In part 4 of our U.C.L.A. Football pre-camp position previews (defensive line here, linebackers here, defensive backs here) we will look at that most enigmatic unit on the current Bruins football team, the offensive line. The Bruins will head to CSU San Bernadino to open preseason camp in a little over a week, and no unit on the team has as many question marks and concerns and potential spectrum of achievement than the offensive line. Reliability, stability, and consistency are not words that we can use with our OL right now.
Cases in point: The Bruins couldn't even make it from the end of spring drills to the start of pre-season camp without losing a projected starter when Wade Yandall took a medical retirement. I really admire Yandall for making such a difficult but absolutely correct choice. Meanwhile, incoming OL Lacy Westbrook got off to a fast start on the chaos associated with our OL when he suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Thankfully, he is doing well and says he will make a full recovery. And these issues came after we lost Connor Bradford and Casey Griffiths even before spring practice began. Thus, the challenges for the OL go on and on and on. Oh, to be O Line U.
I think I've convinced most of you that the OL is the most important unit on our team. Obviously, the word team is what matters most and we really shouldn't set one group of players over another. But there is something to it, too. Consider the last decade of mediocrity and outright failure that has been U.C.L.A. football. Now consider that the last Bruin offensive lineman drafted by the NFL was Kris Farris, in 1999. Last century. Coincidence?
So I think the most important indicator that the Bruins are back and will have an imposing team lies with the big bodies up front. And there might be daylight at the end of the tunnel, or that might just be the proverbial dumpster fire. It could be either. It's hard to tell from here.
But let's strain to see anyway, after the jump...
Looking ahead to our 2012 team, we are look golden at defensive line and solid at linebacker. We have a thin but clearly talented secondary. The QB spot is still unsettled, but we have at least 2 very good options. The skill positions in the backfield and receiving corps are as good as we've seen in years. And if punting really is winning, then we're the best damn team in America with Jeff Locke.
But that still leaves us the OL.
I wish I could tell you the outlooks for the OL were similarly optimistic, because I am nothing if not optimistic. Unless, of course, that is realistic. And there are some legitimate reasons for concern with the OL, though it is far from a doomsday scenario. In fact, now that I've been doing the OL previews for a few seasons, I can say that this may be our most talented squad at the high end. It is also one of our more inexperienced squads across the board. So the possibilities for the OL range from great to terrible. How's that for specific?
Let's look more specifically at the unit and who was where, and who is where now. The table below shows our post-spring practice depth chart, which Coach Mora told us all didn't mean a thing. He wasn't kidding.
The Post-Spring Offensive Line Depth Chart
SO 6-4 310 R JR 6-4 310 R SR 6-4 304 R FR 6-6 295 R FR 6-5 322 Alex Ceachir ** SO 6-5, 305 R FR 6-5 295 R JR 6-4 305 R FR 6-7 305 R FR 6-4 300 Tre' Hale ** R SO 6-2, 308 JR 6-4 318 R SR 6-7 305 R SO 6-4 285
Wade Yandall ^^ R SO 6-4 315
SO 6-4 310
R JR 6-4 310
R SR 6-4 304
R FR 6-6 295
R FR 6-5 322
Alex Ceachir **
SO 6-5, 305
R FR 6-5 295
R JR 6-4 305
R FR 6-7 305
R FR 6-4 300
Tre' Hale **
R SO 6-2, 308
JR 6-4 318
R SR 6-7 305
R SO 6-4 285
** moved position since spring; ^^ medical retirement
On the good side, I see 3 of the projected starters as being very good to great linemen. We'll start with the great. Xavier Su'a-Filo returns this season from his 2 year LDS mission a more mature man, and a relatively inexperienced left tackle. His upside is huge and though he admitted to a slow start in spring camp, he has too much skill and desire to stay down for long, and finished camp looking good. He will be the anchor at left tackle, a position where he started every game as a freshman. We are set and solid and great there.
Jeff Baca was our best lineman last season after getting a slow start following an ankle fracture in spring drills (Spaulding!) and missing the prior season for academic issues. But Baca has shown great versatility and skill along the line during his career. With XSF's return, Baca has moved over to guard where he is listed on the updated roster. Also, it is easy to see this guy's outstanding character. Whether he goes to the right or left guard, we are very good in that spot. I expect him to be a dominant player.
Greg Capella is a bit under the radar, but was solid as a year-long starter at guard last season, which included one start at center when that spot wafted by. On a unit where experience is rare, he brings a relative wealth, and will need to use that to step up as the leader of the line from the center position. Coach Mora mentioned the troubles we had with snaps during spring drills while Capella was out, further highlighting his importance to the OL. I expect him to be solid, with the potential to be very good.
Things get a bit more iffy from here, literally. Chris Ward has the brightest potential at the other guard spot, if he is recovered from knee surgery last December, which caused him to miss spring drills. If he is ready to go, he likely gets the start, and he can be very good. If Ward is not ready, though, the spot will be open to Alberto Cid who has good size and some experience from last year. However, Cid has a history of losing his cool at times, which Coach Mora tried to run out of him in spring. If Cid has gotten more mature, he can be a very solid contributor and compete for the start. Jake Brendel can also compete for the guard spot if he is not moved to starting center so Capella can be moved back to guard. Ben Wysocki is young and may push the guys ahead of him, but he doesn't look to figure in the starting race at this time.
That leaves the right tackle spot, which is pretty wide open at this time. Experience is not a requirement for application. The spot will probably go to one of 2 redshirt freshman or a JuCo transfer. Torian White is young and inexperienced but got the most praise of anyone at that spot in the spring. The other RS freshman is Will Oliver who also got some reps at RT in spring. Our big Moldovan Alexandru Ceachir is currently rostered at tackle again after getting reps as a guard in spring. He has the advantage of a year of JC ball under his belt, and combining that with his impressive size and agility may see him land the right tackle spot. However, no matter which one starts, it will be the first D-1 game for our right tackle, and that is a big question mark, no matter how rosy you want to be. Brett Downey and Michael Padovese are the other 2 rostered tackles who figure to provide depth behind the starters.
One other roster move includes Tre' Hale, listed as a center at the end of spring, now being listed as a guard. This makes sense given our two other rostered centers (Brendel and Kody Innes) and the relative lack of depth at guard.
Four incoming freshmen, Colby Cyburt, Simon Goines, Carl Hulick, and Conor McDermott are rostered simply at "OL" with no determination as to position, and will be needed to provide some added depth across the thin unit. Of the 4, Goines is probably most ready to step up and assume some playing time. But if that's what we need, we are already in trouble.
Coach Adrian Klemm has been outstanding as a recruiter. Now he will have to perform an even more impressive job as our OL coach. By his own description, he wanted to have big athletic bodies that he could mold into effective offensive linemen. Well, here's his chance to develop our raw talent into solid players ready to compete, and then combine those individuals into a well coordinated unit. If he can do that, then all the other pieces are in place for the Bruins to finally have the breakout season we have been waiting for. If we can have a healthy line of XSF, Ward, Capella, Baca, and a ready-to-go White, then we have the potential to be a pretty special offense. If Klemm can't get Ward or White or their backups up to speed, or (don't say it, don't say it...) if any of our top lineman go down with an injury, then we will be very vulnerable. The sky is the limit. But so is the basement.
There are some more if's for you. Pre-season camp is going to be interesting.