UCLA, again (and if I had $5 for every time I wrote this in the last five years...), has some things to work out on the offensive line before September. It is, along with quarterback, the primary determining factor to UCLA's success in the 2012 season. It's especially so now that the new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense is based so much on the pass. You could argue that pass protection has been the primary reason UCLA's offense has struggled consistently over the, well, last decade. So, the issues on the offensive line are critical that they be worked out, and we're starting to get a good feel, after six practices, exactly what those are.
Really simply, UCLA lacks talent on the offensive line. To be candid, many of the offensive linemen on the roster from the previous coaching staff will discover they don't have much of a chance of playing at UCLA in the future. Most of that is due to a lack of talent, but a great deal of it, too, is a lack of toughness, dedication and work ethic to earn playing time under new OL coach Adrian Klemm, as well as Mazzone and Jim Mora.
There, too, is always the element of a new staff -- and a new position coach -- being very skeptical about the players who were already in the program. It's a common situation, where holdover players find it difficult to win the favor of the new position coach, and we could easily see this being the case in the program now at offensive line. This, in no way, implies that Klemm isn't going to be fair to the offensive linemen in the program, but he's going to certainly set a high standard for them to prove themselves to him. If any of them don't show the initiative, work ethic and toughness he demands, it wouldn't be difficult to foresee even a sniff of playing time being a pipe dream.
Klemm has a problem with talent overall, but primarily with talent at tackle. He just doesn't have enough offensive tackles who can play. And in Mazzone's pass-happy offense, you need tackles who are athletic and can move.
Right now, here's the current depth chart for spring, without the incoming freshmen:
The glaring issue is right tackle. The coaches have respect for Downey, but the former walk-on is limited in his athleticism and knee bend. We would bet that there is hope that Simon Goines, the incoming freshman, will be able to come in and plug in at right tackle, but we're skeptical. First, there are very few true freshman offensive linemen who are talented and physically developed enough to walk into fall camp and win a starting offensive line position. Even for teams that are sorely depleted at OL it's still a long shot. Most of the time it's done because literally a program has absolutely no one else, or the player is a truly elite, ready-to-play prospect, like Xavier Su'a-Filo was three years ago. We doubt that Goines is going to fulfill those requirements; it's not that Goines isn't talented, but he physically has been billed as a prospect that has a ways to go physically and strength-wise to play. Then there will be the learning curve of the position. Heck, JC transfer Alexandru Ceachir, who is physically ready to play, and is two years ahead of Goines, is struggling this spring with the transition.
Right now, after just six spring practices, Klemm is still getting to know his guys, and getting a feel for where they plug in. We know that Su'a-Filo might be better suited to playing guard, but because of a lack of tackles, and Su'a-Filo being the most athletic lineman on the roster, that Klemm has come to understand he'll most likely have to keep Su'a-Filo at left tackle. We think, eventually, Klemm will probably have to come to a similar conclusion about right tackle, and probably move Jeff Baca to the spot. Baca, like Su'a-Filo, is more suited to play guard, but there really isn't any other OL in the program with enough athleticism to play right tackle.
Except for perhaps Torian White. The redshirt freshman is probably a starting tackle of the future, but just needs to keep improving his body and his technique. This spring he has been working as the second-string left tackle behind Su'a-Filo. We think there's a chance that White could prove himself worthy enough to Klemm by September that he could tap him as a starter. He'd basically have to overtake Downey at this point. And, with the left tackle spot being so important, we would guess Klemm wouldn't necessarily want to risk playing White at that spot, so we could see it working out that perhaps White gets a look at right tackle. It makes sense: If he's an intergral part of UCLA's future offensive line, and he's about as good in fall as Downey, why not get him some early playing experience, rather than a senior?
Critical in all of this is probably Wade Yandall. He is a talented player, but so far in his career has been lacking the fire to really reach his potential, and then recently has been slowed by a lingering issue due to a concussion. He has started to work his way back into spring practice, and actually took some reps with the 1s last week. We're highly speculating here, but we could see a scenario where Yandall finds that "fire" under Klemm and he begins to deliver on that potential, and Klemm deems him worthy of starter-dom. If that comes to fruition, it gives Klemm more options. He could plug in Yandall at one of the guard spots, and that could free up Baca to be moved to right tackle.
Ceachir, the JC transfer, has a chance to crack the starting lineup. He's physically ready, but being so new to football and just stepping into the program, he's confused and overwhelmed right now. He's one of Klemm's recruits, so the coach clearly likes him. He'll have to make some considerable advances by September, and moving him inside (Klemm originally projected him at right tackle), where he's better suited, will hopefully make the transition easier for him. A key to the spring is to watch where Ceachir ends up by the Spring Game May 5th.
The one other player we could see threatening to move into the starting five would be Jacob Brendel at center. Brendel has gotten great reviews since coming to UCLA, and he's probably UCLA's future starting center. The word is that Klemm likes him, but he is just a redshirt freshman and has some work to do. He's been faltering some in spring practice so far. If he gets far enough around that learning curve by September, he could step in to start at center and Klemm could then move Greg Capella to one of the guard spots. We think, though, based on what we've seen in spring practice it's fairly unlikely.
Beyond that, we're skeptical that any other OL, either the ones currently on the roster or those coming into program, will seriously threaten to be a starter. These others could end up having to start next season out of necessity through injury, but in a perfect world, if everyone were healthy the entire season, we really can't see anyone else seriously contending for a starting OL job. Chris Ward would be perhaps the best remaining candidate, but we've heard that he'd have to drastically change his work ethic and commitment. He's been set back considerably by having to sit out spring so far. Albert Cid is the next candidate, and he's been running with the 1s in spring practice due to a lack of just about anyone else being capable. Even though Ceachir is currently second-string and Cid is first, we would have to project Ceachir ahead of Cid for fall, with Ceachir being better physically and being one of Klemm's recruits.
Putting the OLs into groups is another good way of getting a grasp of the hierarchy.
In the first group, made up of the guys who clearly will be starters, are:
No matter where these three eventually like up, they're starters. Su'a-Filo, Baca and Capella are the three best linemen, and Capella, at this point in spring practice (even though he's missed quite a bit due to injury) looks like the only OL who can consistently snap the ball. Where these three do line up might be primarily determined by what other two starters Klemm can find, and he'll also need to recognize some quality back-ups.
On the second-tier list are the guys we think have the best chance of being those two last starters:
Klemm would be doing back flips if two of these guys emerged strongly by September. No matter who the two are, as I said above, he'd have to shuffle some guys and their positions to get the best five on the field. If White emerges, Baca can plug in at guard. If Yandall emerges, Baca could possibly be moved to right tackle. In a very good -- and reasonable scenario -- both White and Yandall emerge, and Klemm has his starting line-up of Su'a-Filo, Baca, Capella, Yandall and White. What would be so promising about that line-up, too, is that it consists of only one senior (Baca), which would bode well for the future.
Probably next likely to prove out to be potential starters are Downey and Ceachir. Downey, as we said, lacks the athleticism, but he has a vast amount of experience, will put in the work and has been respectable in Mazzone's offense so far this spring. You could see Klemm opting for Downey if he doesn't think either White or Yandall are worthy of being a starter. Ceachir, again, has a chance, and that would be huge for Klemm, as would Brendel.
Goines has an outside chance but, again, we're skeptical since he'll be a true freshman.
Then there is:
Cid will probably be the guy Klemm opts to out of necessity and Ward will have to really turn it around.
As we said, we doubt that any of the other true freshmen coming in this fall will have much of a chance in the 2012 season. We think Colby Cyburt has a chance to be a starter at tackle down the line at UCLA, but has a substantial way to go physically. We think that Carl Hulick has a chance to be a starter at center in a few years. Lacy Westbrook, perhaps, has the longest distance to go to contend for a starting spot, and is at least a few years away.
Among the players on the roster, we feel that Kody Innes and Casey Griffiths have very little chance of even making the two-deep for the 2012 season. Redshirt freshman guard Ben Wysocki has shown some flashes, but hasn't shown enough talent to really put himself in the mix just yet. Redshirt freshman tackle Will Oliver has been injured all of spring practice so it's near-impossible to project him. It would be a win if he could adequately prove to be worthy of the second-string right tackle. We actually think redshirt freshman walk-on right tackle Mike Padovese has a chance to play a role in the program, perhaps having a shot to make the two-deep in his career at UCLA. The redshirt sophomore walk-on, Tre Hale, who converted from defensive tackle to center this spring, has really struggled with snapping the ball, but has looked fairly decent blocking; he, too, could have a chance to content for the two-deep at an interior position in the future.
Up Next: Analysis of 2013 Offensive Line Recruiting