luxury of sitting comfortably in the pocket and having time to find open receivers.    Better pass protection must be priority number one for this unit.   The Bruins have a talented host of running backs and the running game enjoyed a fair amount of success in 2010, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.  However, the Bruins must have a balanced passing attack to keep opposing defenses honest.  Providing our QB crew with sufficient time is the first step in achieving that.

The Bruins spent a lot of 2010 playing from behind. This was partly due to the defense's penchant for giving up early scores and the offense's inconsistency, especially in the red zone.  As a result of playing catchup, the Bruin offense became very predictible and easily defensible.  Looking forward, the play of the OL will be key in controlling the line of scrimmage, managing the clock and winning the time of possession battle, and converting touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.  If the line can do this, the opponents will have to chase the Bruins, and our defense's job will be that much easier. 

It all begins and ends with the play of the big guys up front.  As Coach Neuheisel said when discussing the unit and expressing optimism that the years of question marks with the OL are in the past,

We're about ready to become a good offensive line.

Let's go, Filthy Five!  Line wins games. 

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