It is true of most teams. The line is important to the success of the offense. It has been said in this space numerous times over recent months. For UCLA, it feels bigger; more significant. When it comes to the upfront, UCLA’s success is on the line.
UCLA’s Success Is On The Line
The Bruins have a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time in a few years. Joshua Kelley’s 2018 stats were not a coincidence. Sure, he worked hard and earned what he got. But it also came with the solidifying of the line in front of him. And then there is the task of protecting “the man.” The Bruins will be starting a sophomore at quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He was a split starter last year with Wilton Speight, depending upon who was injured from week to week. With his experience, much more is expected of him this season if the Bruins are going to have an improved season.
But this is not just the usual job of protecting a quarterback. The Bruins do not have a back-up quarterback who has taken so much as a single college snap in a game. The health of Thompson-Robinson becomes all the more critical, which makes the job of the offensive line all the more compelling. Keeping Kelley moving forward and Thompson-Robinson standing upright are two basic but critical goals for the line if the Bruins are to improve off last year’s 3-9 season.
On the upside, the Bruins return a lot of experience on the front five. If the line is a community, Senior Boss Tagaloa is its metropolis. He is the hub. After serving a three-game suspension to start the 2018 campaign, he took over at center after moving over from the defensive line the previous year. It was a sea change for the offense. There was a commanding force in the middle of the line, as well as in the huddle. Kelley averaged 121 yards rushing per game during the Tagaloa-at-center period. Think that is just pure happenstance?
Junior Michael Alves and Sophomore Chris Murray are going to line up on either side of Tagaloa at guards. Both were starters last year. Murray was the starting center during Tagaloa’s suspension and then moved to right guard. His play was good enough to earn him Freshman All-American honors from ESPN.com. Alves has started every game over the last two seasons.
The tackle position gets a little sketchier. Junior Jake Burton is locked in to one spot. Alec Anderson was getting the first team snaps most of camp, but then had outpatient surgery for an undisclosed knee injury last week. His return is very much to-be-determined. That likely leaves the job to freshman Sean Rhyan. He was already the highest rated recruit of this year’s freshman class, and much has been expected of him. But having to go to him this soon hits at the depth of the line.
Burton told us this year’s version of the offensive line is better than last year’s, which ultimately proved to be the best in several recent seasons. “The cool thing about this group of guys is that we are all so close now. Last year we were still trying to figure stuff out.”
He says having experience at most every position is making a difference. “We are all trying to have the same goal and we realize what it takes to do that. As being one of the older guys, one of the main things I have been attempting to do is really tell us how good we can really be if we keep stacking good days on top of good days.”
Reserve offensive lineman Jon Gaines gives much of the credit to line coach Justin Frye. Now in his second year in Westwood, Frye spent five years as the offensive line coach at Boston College. In his last year in Chestnut Hill, the Golden Eagles averaged 220 yards rushing per game and nearly five yards per carry. The success in his first season at UCLA was such that he has added offensive coordinator duties to his line coach role. Gaines said, “I think he honestly is the best coach in the country. He is probably the most honest person you will ever meet.”
Gaines said Frye and head coach Chip Kelly have been emphasizing versatility and learning other offensive line positions. It makes sense. The depth on the line was already razor thin. If Anderson is down long-term, and the Bruins are already having to rely on a true freshman, any further injury could cause some shuffling. You could see someone like Gaines or Sam Marrazzo moving from their natural positions to be a band-aid elsewhere. Or it could push freshman Duke Clemens into early duty.
Burton added, “That is one of the things Coach Frye preaches about is having all of us being able to play any position. You always got to have that mind set of paying attention to every position in meetings.”
Does the line understand the pressure that is on them for the success of this season? Gaines says “If we play better as an offensive line, we play better as an offensive unit and then we play better as a team. It all starts and ends with us. The offensive line is the most important part of the game, so we have to optimize on our opportunities.”
You know who understands the importance of the offensive line? Thompson-Robinson. The linemen spend a lot of Sundays together, in bonding mode. They hang out watching other sports on TV, playing video games, and doing that most favored lineman past time, eating. Enter the starting quarterback. He took his blockers out to eat wings. The cost of that outing has been kept a unit secret. But clearly Thompson-Robinson understands what is good for the offensive line is good for him, is good for Kelley, and is ultimately good for the team.