UCLA spring camp position review: Offensive line

UCLA's offensive line during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA’s offensive line during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

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. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp notes: Nate Starks looks like No. 2 tailback

— One of UCLA’s biggest questions in the past two offseasons surrounded the running back position, which lost all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin after 2012.

Paul Perkins answered that in a big way as a redshirt sophomore, becoming the Pac-12’s leading rusher with 1,575 yards (121.15 per game). His presence, as well as that of an entirely intact offensive line, will certainly make it easier for whichever quarterback ends up replacing Brett Hundley this upcoming season.

But who’s looming behind him? After UCLA’s first spring practice in pads, Nate Starks looks like the clear-cut No. 2 running back. As a true freshman in 2014, the Colorado native was fourth on the team with 141 yards — behind Perkins, Hundley and senior Jordon James. He’s picked up where he left off and appears to be the team’s second-best runner now.

While head coach Jim Mora agreed that Starks currently has the inside track on the backup role, he insisted there is still “great competition there.” One player he said has “flashed” through three practices is Craig Lee, a speedy four-star recruit in 2013 who has yet to play a down for the Bruins. Continue reading

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Mora won’t commit to starting Conor McDermott at left tackle

UCLA head coach Jim Mora wouldn’t commit to 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Conor McDermott making his second consecutive start at left tackle on Saturday.

With injuries and inexperience having limited him to 22 snaps entering last week’s surprise start, McDermott held up impressively for 89 plays in Saturday’s 36-34 win over Cal.

With McDermott’s start shifting former left tackle Malcolm Bunche to guard, an offensive line that allowed 24 sacks in the first six games gave up just one to Cal.

Mora, however, is still cautiously approaching his use of McDermott entering Saturday’s meeting with Colorado.

“Has he done enough to stay in the starting lineup? Yes,” Mora said. “Will he? We’ll see.”

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VIDEO: Conor McDermott talks about return from shoulder injury

If healthy, Conor McDermott could be a starting tackle at UCLA. The redshirt sophomore played just two games last season in October before injuring his shoulder — which had already been operated on back in high school.

Now standing at 6-foot-9, 300 pounds, McDermott talked about his return from his latest surgery, and how much he’s changed his body since arriving at UCLA.

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UCLA notes: Graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche moves to starting left tackle

RB Jordon James, right, carries the ball during the UCLA practice at Cal State San Bernardino. Wednesday, August 6, 2014. (Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Daily Bulletin)"

RB Jordon James, right, carries the ball during the UCLA practice at Cal State San Bernardino. Wednesday, August 6, 2014. (Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Daily Bulletin)”

» UCLA might have found its new starting left tackle in graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche. Used mostly at guard through spring and the first two days of training camp, the 6-foot-7 lineman moved to the edge on Wednesday with surprisingly good results.

With starting right tackle Conor McDermott (shoulder) held out for the day, sophomore Caleb Benenoch moved from left to right — vacating a spot for Bunche to shift out. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said he may keep that formation moving forward.

You can read more about the Bruins’ offensive line situation here.

» Tahaan Goodman has been able to carry over the momentum he generated in spring. The sophomore safety just missed out on a highlight, one-handed interception. Quarterback Jerry Neuheisel had thrown a high ball over the middle, but Goodman jumped up and twisted back and got his right hand on it. Continue reading

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