For an offense that ranked second-to-last in the nation rushing yards per game last year, improvement up front was a must this offseason.
Whether the unit will be better this year remains to be seen, but UCLA’s offensive line will certainly be different. As fall camp comes to a close for the Bruins, it’s still not entirely clear which five linemen will play starting roles when the season starts on Sept. 3 against Texas A&M.
“We rotate guys through,” said coach Jim Mora. “We’re looking for the best five, the best combination of five I should say.”
Redshirt junior Kolton Miller and redshirt senior Scott Quessenberry look locked in at the left tackle and center spots, respectively, with senior Najee Toran looking increasingly secure at left guard. But the right side of the line remained in a state of flux in the final week of fall camp.
After two weeks of relative consistency, with redshirt sophomore Andre James at right guard and redshirt senior Kenny Lacy taking most of the reps at right tackle, the first-team unit saw a personnel shakeup this past week. Redshirt freshman Michael Alves began taking first-team reps at right guard and James shifted over to right tackle.
Alves has been one of the most impressive linemen throughout spring and fall camp, said both Mora and offensive line coach Hank Fraley. Fraley mentioned Alves as a standout early in fall camp, and after seeing the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder continue to excel over the next few weeks, moved him into the starting five.
“He’s a guy who through the spring and through the first two weeks of camp has really shown a lot of improvement,” Mora said. “So we’re excited about his progress. … He understands the scheme, the techniques and the fundamentals that we’re teaching him – angles on his blocks and protection calls and footwork and really all those things.”
Lacy, who was relegated to the second team, is a former guard who has seen more time at tackle this fall and could fill in at either spot on the right side.
“I can play it all,” Lacy said. “I’m willing to do whatever they ask me to do.”
Another competitor on the right side – and one of the more interesting additions to the offensive line unit – is graduate transfer Sunny Odogwu, who played at Miami the past four seasons, making seven total starts at right tackle for the Hurricanes.
At 6-foot-7, 315 pounds, Odogwu has the size to make a difference at the tackle spot. He’s also got an infectious smile and a cheerful personality that has won him plenty of fans throughout fall camp. His first name, in fact, was given to him because he was what he called an “oops baby” that ended up bringing sunshine to his family.
“He’s been good for the team – he’s mature, his whole background is great – a great story,” Fraley said. “The guy’s extremely smart. And he wants to do everything right and perfect. He wants perfection – and that’s a good thing.”
For now, Odogwu doesn’t have a starting spot, but coaches have repeatedly said that the offensive line – particularly on the right side – is in a state of competition.
By the time the season starts, Mora said, the Bruins would like to have a set of five linemen locked in, rather than continuing to rotate guys.
“You don’t typically (rotate players) on the offensive line because consistency is more important,” Mora said. “But if it gives us the best chance to win and be productive then we will do that. So nothing is ruled out – but nothing is ruled in either.”
While it might not be clear which guys will play up front on Sept. 3, the Bruins will be looking for an increased dose of physicality from whatever combination does take the field.
That’s been the focus of the line this offseason, Toran said, which should be welcome news for Bruin fans who watched the unit struggle to create any push up front last fall.
“Punching, just playing physical, just being a physical offensive line,” Toran said. “We’ll be good this year.”
Bruin fans sure hope so.