Much like the receiving corps, UCLA's offensive line is going to undergo a major change this season. Gone is Jake Brendel, who had been UCLA's starting center for all four years of Jim Mora's tenure at UCLA. Likewise gone are Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond, each of whom started for the vast majority of the last three years and then elected to forgo their final years of eligibility. Replacing all three is, naturally, going to be a challenge.]
UCLA did get some good news in the offseason, though, with starting left tackle Conor McDermott electing to stay at UCLA for another season. Prior to last year, if you had asked us which underclassman was most likely to leave after the season for the NFL, we would have said McDermott, since his combination of length, athleticism, and frame would make him, in theory, a particularly coveted tackle prospect at the next level. He elected to remain in school, though, and that dramatically boosts the potential for this year's offensive line.
Statistically speaking, UCLA's offensive line had a very good season last year, with the rushing offense averaging five yards per carry on the season (which includes sacks). In terms of the passing game, the offensive line also allowed just 14 sacks, which was a dramatic improvement from the previous three years. Some of that was due to Josh Rosen's feel for the game, but a significant amount was due to the quality of UCLA's pass protection, particularly at right and left tackle.
One of the biggest complaints with the offense last year was the inconsistency in short yardage situations, when it was often difficult for UCLA to convert on 3rd and short and 4th and short. In part to fix those issues on short yardage, UCLA is going to more of a pro-style offense this spring, with more blockers in on any given play. That should help the offensive line this season, but it's going to be interesting to see how the transition goes this spring.
A Look at Spring
McDermott returning was the most important positive development for UCLA's offensive line this offseason, and you could make the argument that it was one of the most important developments for the entire team. Returning a left tackle of McDermott's quality, who did a great job last year protecting Rosen's blind side, can't be understated. With another year of development, and a full year of starting now under his belt, McDermott could make even more strides and have a truly dominant year on the left side. Seeing him this spring should be telling.
The other returning starter from last season is Kenny Lacy. Lacy started for a good chunk of the year at guard, but also came off the bench at times. Still, he gives UCLA a good deal of experience, and he's a good athlete, with the ability to get downfield as a lead blocker. It's probably a fair bet that he'll start this season as one of the guards.
Now, if UCLA was just returning those two, that would probably mean that 2016 would be a transition year for the offensive line. Thankfully, UCLA also returns Scott Quessenberry, who sat out all of last season recovering from two labrum tears. The great thing about the year off for Quessenberry is that it has allowed him to get bigger and stronger, something that he really didn't have a chance to do when circumstances forced him to play considerably his first two years in the program. We've heard great reviews of how he looked toward the end of the year last year as he got healthier, and if that's carried through this offseason, we expect him to look really good this spring. As far as we know, he's going to work at center this spring, and then he'll compete with Texas transfer Jake Raulerson in the fall, after Raulerson comes in this June.
Kolton Miller also played significantly last year as a redshirt freshman at tackle, and acquitted himself nicely. He is another tall, long tackle with great feet and good lateral mobility, and he showed last year that he's already developing into a quality tackle. This spring will be key for him as he continues to develop into a full-time starter. We fully expect him to walk out of spring practice with the starting right tackle job more or less in his grasp.
Miller could be pushed by Andre James this spring, who we've heard had a very nice redshirt year, and there's a chance that the light comes on for Zach Bateman, who didn't get the benefit of working with Adrian Klemm last spring. We'd anticipate Miller winning the competition, though, on the strength of his performance last year and the considerable upside he has still yet to fulfill, but it would be very nice to see James and Bateman have good springs to build some confidence in the depth.
The other guard spot opposite Lacy is probably the most uncertain position on the offensive line this spring, and, again, it might be something that gets worked out in the summer when Raulerson arrives. This spring, though, someone could absolutely emerge and seize the job. One candidate might be Poasi Moala, who missed a huge chunk of last year with injury. His development has gone a little bit slower than scouts projected out of high school, but we've heard that the light was starting to come on for him a bit when he got hurt last season. If he can pick up where he left off, and if he's continued to get bigger and stronger, he could definitely be in the mix to start at guard. Josh Wariboko could be in the mix at that spot as well, and it's hard to discount Najee Toran, who looked pretty good in the bowl game despite not practicing with the offensive line basically at all last season. Toran has switched back to offense full-time, last we heard. Tevita Halalilo will also factor into the competition once he returns from his broken leg, but he'll sit out the spring from what we've heard. He's actually recovering nicely, but the thinking is that it'll be best to wait until San Bernardino to get him back on the field for precautionary purposes.
And, lest we forget him, we should give a shout out here to Cristian Garcia, who stepped into a starting role in the bowl game last year and looked shockingly good for a walk-on, to the point where random recruits who watched the game had to tell us about how good Garcia looked. We've heard he'll probably be one of the backups at center as well as guard this spring, and having a walk-on who's able to play in a pinch is always a bonus.
In any case, UCLA's offensive line is in much better shape than we thought it would be midway through December last year, when it was thought that the Bruins would lose four starters and not have a whole lot to replace them. With McDermott returning and Klemm snagging Raulerson as a transfer, the Bruins should have plenty of starting talent. The big key this spring will be to watch what depth emerges among players like James, Bateman, Moala, Wariboko, and Toran. If at least three of those guys look like legitimate players, the Bruins could be in very good shape for next year.
Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart
Left Tackle: Conor McDermott, Andre James
Left Guard: Kenny Lacy, Najee Toran
Center: Scott Quessenberry, Cristian Garcia
Right Guard: Poasi Moala, Josh Wariboko
Right Tackle: Kolton Miller, Zach Bateman
Injured: Tevita Halalilonull