UCLA has had mediocre offensive line play for about ten years now, and last season was no exception. While Bob Palcic should be credited for somehow being able to cobble together a credible run blocking unit out of spare parts the last two years, the talent level along the line has been severely limited athletically, thanks to a combination of poor recruiting and injuries/absences.
Look at the starting offensive line for the majority of last year: Jeff Baca, Greg Capella, Kai Maiava, Albert Cid, Mike Harris. Big, decently strong guys, to be sure, but Baca is probably the most athletically gifted, and that's strictly a relative term. It was not a unit built for pass protection, and it, at the very least, helps to provide some context as to why UCLA's coaching staff opted for the pistol offense.
So, it stands to reason that this past year, the UCLA offensive line did a pretty decent job in run blocking most of the year, but once again, had issues against top tier defenses. In the same vein, once faced with stronger defensive lines, and more aggressive schemes, the flimsy pass blocking generally gave way.
Jeff Baca was once again the strong point for the offensive line, playing somewhat out of position at weak side tackle, but making the most of it. He was far and away the best pass blocker on the team, although he still was exposed on occasion by quick defensive ends.
Wade Yandall was a pleasant surprise when he began to get more playing time around midseason. The big issues for him were, as with most of the rest of the line, pass protection. There were several occasions where he'd double a guy and allow a linebacker a free shot at the quarterback, or simply miss a block due to lack of awareness. But he showed some gifts in run blocking, and, for a pretty big guy, showed some nice mobility on the few occasions he was asked to pull.
Kai Maiava regressed, and looked like he put on some bad weight between his junior and senior years that affected his stamina and mobility. Mike Harris was mostly solid, aside from his dozen or so false start penalties. Greg Capella looked generally pretty good, but he still needs to add strength.
In fact, one alarming thing about the offensive line was that their size didn't necessarily translate to strength. Overall, many of the guys were carrying either too much weight or not enough good weight. If there was one specific area you could point to where UCLA's strength and conditioning program failed, it would be in the offensive line.
A Look at Spring
UCLA loses Maiava and Harris, but gains back its best offensive lineman from two years ago in Xavier Su'a-Filo. Su'a-Filo, who's still getting fully back into playing shape after a two-year layoff, immediately upgrades the athleticism of the entire unit by plugging in at left tackle, which allows Baca to slip back down to his natural role at guard, and allows Capella to possibly handle the center duties for another year while Brendel continues to add strength.
Also, UCLA will add another lineman in Alexandru Ceachir, the junior college transfer. Ceachir, who starts school this week, will be thrown immediately into the fire to see where he fits best. More of a guard-type, he may be forced to play tackle until another credible option emerges. Wherever he plays, UCLA is counting on him to contribute early.
Chris Ward is out for spring while recovering from knee surgery. Yandall, who suffered a concussion toward the end of last year, is still progressing toward a full recovery, and is questionable for the spring. So, with two guards out, depth is going to be a concern throughout the spring, with only five offensive linemen (XSF, Baca, Capella, Cid, and Brett Downey) who have gotten any significant playing time.
The big change for the offensive line, though, is scheme. After years of the pistol offense, UCLA is moving to a much more pass-heavy scheme, which is going to entail much more pass blocking and, in a spread, usually without the benefit of too many extra blockers. After the issues that the Bruins have had pass blocking over the last two years, this could get interesting.
Things to Watch
-How much of an effect has the new strength staff had? In terms of Su'a-Filo, obviously it'll be interesting to see how the workouts have helped him regain his form. But, after last year, when some linemen seemed out of shape during the season, it's more important to see how guys who have been in the program are doing in the new strength and conditioning program. The fact that the offense is switching to a pass-heavy scheme after so many run heavy years is also going to necessitate increased mobility, so guys are going to need to be a little slimmer.
-Where do Baca and Capella end up? Right now, we're operating under the assumption that Su'a-Filo has locked up the left tackle position for however long he remains in school. Right tackle, though, is a little less set in stone. And by a little less, we mean that the depth chart there is written entirely in the wind. Ceachir, Downey, and Torian White could figure prominently in the competition for the spot, and if none of them show an aptitude for it, you have to wonder if Baca will once again be forced to slide out of his natural spot to take over tackle duties. If that happens, Capella could move from center to guard, and the dominoes would fall from there. In terms of depth, it's hugely important that another tackle out of Ceachir, Downey, and White emerges in the spring, or else some lucky freshman is going to get acclimated to college pretty quickly in the fall.
-Can Brendel steal the Center spot? Both last year's coaching staff and this year's are high on Jake Brendel, but right now it's just a question of whether he can get strong enough to man the position full time and beat out Capella, who's more experienced. If he's ready, it allows Capella to take over one of the guard spots, which allows either Cid to move to the second string, or Baca to take over at tackle.
-What's the most athletic combination? Athleticism and mobility, much more than size and strength, are going to be key for UCLA this year as the Bruins attempt to transition to an up-tempo, passing offense. That could mean good things for guys like Brendel and Downey.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring
1. Xavier Su'a-Filo
2. Torian White
3. Conor Bradford
1. Jeff Baca
2. Chris Ward (hurt)
3. Sam Saultz
1. Greg Capella
2. Jake Brendel
3. Kody Innes
1. Albert Cid
2. Wade Yandall (hurt)
3. Ben Wysocki
4. Casey Griffiths
1. Alexandru Ceachir
2. Brett Downey
3. Will Oliver
Spring Preview: Offensive Line
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