Spring has Hope for the O-Line

With today being the opening day of spring football practice for UCLA, there is plenty of optimism. But it's completely valid to have concerns about UCLA's offensive line, given last season's performance. Robert Kuwada talked to offensive line coach Bob Palcic all about it...

Robert Kuwada is a veteran Los Angeles area sports writer, having written prominently for the Long Beach Press Telegram and Orange County Register over the course of two decades. He was the UCLA beat writer for the Register for five seasons.
Heading into spring practice, there has to be some doubt about the offensive line.

And, really, there should be given a 2008 season in which UCLA struggled to protect the quarterback or mount much of a running game, giving up 35 sacks while generating only 2.6 yards per rushing play.

Then and now, the questions are sharply pointed -- questions about the talent level of the Bruins' offensive line personnel, about their strength and size, their tenacity. Ouch.

But months have passed between fall and spring, more will pass between spring and fall, and it's not only the seasons that irrefutably change. "I think we will make significant gains. I'm confident that we will," veteran offensive line coach Bob Palcic said this week, as the Bruins were preparing to open spring football practice at Spaulding Field.

"It's all of the above – it's off-season work ethic, it's consistency in the coaching staff, not just consistency from the coaching standpoint, but consistency from the player's standpoint. Those things right there will be worth two or three more wins to us, I believe.''

Similar sentiments are heard from overly optimistic coaches and players from every team in every sport every year, and just so those words from Palcic don't blow away with the first bit of a light spring breeze, we start with a quick quiz that will lend them some weight.

Go back over the past 30-plus years at UCLA and take a guess which offensive line produced the best average on rushing yards per play. Here are some hints -- a few hints since you're probably way off: it's not a 1995 line that included Outland Trophy-winning tackle Jonathan Ogden and a long-time pro in center Mike Flanagan, which opened gaping holes in defenses as Karim Abdul-Jabbar set a Bruins' single season record with 1,571 rushing yards; it's not a 1993 group that included Vaughn Parker and Craig Novitsky, second- and fifth-round NFL draft picks; it's not the 1978 line that featured a pair of bookend tackles in NFL standouts Max Montoya and Bruce Davis; not a 1998 line that was anchored by Outland winner Kris Farris.

It is 2004 and a line that was pieced together from remnants of a '03 season in which UCLA struggled to protect the quarterback and rush the football just as much as it did a year ago, giving up a hard-to-fathom 51 sacks and averaging, like last season, 2.6 yards per play.

That group was not particularly big and not very strong. Not one player had gained even honorable mention on an all-conference team headed into that season, and not one player was selected in the NFL Draft in any year after it.

Yet when the season rolled around, they played exceptionally well together – center Mike McCloskey, guards Steven Vieira and Shannon Tevaga, tackles Paul Mociler and Ed Blanton and backups Robert Cleary and Robert Chai.

The Bruins in 2004 rushed for 2,219 yards and 4.8 yards per play, which is the highest average since 1976 when UCLA produced 5.4 rushing yards per play. The number of sacks allowed was cut by more than half from the year before, down to 23 from that crazy 51.

They were confronted with the same type of questions heading into the spring that the Bruins are now – about their talent level, their size and strength. They just crushed them.

That could temper to some tiny degree use of that old joke as the Bruins open spring practice with a slew of questions about their offensive line – the good news is the Bruins have six linemen who started at least five games coming back next season, and the bad news is the Bruins have six linemen who started at least five games coming back next season.

Palcic this spring has his sights set on a similar turnaround, setting out to find the Bruins' five best linemen and then developing some continuity, much like former offensive coordinator/line coach Tom Cable did in his first season at UCLA.

In 2004 McCloskey was a fixture at center, but Cable moved Mociler to tackle from guard, Vieira to guard from tackle, and Blanton was given the responsibility of playing on the open end of the line where he would use his long arms to redirect pass-rushing ends.

The Bruins did not have a chance to make that type of adjustment a year ago in what was an end-to-end scramble, with starting tackle Aleksey Lanis retiring during the spring, tackle Sean Sheller undergoing season-ending surgery before fall camp after a non-football related injury, and a string of injuries during the season. They were forced to make personnel changes nearly every week because of injuries or ineffective play. Micah Kia started games at left tackle, left guard and right tackle; Micah Reed started games at center and left guard; true freshman Jeff Baca was installed as the left tackle, even though he was better suited to play inside at a guard spot; Nick Ekbatani played both tackle and guard on the right side.

The longest stretch the Bruins went starting the same group across the offense line was three games, against Fresno State, Washington State and Oregon.

It was a constant game of mix and match with the available healthy bodies, but Palcic and the Bruins now have their offensive linemen in spots they best fit and a much better platform from which to spur improvement.

Baca is No. 1 on the depth chart at left guard. Nate Chandler is now a full-time right tackle, after splitting time last year at tight end. Kai Maiava, the transfer from Colorado, starts the spring as the No. 1 center. Sheller is back healthy and at left tackle.

They will get a chance to hone their skills this spring, both tactically in targeting the proper blocks and technically in getting those blocks executed. From that standpoint, the spring will be invaluable for the development of the Bruins' offensive line.

"I'm going to give Kai Maiava a real good look at center, and that's not to say that I have anything against Jake Dean. I know what Jake Dean can do. But Kai Maiava, he is a transfer, he was ineligible last year, I have to find out exactly where Kai Maiava fits into this puzzle, so I will be giving him a lot of reps this spring to find out exactly where he fits," Palcic said.

Palcic continued: "Nate Chandler is another guy. We moved him from tight end last year and he's had very little work at the tackle spot. But he knows where his future is and we'll get him settled in and he'll end up being a good tackle. He's certainly athletic and he's working on getting bigger and stronger.

"I have to take a good look at (junior college transfer) Ryan Taylor at the other guard spot. Even though Nick Ekbatani started 11 games for us last year, I mean, I know what Nick Ekbatani can do. I have to find out what Ryan Taylor can do."

Guard Darius Savage and tackle Mike Harris, who started seven and five games last season, will both be back in fall after missing the spring with foot injuries. Both are expected to be strong contenders for those same starting spots.

With many more contenders, in fact, Palcic might do more mix and matching. "I have to find the five best players regardless of position and make sure I get those five players on the field," he said. "If I have three good tackles and only one good guard, one of those tackles is going to guard. We want the five best players regardless of the position they may think they want to play or where they have experience playing before, I'm putting the five best on the field."

The competition for starting spots and playing time will get a kick-start in the fall, as well, when freshmen Stan Hasiak, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Nik Abele and Greg Capella and junior college transfer Eddie Williams are in camp.

Hasiak and Su'a-Filo, ranked among the top 10 prep linemen in the country when they signed National Letters of Intent, are expected to make big pushes for playing time.

"They will have that opportunity to play. I have started true freshmen before, as I did last year with Jeff Baca. If they're in the top five players, I will start a freshman again. Make no mistake about that. I'm impressed with these kids UCLA recruited last year and if they learn to play, they'll be in the lineup,'' Palcic said, with a threat and a promise at the same time.

Palcic, in fact, has many reasons for optimism. "Our kids have really worked hard. I see a significant difference in their strength and their explosiveness and what's also great for these players is that this will be the first time in their careers they have had the same coach and the same system two seasons in a row," he said.

"What I want to find out now, No. 1, is who are our top five players. Then, OK, have we developed enough depth at those five positions? It's going to be fun, it really will be. I'm excited about it. I'm pumped for the challenge. Bring it on and let's go."

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