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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Offensive line

Redshirt senior Duke Clemens makes a block. Clemens was the starting center in all 13 of UCLA football’s games last season. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Jack Nelson

Aug. 21, 2023 1:26 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before game day. Sports senior staff writer Jack Nelson begins the look at the offense by breaking down the offensive line.

Personnel

Continuity in the trenches hasn’t been easy to find for the Bruins as of late.

Going into 2022, UCLA football lost three of its five starters from 2021’s offensive line. That same turnover beast now rears its ugly head once again, with Atonio Mafi, Jon Gaines II and Raiqwon O’Neal all off to the NFL.

The departure of Mafi and O’Neal – who started at left guard and left tackle, respectively – exposes the left side of the line, which also happens to be the blind side for the three favorites in the quarterback race. Lacking experienced in-house talent, coach Chip Kelly opted for the transfer portal.

What he found was a pair of potential plug-and-play threats.

Redshirt senior Khadere Kounta comes in from Old Dominion, where he was the starting left tackle a season ago and started an additional 15 games across the two seasons prior. He has immediately become Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player among all UCLA offensive linemen, but an even more seasoned veteran may soon line up next to him.

Jumping from a current to a future Big Ten program, redshirt junior and Purdue transfer Spencer Holstege injects Power Five experience into the Bruins’ interior, making 31 consecutive starts for the Boilermakers. The left guard’s ability is coveted – Holstege was ranked as the nation’s No. 6 pass blocker in 2022 by PFF while not allowing a sack all season.

The center and right tackle positions do have stability, with redshirt senior Duke Clemens and redshirt sophomore Garrett DiGiorgio back in the fold after each starting all 13 games last season. There’s no immediate successor apparent at right guard, though, where transfers senior Jake Wiley and redshirt freshman Caleb Walker could both get some looks.

Predictions

The Bruins capitalized on a new group of big men last year, and were eventually picked as one of the country’s top nine units.

That was achieved with a deep and versatile eight-man rotation, but depth is no longer a luxury. UCLA will need to heavily rely on transfers to not only glue together the pieces from 2022, but stay healthy as well.

That’s risky business.

Should Kounta, Holstege and Wiley all earn starting roles at their respective positions, their influx of experience should help ease the transition. However, the drop-off in playing time with second-string options is an area of concern, especially if the injury bug decides to bite.

But even if the starters do stay healthy, the lack of chemistry between them could stir up some trouble. Communication will be critical with a new quarterback under center, especially if the starter ends up being freshman Dante Moore or redshirt junior Collin Schlee, both of whom are still acclimating to UCLA’s playbook.

And with the run game being a cornerstone of Kelly’s offense, the offensive line’s run-blocking ability is always under particular scrutiny. That’s highly unlikely to change after posting the No. 6 rushing offense in the country in 2022.

The transfers’ ability to translate their experiences and gel early as a unit could very well mean the difference between a great UCLA offense and just a good one.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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