Following Saturday’s spring practice, coach Jim Mora sounded more like a game show host than a football coach.
Listing his ideas for fan contests at halftime of the upcoming Spring Game, his lofty expectations for attendance and even his plans for postgame festivities, Mora’s enthusiasm for UCLA football’s open house at the Rose Bowl, scheduled for this Saturday evening, appeared to be through the roof.
“Afterwards we invite all the fans on the field for autographs, and then they’re going to shoot fireworks from inside the Rose Bowl,” Mora said. “How did I do? I sound like Bob Barker there, huh?”
And while a high-octane passing game and a physical linebacker corps offer a sizable consolation prize to UCLA fans, an understaffed and overworked group of offensive linemen doesn’t quite have the ring of a brand new car.
For much of spring practice, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been working with a staff of eight or fewer players, forcing him to strike a balance between player development and preventing further injuries due to overuse.
“It gets to a certain point where they get so tired and they don’t get anything out of it,” Klemm said. “It’s one of those things where it’s about building mental toughness, but at the same time you don’t want to wear down their bodies.”
Injuries on the line last season forced a now-graduated Jeff Baca, normally a guard, to play tackle at times – even a little center in the Holiday Bowl.
With Baca now marketing and preparing himself for next weekend’s NFL Draft, UCLA’s offensive line is anchored by Freshman All-America center Jake Brendel and rising junior offensive guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection last year, but contains more questions than answers, otherwise.
Last season’s starting right tackle and current left tackle, sophomore Simon Goines, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee following the 2012-2013 season and is continuing to work his way back to playing speed. Goines played hurt for much of last season, making 13 starts while rarely practicing full-speed and having to come out in the second half of five different games.
“One of the things he’s been struggling with is firing up that muscle because he had the surgery, so there’s a little bit of atrophy,” Klemm said. “He’ll be fine and he’ll have made a full recovery once camp starts.”
Opposite Goines at right tackle is rising redshirt sophomore Torian White, who started all 14 games for the Bruins last season, making a quick return from a mid-season surgery to solve a heart rhythm issue, but showed his youth at times.
Klemm equated these visible growing pains to a lack of depth – while most programs have the personnel to facilitate a lengthy incubation period for linemen, UCLA’s immediate needs last season forced players like Goines and White into the fray early.
“These guys are coming straight off of the bus and we’re rolling them out on the field,” Klemm said. “Two months ago, they were probably in the hallway somewhere trading Pokemon cards and then they’re playing in the Rose Bowl against Nebraska in front of 100,000 people.”
Still, a healthy, more physically mature White has received constant praise from coaches this spring for what appears to be more consistent blocking at the point of attack.
“One thing that (Klemm) said he’s noticed I’ve gotten better at is my punch, which is good because I’ve been trying to get that down with aiming points and everything,” White said.
Improvements aside, the offensive line features very few locks, setting the stage for what are likely to be a few closely-contested competitions in August when Klemm’s seven offensive line recruits debut in San Bernardino.
“We don’t have any depth, so they’re getting the same shot as those guys that have already been here,” Klemm said. “You have guys that are coming right in and getting an opportunity, it’s just a matter of whether they seize it or not.”