Pre-Camp: Palcic on the O-Line

UCLA's offensive line coach, Bob Palcic, sat down with Bruin Report Online's Robert Kuwada to break down his personnel. He talked about the returning veterans, what he expects from them, and what to possibly expect from the talented newcomers...

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 Register's UCLA beat writer for five seasons.
Spring has come and gone and after a couple of months now, in retrospect, it looks only like a continuation of crazy for the UCLA Bruins' ill-fated offensive line.

Mike Harris and Darius Savage, who started five and seven games last season, did not participate in drills because of injuries; -- a broken right foot for Harris, ankle surgery for Savage. Nate Chandler, who was listed at the top of the depth chart at right tackle, was moved back to tight end midway through the spring. Kai Maiava, in a crucial learning curve at the center position, was felled by a sprained ankle and missed the last five of the allotted 15 practices. Micah Kia missed some time with a chronic bad back. Jeff Baca was to move to guard, but ended up back at tackle and in the spring game even took some reps at center.

Some continuity would have been nice … just a little, even, just for a start, something to work with. That is what line coach Bob Palcic was after, really, groundwork.

With continuity a closeness can develop -- cohesion from the center spot on out, to the left and to the right. Along the way, one would hope, there would be some craw-crushing blocks – the defensive front seven caving in, a running back cruising on by.

What Palcic and the Bruins got instead was more of the same from the 2008 season in which seven offensive linemen made their college debuts, the Bruins were forced to start nine different lineups in their 12 games and not surprisingly struggled to move the football forward.

Palcic called it the perfect storm, and it was just...well, it was nuts.

The spring was not without its benefits, though. "I was encouraged by some of the things that I saw and we still have a long way to go, but we're making strides and headed in the right direction. I really believe that," the Bruins' offensive line coach said.

"And they did a good job, really working hard in the off-season. We'll be much more physical. They seem to be running well. I think that's going to be a big key. At every position, we're going to be much stronger, much more physical, which in turn will give them a lot more confidence."

Optimism comes with that experience - even if many of those offensive line moves a year ago were made more out of necessity than knock-you-on-your-butt play at the line of scrimmage. And it also comes with incoming recruits Eddie Williams, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Stan Hasiak and Greg Capella.

Also, with health and a full compliment of bodies, some of which are rather imposing.

"The first thing I have to do, I have a pretty good handle now on what the kids can do that are already in the program. I have to make sure I have a real good evaluation of our junior college players and our incoming freshmen," Palcic said.

Initially, for fall camp, this is where they will start out (by position, not necessarily depth):

LT – Micah Kia (SR), Sean Sheller (JR), Connor Bradford (R-FR), Xavier Sua-Filo (FR)
LG – Darius Savage (JR), Eddie Williams (JR), Stan Hasiak (FR)
C – Kai Maiava (SO), Ryan Taylor (JR), Jake Dean (JR)
RG – Nick Ekbatani (SR), Brandon Bennett (JR), Eddie Williams (JR), Greg Capella (FR)
RT – Jeff Baca (SO), Sean Sheller (JR), Mike Harris (SO), Brett Downey (R-FR)

"After a week I'm pretty confident I'll have things settled down. Maybe it will take a week and a half. Let's say after the first major scrimmage I'll know what we're going to do. Then I want to keep them there for the continuity,'' Palcic said. ‘'Last year, I mean, I was forced to move things around because of injuries. I had no choice but to move people around.

"What we have to do, it's going to be critical, that we stay healthy at every position, not only the offensive line, but our running backs, our quarterbacks. We just have to stay healthy - that, for sure, was the biggest factor in us not having a successful season last year."

Best case, the best five will play and allow Palcic and the Bruins to develop the continuity up front that could spur the running game that Coach Rick Neuheisel craves and create opportunities for quarterback Kevin Prince to make plays in a passing game that features some tough match-ups outside, from the tight end spot and out of the backfield.

"We'll still have to go through some growing pains this year, but I think each and every year we'll continue to improve," Palcic said.

A breakdown by position:

Center

Maiava, who sat out last season after transferring in from Colorado, was the most physical offensive lineman in the spring and as close to a fixture up front as the Bruins had.

No doubt, he will win hand-to-hand battles. But his inexperience at the position is a concern – he started nine games as a freshman at Colorado, but at left guard, and spent last season on the scout team while sitting out under NCAA transfer rules.

Maiava had made progress with the line calls and adjustments last spring before he went down with the sprained ankle, but consistency and a comfort zone come with experience. And when fall camp starts, he will be working with Ekbatani and then a slew of guards who were not around in the spring, which only makes the equation up front more complicated.

"That's part of what I mean when I say he has to get more comfortable at the position," Palcic said. "It's still a new position for him. He was a good guard. I thought he played well for Colorado when he started there for them. I thought he did a pretty nice job. He just lacks experience (at center). I'm not worried about anything else. I don't question his toughness or his strength, his ability to play with leverage. It's just experience. He just needs to play."

If everything works out with Maiava the way UCLA hopes, since he's only a sophomore they'll have the starting center position nailed down for the next three seasons.

Taylor, the junior college transfer from Texas, came in as a guard but was moved to center during spring practice. That, Palcic said, is a more natural position for him, though he could end up getting reps at center and both guard positions as the Bruins work through camp.

Palcic said: "I like to give myself a lot of flexibility. It's important. I mean, this isn't anything earth-shattering, but I have to get the five best guys on the field and that means some guys have to be able to play multiple positions. I don't want to play the third team center if the second string guard is a better center, you know? I always like to have guys know more than one position. Because of injuries last year, we had a lot of guys get experience playing at a lot of different places. Unfortunately. But that's only going to make us stronger down the road."

Jake Dean, who started seven games a year ago after injuries to Micah Reed, also is in the mix. He was overwhelmed at times, playing at a physical disadvantage against some of the better defensive tackles in the Pac-10, but that to some degree has been addressed.

"We had long talks about that and he knew that he had not performed in the weight room as he should have prior to us coming here. But we addressed that. We talked about it," Palcic said. "We addressed the situation and he made a lot of improvements in that area."

Guard

Ekbatani, a seniior, started all 12 games for the Bruins a year ago – the first six at right tackle and the last six at right guard – and gets first shot at the right guard.

Behind Ekbatani and at the other guard spot are some intriguing prospects.

Williams has not yet been admitted to school, but Palcic said that he is counting on the junior college transfer to be in camp on Aug. 10 for the first practice. Hasiak, the freshman, has bench-pressed 500 pounds and already is one of the Bruins' strongest linemen. Capella, the other freshman, will likely get reps at both guard spots but may need to develop more physically.

All three could contend for a starting spot, all three could struggle adjusting.

"It's the same at every level, whether it's college football or professional football, a rookie going into the National Football League. That's a tremendous jump," Palcic said. "Sometimes it takes a while for them to get used to the speed of the game. The speed of the game is a lot different."

Williams will get work at right and left guard during the first week of camp, while Hasiak is slated on the left and Capella on the right.

Savage will be a bit behind, having missed spring practice, but Neuheisel said that he is healthy and clear to compete at the start of fall camp.

Tackle

Kia has been hindered by back problems and early in his career struggled with his confidence – not a good thing for a left tackle. He gets first crack at the position because of his experience, but Su'a-Filo is expected to make a strong push for the starting spot once camp starts.

Palcic has been tempering expectations for the freshman: "You know, we'll have to see how things go. There's a tremendous jump going from high school football going to a program like UCLA. It's difficult," he said. But Su'a-Filo and the name of UCLA Outland Trophy winner Jonathan Ogden have been used in the same sentence in the Morgan Center.

Sheller will get reps at both tackle spots, working his way back from a serious left knee injury suffered in an off-road vehicle accident last June.

He went through most of the spring as the No. 1 right tackle, but did not start and was used sparingly in the spring game. He had some difficulties late, coming back from surgery to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament and repair the medial collateral ligament.

"It was still bothering him to a certain extent. He certainly wasn't 100 percent. Our trainers and doctors wouldn't put him out there if he wasn't capable of playing, but it's just a matter of getting back into playing shape and of course he was rusty from missing an entire fall. There were a lot of things like that," Palcic said. "You don't come back from those things right away."

Harris has more ground to make up, like Savage, having missed the spring.

"I really haven't had a chance to spend a lot of time coaching Mike Harris yet, to tell you the truth. He got hurt last year in winter conditioning and then missed the entire spring. He got hurt in training camp last fall and then missed the entire fall," Palcic said. "He hasn't played, either. I can't give you anything definitive."

Baca, who was rushed onto the field last season as a freshman at left tackle, starts fall camp on the right side. The preference would have been to use a redshirt last season, but Palcic said that he played well when healthy, all things considered, and the experience gained will prove valuable.

"He came from a real good high school program down in Mission Viejo. (Coach) Bob Johnson does a great job in developing players and because of that he was able to come in here and play. Now, was he ready?" Palcic chuckled. "No. But I said, ‘We're going to get ready.'"

Bradford is athletic, with a good frame, but needed to get stronger when he came to UCLA a year ago.

A player to watch in camp will be non-scholarship walk-on Brett Downey, who Palcic referred to as an absolute steal. ‘'He was way under the radar screen and he's very capable of playing Division I football," he said. "I'll tell you what, he's very athletic with long arms. I think he's going to be a good player. He's capable, I promise you that."


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