Through its first three games, UCLA’s offensive line had looked every part a resurgent unit — plowing lanes for an effective ground attack and keeping quarterback Brett Hundley on his feet. For the first time in a decade, the Bruins had both NFL-caliber talent and quality depth.
Also crucial was the chemistry, something both coaches and players said had improved vastly since an injury-plagued 2012 campaign. Early on this fall, the Bruins staff had emphasized building a consistent starting five.
Thursday night complicated those plans. In the second quarter of a 34-27 win at Utah, left tackle Torian White broke his right ankle. (UPDATE: White is officially out for the season with a break and slight ligament tear.)
The loss shifted sophomore Simon Goines from right tackle to left. In his stead, freshman Caleb Benenoch entered the lineup. Benenoch had moved to tackle permanently after losing the right guard battle in August to fellow 2013 signee Alex Redmond.
UCLA’s line was already young, but two true freshmen playing next to each other? An aggressive defensive line drooled.
Utah instantly recognized the weak spot, frequently overloading blitzes against UCLA’s right side and outmanning the two first-year linemen. The noise in a sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium didn’t help their communication either.
“It isn’t so much that he’s not ready to play,” position coach Adrian Klemm said of Benenoch. “It’s just more, you’ve got two kids who a couple of months ago were trading Pokemon cards in high school.”
UCLA signed a loaded group of offensive linemen this past spring, but Klemm doesn’t plan on burning any more redshirts to fill the depth chart. He wasn’t concerned about Goines’ knee pain — an issue that prompted his move out of left tackle earlier this season. Redshirt freshman Conor McDermott was a capable reserve left tackle during fall camp, and will likely see more snaps there behind Goines. Ben Wysocki is available at guard, and Carl Hulick can play both center and guard.
If “worst comes to worst,” Klemm said, he’ll slide All-American guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to left tackle.
UCLA doesn’t have much time to figure out the best combination. After a visit from Cal next Saturday, the Bruins must face a bruising Stanford defensive line on the road. The Utes’ blitz schemes Thursday night likely presented a blueprint for other conference teams too.
“I’m glad they pressured us, because we need to learn how to respond,” head coach Jim Mora said. “You put two freshmen at right guard and right tackle, man, I’m pinning back and coming after us too. Our guys now are going to have a chance to look at that film.”
Jake Brendel, a Freshman All-American last season, struggled with low snaps throughout Thursday’s game. Klemm attributed the problem to crowd noise, which forced the Bruins to rely on a silent count for much of the night. Brendel had to look down between his feet back at quarterback Brett Hundley, relying on Su’a-Filo and Redmond to make calls. After the snap, he had to quickly recover to face a shifting defensive line.
“The snap is the most important thing,” Klemm said. “Not making excuses for him, but you can understand why it was a little bit difficult.”