The improvement of UCLA’s offensive line has been a recurring storyline for more than a year, so you’re allowed some skepticism as you read this: Despite allowing 128 sacks over the last three seasons, this could be one of the team’s strengths.
As usual, the caveat is that the line will need to stay healthy. But unlike the last few years, the unit has the sort of depth that can sustain a certain amount of attrition. Two starters are crucial: left tackle Conor McDermott, and center Jake Brendel. The former has had shoulder problems in the past, but was a game-changing left tackle through the second half of last season. He looked healthy and capable all of spring. Brendel is still the only full-time center UCLA has had in the Jim Mora era, and the one game he missed wasn’t pretty.
Injuries to either one could throw the line completely out of whack. But the other spots? Losing someone for a few games wouldn’t be a death sentence.
This isn’t the downplay the value of Simon Goines or Alex Redmond or Caleb Benenoch or Scott Quessenberry. Those four players have 82 combined games of starting experience, and there’s only room for three of them on the first string. Kenny Lacy also started at guard for all of spring, and could very well stay there for the season opener.
The really interesting battles in fall camp will happen on the right side of the line. Goines started at right tackle this spring, but he was held out here and there for precautionary reasons. He has a long history of knee and leg injuries, so I’m not especially confident on him being 100 percent for the entire season. Caleb Benenoch was limited this spring recovering from a leg surgery, but started all of last fall. If he doesn’t beat out Goines, might he move inside to guard?
That there’s legitimate competition on the edge is a dramatic change from the state of the offensive line the last seasons, when UCLA had much more depth at guard. Throw in redshirt freshman Kolton Miller, who had a strong spring performance, and there are three legitimate options besides McDermott.
If Benenoch doesn’t move back to guard, the position for which he was originally recruited, then Redmond and Lacy are likely set to start there. The depth chart is a little less firm here. Poasi Moala was a staple backup this spring, but UCLA usually used a walk-on at the opposite guard spot, mixed in with a few reps from John Lopez. Zach Bateman could be a factor there too, although the JUCO transfer didn’t look completely comfortable there transitioning from tackle.
Quessenberry has started 18 games at guard and just one at center, but he could be due for a move to the latter once he’s healthy. The junior didn’t dress at all this spring after undergoing offseason shoulder surgeries, and might not be ready for the start of camp in San Bernardino. If the rest of the line doesn’t get hurt, Quessenberry could be due for a redshirt year before taking over for Brendel in 2016.
Left tackle: Conor McDermott, Kolton Miller
Left guard: Alex Redmond, Poasi Moala
Center: Jake Brendel, Scott Quessenberry
Right guard: Kenny Lacy, Zach Bateman
Right tackle: Caleb Benenoch/Simon Goines, Zach Bateman