We'll continue our unit previews today with the offensive line...
**OG Tevita Halalilo suffered a setback in his recovery from a leg injury and will most likely miss the entire season.
**OL Jake Raulerson, who was expected to compete for the starting center job, was not admitted to a graduate school program at UCLA.
Better known as "Paco", Perez is probably the most likely of the three incoming freshman offensive linemen to play this year. He has a somewhat ready-for-college body, at over 300 pounds but not too sloppy. He plays with a mean streak, and he would probably already be an adequate college run blocker. Pass blocking is something every offensive lineman effectively learns how to do in college, but Perez played some tackle in high school, which should help him there. In a normal year, we probably wouldn't be having a conversation about him playing this year, but with depth on the offensive line being what it is, he might be pressed into duty.
Akingbulu is one of those high-upside offensive linemen who could turn into an excellent tackle down the road. He's a good athlete with length, and he has enough toughness to project him as having the right mentality to be a very good offensive lineman. The issue for him is simply weight and strength. He's listed in the 250s on UCLA's roster, which sounds about right based on the last time we saw him, and there's a question about how much he's going to be able to put on, as he doesn't have the broadest frame in the world. If he can somehow get into the 290 range, he'll have a real chance to be a player, but that's at least a year away, and maybe more.
OG Mike Alves
Alves, like Perez, has some ability as a run blocker based on what we saw of him in high school, and he's a tough dude. His pass blocking, though, is at an even more basic stage than Perez, and he'll need some tutelage in that department before he'll be ready to compete in games. Even with the lack of depth on the offensive line, we'd probably still project Alves as redshirting. Certainly, though, stranger things have happened than a player like him earning some time in year one.
Let's start with the good news! UCLA might have the best tandem of offensive tackles in the Pac-12 in Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller, and if Miller improves throughout the year, you could see UCLA having an argument for having the best pair of tackles in the country by the end of the year. Not many teams can boast a pair of players who are both 6'8+, 300+ pounds and can move the way both of them do.
Getting McDermott back this year was absolutely critical. We've been singing his praises for four years now, and last year he really started to realize some of that immense potential. With another year of improvement and seasoning under his belt, we're anticipating a huge senior year from the big man. He almost surely would have been drafted in this spring's NFL Draft, so getting him back for this year is an absolute luxury.
Miller, for his part, earned some significant playing time last year and didn't look too out of place. Obviously, he had his freshman moments, but he also had times where he looked like McDermott's clone, showing some of that same lateral quickness and anticipation. This spring, he looked better still, and he has earned rave reviews from within the program. He shows great bend, agility, and strength, and we're anticipating him making a bit of a leap this year.
So, there's the good news -- UCLA has two very good offensive tackles, and at least on the edge, the Bruins have a situation that most teams would envy.
What's less envious is the situation in the middle of the offensive line. Yes, UCLA returns Scott Quessenberry at center, but you'd have to say that Quessenberry is still a relative unknown. We feel pretty good about him, but it's still uncertain how quickly he's going to shake off the rust and, really, how well he's going to play at center. We've heard a lot from within the program over the years that Quessenberry had the talent to beat out Jake Brendel at center, but frankly, we never really saw it on the field. That doesn't mean it's not there, obviously, but we're still in somewhat of a wait-and-see mode with Quessenberry.
That said, the uncertainty at both guard spots make's Quessenberry look like a rock-solid four-year starter.
At this point, we'd anticipate that Kenny Lacy, despite existing in some sort of doghouse this spring, will earn one of the starting guard spots. At different times over the last two years, we thought Lacy looked like one of the best guards on the team, but he's prone to inconsistency, which might be more of a mental thing than anything. At any rate, he was mostly with the second-string this spring, which we think was probably an effort to motivate him. There's also a question whether Lacy, who we thought was a good fit for the spread scheme under Noel Mazzone, will fit the same way in the more smashmouth system that Kennedy Polamalu has installed. He's not a big, powerful guard, which would be ideal.
The other guard spot, based on spring, is likely going to go to Najee Toran. The junior moved back to the offensive line in the spring full-time and was pretty much ensconced with the first string at guard after about the second week. He's a tenacious run-blocker, but he is still a little undersized. He improved as a pass blocker as the spring went on, but you probably wouldn't describe that as a strength yet.
Looking at it, if all goes well, the starting group could be pretty good. The tackles are very good, and Quessenberry, as we've said, has drawn great reviews within the program for years. We've liked Lacy in the past, and Toran is a good enough run blocker that he could be a nice fit for this new offense, even with him being a bit undersized. So, assuming full health, it's not unreasonable to think UCLA could have a pretty darn good offensive line.
That's if everyone stays healthy. If anyone gets hurt, the cards could come tumbling. UCLA has very poor depth, thanks to all of the injuries, transfer, and attrition over the last few years. The Bruins are no more than eight deep, and that's maybe even stretching it a little bit.
The first tackle off the bench is a shrugging meme of some sort followed by Andre James, and as we've written a few times, he's probably a guard, not a tackle, in an ideal world. He had moments this spring where he looked pretty good at tackle, and then he had moments where he struggled and just didn't quite look comfortable. We like his chances at right tackle better than left, and he's probably injuries to both Miller and McDermott away from having to play on the left side. As we've also written a couple of times, James would probably have one more year of seasoning before he gets asked to play a bunch, but that probably isn't in the cards.
In the depth chart at guard, UCLA has some more options. Poasi Moala was with the first string at guard this spring, and while the light still hasn't completely turned on for him, this is his fourth year in the program, so you could speculate that he'd be OK if he was asked to play a series here or there. Josh Wariboko didn't have a great spring, and is probably still some time away from making an impact on the field, which is why we're thinking Perez could have a chance of cracking the two-deep this year.
Losing Halalilo is a real problem. He might have started this year, which would have pushed Toran or Lacy into the depth, which would be good for everyone. Instead, UCLA is extremely thin behind both the starting guards and tackles. And, for what it's worth, your guess is as good as ours who the backup center is -- perhaps Toran?
Behind James in the tackle depth is Zach Bateman, but we haven't seen any reason since he's been at UCLA to expect much from him here. Perhaps the light could turn on, but it hasn't shown much sign of that to this point. He needs to learn to play with more toughness, and with a better mentality, and it just hasn't clicked.
So, the equation is pretty clear. If everyone stays healthy, UCLA has a reasonable chance to have a good offensive line. If anyone gets hurt, the chances go down considerably, and if more than two guys get hurt, or if both McDermott and Miller go down, the offensive line drops off precipitously. There's a thin margin of error this year, and UCLA will have to hope for very good health.