UCLA had some major concerns on the offensive line heading into spring. Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA’s best offensive lineman over the last two years, opted to leave school early for the NFL. Torian White, arguably UCLA’s best offensive tackle, was kicked off the team and out of school as disciplinary action in relation to a complaint filed by another student. Simon Goines, one of the mainstays of the offensive line the past two years, was out for April with a knee injury that may still limit him throughout the early part of the season.
Those three started every game in 2012 in which they were healthy, and then started every game in 2013 until injuries started to hit. It’d be easy to expect the offensive line to take a step back, in light of their losses.
And yet, thanks to the depth Adrian Klemm and Jim Mora have developed on the offensive line through their three recruiting cycles at UCLA, the situation is not so dire. The Bruins brought in Malcolm Bunche this spring, the graduate transfer from Miami, and he projects as a likely starter in his first year. Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond, who started all of last year, will once again take starting roles this year, with Benenoch redefining his body and looking like a true left tackle. Jake Brendel, the mainstay of the line, returns at center. Even right tackle, which is still a question mark, has three or four talented possibilities.
There may be some hiccups at the beginning of the year, given that Su’a-Filo is no longer in the lineup and his absence even necessitate some scheme changes with the running game, but we’d be a little surprised if the offensive line at the end of the year isn’t the best that Jim Mora has had in his time in Westwood.
***Simon Goines — Goines himself told us that he is fully healthy, and Jim Mora reiterated it at Media Day, but we’ve heard there’s still some thought that it wouldn’t be a horrible idea for him to sit out the year and give his knees a season to recuperate. He’s had pretty serious knee problems through two years now, and there’s some belief that giving him a year off would be the best for him, particularly if he wants to pursue a potential professional career. It’ll be interesting to see him this August to get a gauge on where he truly is in his recovery, and where he sits on the depth chart.
***Alex Redmond — After sitting out most of the spring with a hand injury, Redmond should be fully healthy for the start of the year.
***Conor McDermott — The offensive tackle sat out the latter part of last year with a shoulder injury and was out for the spring as well. We’ve heard he should be healthy for fall camp, and that he looks like an ideal right tackle physically, at over 290 pounds now.
We got a good look at Bunche and Najee Toran this spring, and both were impressive in different ways. Bunche obviously came in without the conditioning level necessary to deal with UCLA’s rigorous practices, but when he wasn’t exhausted, moved pretty well for a huge lineman (at well over 315 pounds). He showed some versatility, but we’d say his best position was guard, and that’s where we’d anticipate him playing this fall. It’ll be interesting to see him now that he’s had four months to get in better condition.
Toran, despite being just a freshman, showed that he’s already neck-and-neck with Redmond for meanest offensive lineman on the team. He was violent all spring, and seemed to take particular pleasure in grabbing linebackers and pushing them 10 yards off the line of scrimmage before burying them in the ground. He was only about 280 pounds this spring, but if he’s gained 10 pounds or so this offseason, we could see him as a real option at guard, or backup center.
We haven’t seen Miller play yet, but looking at his body a few times this offseason, he’s probably a year away from impacting the depth chart. We would imagine he’ll redshirt, but he’s one we’ll be interested to see in San Bernardino.
Like we said up top, there were some concerns about the starting group heading into spring, but many of those concerns were assuaged by the play of the unit in spring. Much of the credit has to go to Benenoch, who really seemed to grow into the role of left tackle even over the four short weeks of spring practice. He trimmed up his body considerably in the offseason, looking much lighter on his feet throughout spring, and better able to move in front of pass rush specialists like Deon Hollins. Where before he looked like a guard playing tackle, he now has an almost prototype left tackle body. He was the best offensive lineman in the spring, and we’d imagine, given the obvious work ethic he showed from December to April, that his improvement between April and August will be impressive to behold.
We’ll slot Bunche in at left guard, though he played right tackle for the last two weeks or so of spring. He looked more natural at guard, and with the way the depth has swung with McDermott and potentially Goines now healthy, there’s more of a need at guard. If he’s put in the work on his conditioning, we think he’ll be more than serviceable, and potentially very good, as a starting left guard.
At center, we can’t imagine a scenario where Jake Brendel doesn’t start. He’s been steady for most of the last two years, and, though he had some snapping problems at times last year, looked like he corrected the issue by the end of the season. Having a veteran at center should help in having the unit gel as a whole.
Despite not playing much in spring, Alex Redmond will likely get the initial nod at right guard. He has clearly improved his body this offseason from what we’ve seen of him (aside from the mullet). The big thing will be for him to continue improving his mobility so he can act as more of a pulling guard. As a straight-ahead mauler, he is mean and tenacious.
Right tackle is the one question mark, but there are talented options. Goines, as we said up top, has said he is healthy, and if he proves to be fully ready to go, we could see him snagging the job. McDermott, who has been a favorite of ours going back to last time in San Bernardino, is fully healthy and was arguably one of UCLA’s two best tackles in San Bernardino last year. Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala both had their moments in spring, and Lacy, like Benenoch, underwent a significant physical transformation that has him looking more like a tackle than he did last year. Moala, who has all the athleticism you would want, needed to get stronger this offseason, and if he did, he could easily factor into the competition as well.
It’s a situation where, given the quality of the four competitors, whoever locks down the spot should be a talented addition to what should be an offensive line with significant upside. Since we never like to cop out, we’ll continue with our prediction that McDermott ultimately wins the job.
It’d be fair to say that the offensive line hasn’t been deeper in the Mora era. Whichever three offensive linemen don’t end up winning the right tackle job immediately go into the depth chart. Lacy could easily play guard as well as tackle, so he could be the primary backup at both if he doesn’t end up winning the starting right tackle job.
Then you have Scott Quessenberry, who started much of last year at left guard. While there’s a scenario where he could start again this year (if Bunche is demonstrably better as a tackle in San Bernardino and Quessenberry beats out Lacy for the left guard spot), we’d have to imagine he’ll enter the year as a backup guard/center, with the potential of redshirting to build space between he and Brendel. And given his starting experience, that’s a talented backup to have.
Toran, as we mentioned above, has a mean streak that could carry him a long way. He doesn’t have the ideal size for a guard, but his tenacity makes up for a great deal. Even if he hasn’t gained a pound in the offseason, he could be a decent option off the bench.
Between Ben Wysocki and Carl Hulick, UCLA has two guys who played a bit last year and both of whom have improved in their time in Westwood. Both have versatility, with Wysocki playing credibly at right tackle against USC last year, and Hulick fitting in as a backup center and guard throughout the year. It would likely take a few injuries to get either into prominent roles again, but both could likely play in a pinch.
From what we saw of Colby Cyburt this spring, he’s still probably a ways off from contributing as he works to get fully healthy after a series of injuries. We’ve heard great things about his attitude and competitive nature. John Lopez is still putting in work on his body, and unless he’s made a significant improvement this offseason, he’s probably still a year or more away.
Fall Camp Preview: O-Line
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