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2011 U.C.L.A. Football - Previewing the Offensive Line

The Bruins' offensive line needs to put a bucket-load of bad luck behind them, and play with consistency in 2011.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Bruins' offensive line needs to put a bucket-load of bad luck behind them, and play with consistency in 2011. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Fall practice is getting closer and closer. BN has brought you great pre-camp previews of the offense, defense, special teams, and the linebackers, defensive line, and defensive backs. Now let's continue with a look at the offensive line.

Plenty has been written on BN here, here, and here about the travails of the OL during Neuheisel's tenure in Westwood. Starting with a lack of talent and depth when he arrived, to the subsequent injuries, and suspensions, and injuries, and mission trips, and suspensions, and injuries, the OL has consistently been the most inconsistent unit on the field. Some games have been impressive. Many others have been a disaster. The challenges along the OL have contributed to the unreliability of our QB's and to the offensive output as a whole. OL Coach Bob Palcic's ability to make the most from his piecemeal lineups has been impressive, but it is hard to replace talent and experience with good coaching alone.

Fortunately, there is some reason for optimism in 2011. While starter Jeff Baca recovers from a leg fracture suffered in spring ball, barring further injuries (or suspensions or missions or general bad voodoo) the starting OL will feature more experience than it has in some time. However, depth is a real concern, as the second and third players on the depth chart have very little experience amongst them.

Let's take a look at the depth chart from the Official Media Guide:

(note, the media guide lists the line positions as Strong and Weak, depending whether a rightie QB or a leftie, with the strong TE side of the line changing sides. For the rest of my article, I'll consider the weak side as the traditional left side of the line. I don't want to use the word weak. If a leftie plays, then just read today's article backward, and it should make sense. The * denotes redshirt)

Left Tackle

Left Guard


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

Connor Bradford

*Jr, 6-5, 278

Stan Hasiak

*So, 6-5, 301

Greg Capella

*So, 6-4, 310

Wade Yandall

*So, 6-4, 329

Brett Downey

*Jr, 6-7, 305

Sam Saultz

*Fr, 6-2, 322

Kody Innes

*Fr, 6-4, 285

Jay Barlow

*Fr, 6-2, 303

Casey Griffiths

*So, 6-4, 286

Oh, but what a difference a couple months makes. More analysis after the jump...

The first note is that this was published in May, and Stan Hasiak was actually listed in the media guide as the #2 left guard. We know now he will not be part of the Bruins' plans for 2011. Also, our friend Jon Gold believes that Baca will likely miss the first 4 games, and should be back against Stanford on Oct 5. Until then, we expect Sheller will take the LT spot (as he did for most of last year). Baca will likely resume the left tackle position once he is fully ready to go. However, if Sheller is playing very well, Baca could return at guard. Thus, the long-term future of our quarterbacks' blindside is still fuzzy. Pun intended.

So to start the season, with Sheller moving over to left tackle, and Yandall moving across center, the projected starting OL today and backups look (unofficially) like:

Left Tackle: Sean Sheller, Redshirt Senior. In a line clouded by bad luck, the Bruins' got a break when Sheller, who missed 2 entire seasons due to injury, was granted a medical redshirt and was given a 6th year of eligibility. Without Sheller returning, things could be pretty bleak on the left side. Sheller brings 13 career starts and a lot of experience under Neuheisel and Palcic. His ability to pass protect will be key if the Bruins' passing game ever hopes to get off the ground. The fact that the coaches moved Sheller over to LT instead of moving up RJr Connor Bradford, who has no game experience as a Bruin (you will read this line again), suggests that Bradford is not ready for the position yet, and shows how thin the Bruins are along the line.

Left Guard: Wade Yandall, Redshirt Sophomore. A 3-star recruit from Carson HS with good size for a guard, Yandall will have to come up to speed quickly, being the lone starter on the OL with no game experience as a Bruin. Luckily, he has been through two spring camps due to graduating HS early, and this will be his second fall camp, so Palcic has had his hands on him more than most. With Hasiak gone to a JC for a year, RFr Sam Saultz who has no game experience for the Bruins will need to step up as the #2 at that spot.

Center: Kai Maiava, Redshirt Senior. Maiava, a pre-season Rimington watch list player, missed last season with a broken ankle suffered in the fall scrimmage. As the most talented and heralded of our OL, his is return will be a huge boost to the unit, where he will be tasked with calling blocking schemes and audibles for the line. Maiava has 21 starts, including 9 from his freshman year at CU. Backup Greg Capella saw limited action against Texas last year, and again shows the lack of depth along the line for the Bruins. RFr Kody Innes has no game experience for the Bruins.

Right Guard: Chris Ward, True Sophomore. Ward played in 3 games last season as a true freshman, so he brings some bit of game experience with him, despite his relative youth on the line. As a good basketball player in HS, Ward is athletic, and was considered a top-10 guard prospect out of HS. With these attributes, Ward was looked at as a possible starter this year, and he won the top spot on the depth chart in Spring. His backup, Wade Yandall, has not seen any game action for the Bruins. Oh wait, Yandall isn't his backup anymore. RFr Jay Barlow is his backup, and he has no game experience for the Bruins.

Right Tackle: Mike Harris, Redshirt Senior. On a line marked by inconsistency, Harris is the anomaly. He is the most experienced OL, and returns to his RT position with a total of 28 starts for the Bruins. His experience and size are key to anchoring the right side of the OL, and with Ward and Maiava joining him on that right side, look for the running game to be strong going right. RJr Brett Downey, a 3 sport player in HS played 18 snaps against Wazzu 2 years ago, which sadly gives him as much experience as any other #2's along the line. Behind him, RSo Casey Griffiths, who missed spring practices with back issues, has no game experience for the Bruins.

The incoming freshmen Jake Brendel, Will Oliver, Torian White. and Ben Wysocki were all initially expected to redshirt, but the lack of depth will likely force more than one of them into action this year, and we will keep you updated as we learn more about their future. Also, Citrus College transfer Albert Cid is hoping to enroll this fall, so we will look for him in fall practice. His 2 years of JuCo experience and maturity should help provide some much needed depth along the line. Where the staff plans to slot him is still unknown, but I'm rooting for him just so I can use some El Cid references.

As you can see, the starting 5 looks to be a promising unit, with Yandall's lack of game time being the wild card among the group. Staying healthy will be crucial for the line, as there is a precipitous fall in experience moving down in the depth chart at each position. However, Neu and Palcic have recruited players with a lot of size, and many of whom are very good athletes, and they all have the potential to become very effective offensive linemen.

Some bit has been made about the apparent drops in weight amongst the OL when comparing last year's numbers to the current ones in the media guide. I am not concerned about the loss of a few inefficient pounds if it is accompanied by a quicker first step and more explosion off the ball. I mentioned last week that the 1997 and 98 Denver Broncos had by far the smallest OL in the NFL. The also had a dominating offense, a 2,000 yard rusher in Terrell Davis, and two Lombardi Trophies. When the weight difference is small, technique and strength are the big winners when it comes to line play.

If Palcic can develop good basic skills with these guys and good teamwork within the unit, then the Bruins' inconsistent offense should show some gains. Providing our QB's with another second of pass protection will be very helpful, as the QB's have rarely had the luxury of playing the position a their own pace, instead of the opposing DL's pace. JetSki Johnathan Franklin is already a proven explosive runner. With a legit passing game to keep the D honest, and some holes from a more mature and healthy OL, he will be incredible.

There are a lot of if's in those last three paragraphs. If they all hold true, (yes, there's one more), then this unit will be a key reason the Bruins rebound with a successful season. Cross your fingers. Go get 'em, Filthy Five. Line Wins Games!

Disclaimer: As my previous discussions of the OL have a bad track record of jinxing our players, let me just say that with the publication of this preview, I fully expect each and every one of these players to immediately have their homework eaten by a dog, sprain their left ear lobes, get cited for double parking outside Diddy Reese, and then depart on a medical mission trip to Antarctica, leaving us with 5 starting walk-ons on the OL for our 2011 opener. And Palcic will get the most out of them as anyone. I called it. Prove me wrong.