The key to UCLA's offense – and actually the team's success – is the offensive line.
While the individual players were all fairly well-hyped prospects out of high school and have been hyped somewhat at UCLA, UCLA drastically needs its offensive line to step up and perform well. Two years ago, the OL was beset by injury. Last year, they were injury free, but had a fairly mediocre year on the field. UCLA was dead last in yards gained on the ground in the Pac-10 and allowed 18 sacks, most in the conference. This line, to put it plainly, is made up of some guys who have gotten their share of hype but, as a unit, has still yet to prove that it can be a strong aspect of the team.
And whether or not the offensive line proves to be this is probably the biggest determining factor in UCLA's season – other than health. If UCLA's offense can provide enough room for its running backs to run, the UCLA offense stays on the field longer. Last year, while UCLA was generally a high-scoring offense, it relied very heavily on the big play to score points. They had very few long, sustained, clock-eating drives. Those are the type of drives that truly win football games. It very simply keeps the ball out of the hands of the other team's offense, and keeps your defense off the field. It's awfully hard for the weaknesses in your defense to be exposed too much if they're standing on the sideline.
From practice, it's truly been difficult to assess just how good this offensive line is. It seems to be able to create good holes for the running game, but also doesn't look like it's good at pass protection. But then again, when the OL doesn't look good in passing situations it's going up against UCLA's first-string DL, which is a physically dominating unit.
With the two biggest factors of UCLA's success being the performance of its offensive line and its health, the health of its offensive line is tantamount. Without much depth, much will depend on whether the offensive line stays healthy.
Surprisingly, Head Coach Bob Toledo indicated that the true freshman OL who would be the most likely to see time first is Mike McCloskey. If you remember, McCloskey was thought of as somewhat of an after-thought in this recruiting class, the other four OL prospects ranked higher and coming to UCLA with bigger reputations. But if UCLA has to use McCloskey that means they've lost a few guys in the OL two-deep, which would be almost the word thing that could happen to UCLA this season.
Cory Paus has started to look quite a bit sharper in the last several days in practice. His throws have been crisp all camp, but he's fine-tuning his accuracy.
Also, Ryan McCann has also started to look quite a bit better, which is good news, since, with the history of Paus' health, that there is a solid back-up at quarterback. In the last week, McCann has looked stronger than Scott McEwan. And say what you want about McCann, but even though he hasn't always performed well when playing, he's led the team to victories quite often.
DeShaun Foster looks like a legit Heisman Trophy candidate in practice. He not only looks bigger, but quicker and more decisive. If there are hole to run through, Foster is going to have a big year.
Manuel White is going to be a special weapon for UCLA this year. He is a punishing runner. Late in a game, with the defense tired, if they have to face a fresh White it could be painful. There is nothing that the UCLA coaches are drooling about more than getting White in the flat one-on-one with a defensive back or linebacker. Akil Harris has looked solid in practice , but hasn't really stepped up his game from last season.
As of right now, it's intended that the freshmen running backs will redshirt. Perhaps one, maybe Tyler Ebell, will see time on special teams.
Brian Poli-Dixon has stepped it up in practice the last several days and looks very good. Tab Perry has also caught the ball more consistently. Ryan Smith and Craig Bragg continue to look like they'll be big contributors. Cody Joyce is looking solid and will be the fifth receiver, and Devon Reese will also probably see some time. The WRs are solid, but the unit is not really deep, given the hits its taken recently.
With the return of Mike Seidman this week, looking like he had never been injured, the TE situation looks very good. Bryan Fletcher has had a great camp, and looks like he's all-Pac-10 caliber. Seidman has looked great since returning. With those two healthy, they're a great combo at tight end.
The best unit in fall camp has been the defensive line. With Kenyon Coleman, Ken Kocher, Rod Leisle and Dave Ball, you have four very big, physical, imposing linemen who can physically overpower offensive lines. They aren't necessarily speedy, but very strong, so will try to go straight up the field rather than laterally around their blockers. In practice, it's been very effective, with the first string DL able to consistently make a very nice push, especially when pass rushing.
The depth here is also a strength. To give you an indication: Coach Toledo said that Sean Phillips would be starting at another school – and he's third string.
Next to the offensive line, the hardest unit to get a good grasp of, since a few guys sat out a great deal of fall practice, some were nicked up and some players were shuffled to different positions. Robert Thomas had a great year last year and is healthy now. He looks quicker, having lost some weight. So, he has to be a given. Ryan Nece at the weakside is a question. It's hard to judge his performance since he's been at UCLA since you don't really know how hindered he was by injury. Audie Attar, though, the back-up at weakside has showed in practice that he'll be a solid back-up. Marcus Reese, who will back up Thomas at MLB and Nece at the weakside, has also been a mystery due to his little injuries this fall.
And then you have the strongside backer position, which is probably the biggest mystery on the team at this point. Mat Ball has been moved to the position and given a crash course in it the last week. He will more than likely match up solidly against the opposing tight end and help considerably against a running team. When UCLA faces offenses with many wide receiver, more than likely he'll be on the sideline. But, it's a big question mark how Ball will do here, having never started before, and starting now at a new position, one that probably isn't his natural position. The back ups at the positon have been questions, too. Brandon Chillar has been slowed by injury, so it's impossible to know if he'll be ready to make a big contribution. Tim Warfield, the coaches say, has shown he can play in the last week, but he's still an unknown quantity.
More questions. Ricky Manning has looked much better in the last week, rounding into last season's form. But after that, there are questions. Jason Stephens has also played well at strong safety during practice but it's a question whether he can play consistently well in a game. Marques Anderson, who you would have thought was one of the most known quantities on the team, is now a question, given the fact that he hasn't gotten many reps in fall due to his concussion. Most eyes will be on true freshman Matt Ware, who has shown some good flashes in practice, but also has shown some vulnerability. Back-up corner Joe Hunter has looked good, and looks to be recovered from last week's should injury. Back ups, such as Ben Emanuel and Keith Short, are definite questions. Without showing really anything substantial in fall practice, will it come out in a game?