With two of UCLA’s starting linemen falling to injuries in the first half of the Holiday Bowl, redshirt senior offensive lineman Jeff Baca found himself playing right tackle, right guard and center in the course of the game.
It was a fitting end to Baca’s wild ride through his Bruin career.
“I’ve never even worked on playing all three positions in one practice,” Baca said. “Playing three positions tonight really sums up my career. I’ve kind of been all over the place with ups and downs and injuries.”
Baca came into UCLA and started eight games at left tackle as a true freshman in Rick Neuheisel’s first season. He was considered a jack-of-all-trades who could contribute quality minutes at any of the five offensive line positions.
Baca’s versatility allowed him to slide over and start all 13 games at left guard as a sophomore. Entering his junior year, he was expected to be one of the top players on the offensive line, but he was forced to redshirt because of academic ineligibility. It was a twist no one expected, as Baca made Director’s Honor Roll three times at UCLA.
His career took another turn for the worse during his redshirt junior year, as he broke his ankle just two practices into spring practice.
While these setbacks were devastating for both Baca and the Bruins at the time, it gave Baca the opportunity to play a fifth season and to be a part of a UCLA revival.
“If I would have made grades I wouldn’t be here, but I’m a big fan of ‘everything happens for a reason,’” Baca said. “I’m so lucky to have made my 47th start tonight.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo, another constant on the offensive line, knows that Baca’s presence was invaluable this season.
“I shed tears today when I had to give him a hug and say good-bye,” said Su’a-Filo, who also played alongside Baca in 2009 before going on a two-year Mormon mission. “Baca’s been the anchor of our offensive line. Everyone is calm when Baca is in there because of his knowledge of the game. We’re going to miss him immensely.”
Baca, a second team All-Pac-12 selection this season, was emotionally drained and physically exhausted after UCLA’s 49-26 loss to Baylor. Despite the loss, though, he could only be grateful for his time as a Bruin.
“The way we closed out the season put a little bit of a damper on the year, but I’m really happy with the way this season turned out,” Baca said. “I’m just really thankful for the guys in this locker room and I’m so proud of the way they have played and practiced this season.”
UCLA’s offensive line underwent some growing pains this season, as it started three freshmen all season long. Thursday night, there was a different kind of pain, as redshirt freshmen Torian White and Jake Brendel both went down to high ankle sprains.
“That’s a three- or four-week injury,” coach Jim Mora said. “They will be good to go when we start our winter program.”
Along with White and Brendel, freshman tackle Simon Goines also dealt with a nagging knee injury for the second half of the season, which forced him not to start against Baylor.
Mora said that Goines will undergo a surgical procedure within the next week to get him back to 100 percent.