Every silver lining has a cloud, and vice versa.
If you read between the lines, it seems clear the Bruins will start a true freshman quarterback in 2014. And no matter how talented Josh Rosen may be, there will be a learning curve as he adjusts to the speed and timing and pressures of D-1 Football (yeah, FCS, whatever), and a successful offense has to have the threat to both run and throw the football. So with the promotion of the true freshman, Jim Mora is putting all of the Bruins' 2015 football eggs in one basket.
And the basket protecting those eggs will be the Bruins offensive line.
First, the good side.
In 2014, the U.C.L.A. Offensive Line led a ground attack that netted the leading rusher in the conference, and there are 5 starters from that line returning for 2015. Among them, there is a true left tackle who is finally healthy to start the year, a center who is starting for his fourth season and is among the best in college, and quality depth in the unit as a whole with a nation's best 131 returning starts. With the Bruins easing in a new quarterback, it makes sense that the offense will rely heavily on that proven ground game to control the ball and tempo, move the chains, and minimize the pressure on the passing game. After three years blocking for Brett Hundley, the importance of its role will not be lost on those five guys in the trenches. Considering the experience and talent in the returning OL, there is every reason to believe the offensive line will maintain a dominant running game and carefully protect a promising young quarterback who will likely need a bit of time to get comfortable in the pocket.
There is also a not so good side.
In 2014, with a unit that returned 4 starters and gave up 35 sacks in 2013, the offensive line allowed 41 sacks, a conference worst and a major part of the Bruins upset loss to Utah, a game which kept them out of the Pac-12 Championship. Now some of those sacks were a result of a mobile quarterback who hated too much to give up on a play, but there is no question that the line had major difficulties handling stunts and was often unprepared for a odd number of rushers. The O Line had lots of returning starts in it last year, too, but communication, cohesion, and consistency were still hard to come by. Despite the depth along the OL, the Bruins are thin at the all-important center position where the #2 will redshirt in this year after undergoing surgery on both shoulders following last season. There were far too many penalties, including the maddening false starts, on the line. Add in the questions surrounding OL Coach Adrian Klemm who sat out a 3 month suspension and has made some questionable personnel decisions (see Najee Toran v Virginia) and hasn't ever coordinated the OL to perform near its potential, so there is reason to doubt that the offensive line will play to the level it needs to to keep a freshman quarterback healthy and comfortable and keep defenses from stacking the box to stop the run.
Since Bruins Nation is always willing to look at both sides of the issues, the offensive line is a perfect topic for analysis because it really does offer possibilities at both ends of the spectrum. I'm not going to try to guess which side we'll see this year. For the last 4 years, I've said this season will be better, only to see it be a little better, and a little worse, so let's just look as who will be lining up and what that might mean.
Redshirt senior center Jake Brendel will be the featured player on the line and was the Bruins offensive representative at the Pac-12 Media Days, Like last year, he is a Rimington Award candidate for the nation's best center. During a career that has seen plenty of inconsistent play on the line, Brendel has been a very reliable and capable player in the middle. More importantly, he is stepping into a real leadership role in his senior year. With Klemm absent in Spring Camp, Brendel took clear charge of the offensive line and will be the unquestioned leader of the group.
So with center being a known and proven commodity, perhaps the Bruins most important factor on the OL will be redshirt Junior left tackle Conor McDermott. After an injury plagued 2013, he returned to the field in mid 2014 and he provided some much needed stability and quality. The play of the line improved and steadied from that point, so there is reason to believe that getting a full spring and preseason camp will only help solidify his play. He'll have the all-important task of protecting the young quarterback's blind side, so reliable play from McDermott will be key to helping Rosen get comfortable in the pocket and allow him to focus on defensive coverage and finding his targets downfield instead of scrambling for his life.
McDermott's return allows Junior Caleb Benenoch to stay at right tackle where he will battle redshirt Junior Simon Goines for the spot. Goines is coming back from knee injuries and was never completely at full speed in spring but should be there by the start of this season. Honestly, I think it would be best if Goines were able to get the right tackle spot back, which would allow Benenoch to move over to guard, but Mora recently said he likes the continuity of the returning line, so that seems to give Benenoch the nod at this point. Junior Alex Redmond, a freshman All American and an honorable mention All Pac-12 player last season, will start his third season at guard next to Brendel, so that talent and familiarity should be paying dividends by now. Finally, presuming Benenoch starts at right tackle, look for redshirt Soph Kenny Lacy to fill the other guard position. Lacy looked good in a backup role last season and got two starts on the year.
After surgery on both shoulders (ugh!), versatile Junior Scott Quessenberry looks to be a redshirt for 2015. His absence hurts because of his game experience at guard, but more so for his role as Brendel's backup at center. Quiz has a great awareness and knowledge of reading defenses and making line calls, prompting Hundley to liken him Payton Manning on the OL, so losing that talent behind Brendel creates a real vulnerability for the OL.
The Bruins add some good depth with redshirt Soph Poasi Moala who saw reserve time last season, and JuCo transfer Zach Bateman who wants to play tackle but will probably get some playing time at guard before any tackle position is open. Jake Tourville, Cristian Garcia, Kolton Miller, and John Lopez will provide additional depth, but have not seen any game action so far. Miller has been turning a lot of heads lately, so he may be the first of these to get significant playing time. Former lineman Colby Cyburt has moved to TE, but may see action in double tight sets or goal line formations. Carl Hulick moved to defensive line last year so it's unclear whether he will be part of the the OL depth chart this year.
The Bruins will also welcome 4 new freshmen to the OL, Tavita Halilo, Andre James, Josh Wariboko, and Fred Ulu-Perry. The coaching staff has always been willing to throw freshmen into the offensive line of fire, so keep an eye out for Ulu-Perry. Though there has been some talk that he could see some work with the defensive line, but Mora spoke highly of his specific potential as an OL and Brendel raved at how strong he was, so Ulu-Perry may be the first guy up from the incoming freshman class.
Knowing Mora hates depth charts, here's my preseason offensive line depth chart. Players listed 3rd and below are in no particular order and are generally placed by position rather than depth.
*Jr 6-9 295
*So 6-4 285
*Sr 6-4 290
Jr 6-5 297
Jr 6-5 305
*Fr 6-8 300
Jr 6-7 320
Fr 6-2 310
*So 6-4 275
*Jr 6-7 325
*Fr 6-1 300
*Fr 6-4 315
*So 6-5 305
*Fr 6-2 255
Fr 6-4 314
Fr 6-4 315
Fr 6-5 275
* denotes redshirt
The offensive line may not have that one outright star like a Jonathan Ogden or a Xavier Su'a-Filo, but across the line, that's as good a two deep that the Bruins have run out that I can remember. It's a tribute to the recruiting efforts by the Bruins staff over the last 5 years, and because of that, I refuse to believe this unit cannot get it done. But I also need to see it happen before I can erase my doubts, and that's a statement on the development and coaching of the OL unit over the last few seasons. There's a good side and a bad side right now, and it's myopic to ignore either.
And it also makes predictions on the offensive line play impossible. I know you can make this statement about any position group on the football field, but I maintain that the offensive line's performance holds more sway over the direction of the 2015 season than any other group on the team. The running backs look great. The receivers may still lack that one big playmaker but are deep with very capable talents. The defense is loaded across the board. And the quarterback, though he hasn't taken a snap, has all the promise in the world. The biggest question mark for the Bruins this fall is this offensive line. On paper, the measurables and experience are there. Translating that to on the field performance and reliability and cohesion is another thing altogether, and that is where too often in recent years the unit has fallen short.
This season and the OL performance are like Arwen and The One Ring. Their fates are inextricably bound. If the offensive line casts its woes into the fire and plays to its potential, the running game will pop even bigger than last year, Rosen will have time to pick and choose from a stable of good receivers, the offense will put up numbers that the very good Bruin defense can protect, and U.C.L.A. can win its first Pac-12 Title. If Klemm can't develop a reliable unit, the offense will be one dimensional at best, Rosen won't find a rhythm but will find a lot of punishment from college-sized defensive linemen, and the Bruins will struggle in a loaded Pac-12 South where 5 teams - sorry Colorado - have legit shots at the Championship game against a Mariotaless (yes, it's a word) Oregon. It will also speak to the overall value of the coach directing the Bruins offensive line.
Line wins games. Let's see it in 2015.