It's no stretch to say that UCLA's offensive line was the worst unit on the team last year. Heading into the year, we were very much expecting the offensive line to be average at best, but the reality was far worse than that. The Bruins were awful at run blocking, churning out UCLA's worst rushing attack since the Rick Neuheisel years, and were not good at pass protection either.
The interior of the line was porous all year. Scott Quessenberry, apologies to the All Pac-12 teams, struggled to supply what Jake Brendel provided the previous four years in terms of stability at center. At the two guard spots, a revolving cast of characters failed to produce any sort of consistency in run blocking or pass protection. The tackles were better, but even there, UCLA underperformed relative to the previous couple of years.
Some of that was due to the scheme change, of course. UCLA's offensive linemen had been recruited to play in a spread offense, and suddenly they were thrust into much more of a pro-style scheme. What's more, we've heard that Adrian Klemm was perhaps ill-suited to coaching a pro-style unit. Even though he played in the NFL, his actual coaching experience had come almost exclusively in spread environments.
The combination of factors was deadly for the offensive line, and it's now looking to bounce back with a new coach.
A Look at Spring
New offensive line coach Hank Fraley is on board now and he'll look to marry the offensive line a bit better to the scheme Jedd Fisch runs than was the case last year with Kennedy Polamalu's offense. We still don't know exactly what Fisch's offense is going to look like, but we'll assume it will require similar things from the offensive line that last year's offense required.
There is plenty of returning experience when you look at the roster; the question is whether it's really talented experience. First, for really good news, we've heard that Kolton Miller is fully recovered from injury and will be moving over to left tackle to take over for Conor McDermott. Miller had really good moments last year, and could build on that with an effective spring. With four months and change until the start of the season, Miller has plenty of times to make further strides and become a really effective starter on the left side. As far as this offensive line is concerned, he's about as close as you'll get to a sure thing.
We've heard good things about Quessenberry's offseason, but we approach offseason reports with a general sense of caution these days. The hope is that the influence of Fraley, who was an under-talented center in the NFL, will have a pronounced effect on Quessenberry, who is known for his acumen for the game. We've heard the two have already hit it off, so hopefully that turns into a productive relationship. We'd be surprised if anyone mounted a serious challenge for his job this spring, and would bet that he'll start his final year in the program.
The rest of the spots are significantly more uncertain. At this juncture, we've heard that Kenny Lacy will be tried out at tackle, with the hope that his length and athleticism will make him productive on the edge. So, given his experience, we'd pencil him in as the first-string right tackle in spring. Somewhat married to the Lacy move, we've heard that Andre James will move inside to guard, which is a move we've been advocating for some time. James has more of a guard-looking body, and didn't quite look comfortable at tackle. Given his talent, and the deficit of talent at the guard spots, we'd probably pencil him in as one of the starting guards (but in maybe even lighter pencil than we used for Lacy).
The final guard spot isn't even worth penciling in, because it seems completely up in the air. From what we've heard, Najee Toran has put on some good weight and is right around 300 pounds now, which...well, that would be impressive if it turns out that he is actually that weight. Toran's issue, though, wasn't necessarily a bulk issue, it was more that he really struggled in pass protection. We'll see if Fraley is able to bring him up to speed in terms of pass protection quickly. Josh Wariboko-Alali could also factor into the competition; while he struggled quite a bit last year when we watched him in the spring and fall, there's still some feeling within the program that he has quite a bit of untapped potential. In many cases, there's a feeling that guys might respond more to Fraley than they did to Klemm, since Fraley is thought to be more of a pat-you-on-the-back rather than kick-you-in-the-butt kind of coach. Poasi Moala, from what we understand, is still not 100% after sitting out parts of last season with injury, but he could factor in as well. Zach Bateman is also probably making the move to guard this spring, and the hope is that maybe a coaching change and being in his final year will light a bit of a fire under him.
The two redshirting freshman guards, Mike Alves and Paco Perez, could also compete for first string jobs, but we haven't yet heard rumblings to that effect. Perez sat out all last year after undergoing offseason surgery, while Alves just redshirted. It'll be very interesting to see what both look like this spring to see if we can reasonably project them to compete to start this season. The redshirt offensive tackle, Alex Akingbulu, is still in the process of getting bigger and stronger but we liked what we saw of him last offseason and are excited to see what he looks like this spring. He's penciled in as the first tackle off the bench.
Jake Burton, from what we understand, will be moving to the offensive line this spring and will initially get a look at tackle. He's probably 280 pounds now, but he has room to grow, still looking pretty skinny.
In any case, it's going to take a lot of work to get this offensive line to the point where it can drastically improve on last year, and that work will start in just under two weeks.
Projected Spring Two-Deep
LT: Miller, Akingbulu
LG: James, Moala
C: Quessenberry, Wariboko
RG: Toran, Wariboko
RT: Lacy, Akingbulu