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Boss Tagaloa has put UCLA on steadier footing with its pass protection and run game

The last time Boss Tagaloa flew to the Bay Area and saw family during a football weekend, it wasn’t a happy homecoming.

His team was playing elsewhere that September day, more than 1,350 miles away from the family’s residence in Pittsburg. Tagaloa and his relatives watched a few drives of UCLA’s 49-21 loss to Oklahoma on television before moving on to something else, the viewing difficult for reasons beyond the final score.

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“You have to understand,” said Sam Tagaloa, the father of the Bruins’ junior center, “it was tough to watch.”

Boss Tagaloa couldn’t play because he was suspended. He was among six players who were punished for violating unspecified athletic department policies. Tagaloa’s suspension was for three games, matching the longest penalty any of his teammates received.

The Bruins struggled without the player expected to anchor their offensive line. They gave up 12 sacks in three games and failed to sustain any sort of running game with the exception of tailback Kazmeir Allen’s 74-yard dash in the season opener.

Tagaloa felt like he had let both his family and his teammates down while watching his team lose game after game. His father told him the most important thing was what happened next.

“Is this going to be a tombstone or is it going to be another steppingstone for a learning curve in life?” Sam said, recalling his message to his son. “How you respond and the way you act and carry yourself after is what matters.”

Boss has stayed true to his surname, helping the Bruins command the line of scrimmage in the two games since his return. He’ll be a big part of UCLA’s offensive plan again Saturday at California Memorial Stadium when the Bruins (0-5 overall, 0-2 Pac-12 Conference) seek a breakthrough victory against Cal (3-2, 0-2).

The 6-foot-2, 325-pound Tagaloa has put his team on steadier footing with its pass protection and run game. For the first time this season, UCLA did not give up a sack last weekend, against Washington. Meanwhile, Joshua Kelley has become the first Bruins tailback to run for 100 yards in consecutive games since Paul Perkins did it early in the 2015 season.

“I’m pretty happy with the way things are going with just the offense in general,” Tagaloa said.

Tagaloa wasn’t a part of that offense until Chip Kelly, UCLA’s new coach, called him into his office before spring practice. Kelly asked the defensive tackle to switch positions, citing his brawny physicality as well as his leadership and football IQ.

Tagaloa was initially hesitant. His father, a maintenance worker for the city of San Francisco’s train and bus lines, flew to Los Angeles the next day to hear Kelly’s reasoning in person. Satisfied with what he was told, Sam advised his son to embrace the transition.

“Take the challenge,” Sam said he told Boss, “and prove to them that you’re their guy and you’re going to do whatever it takes to fit anybody’s scheme.”

The change wasn’t easy even though Tagaloa had played offensive tackle at De La Salle High in Concord, where he became the first player in the history of the storied program to play varsity football as a freshman. Snaps were a problem throughout the spring. Tagaloa eventually changed his hand placement to grip the ball closer to the tip, solving the issue.

He also spoke with Scott Quessenberry, the Bruins’ former All-Pac-12 center, about positioning and reading defenses. There were some shaky moments in Tagaloa’s season debut against Colorado when he failed to properly identify a few blitzes, but the Bruins capably protected quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson last weekend against Washington.

“Boss is a big part of that,” said UCLA nose guard Atonio Mafi, who goes against Tagaloa every day in practice. “Definitely blocks hard and he knows how to leverage you.”

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Tagaloa called identifying the right offensive line calls a collective effort that involved the teammates on either side of him.

Boss Tagaloa prepares to take on Washington's pass rushers.
Boss Tagaloa prepares to take on Washington's pass rushers. (UCLA Athletics)

“The guys next to me help me a lot,” Tagaloa said, “just making sure that I don't make the wrong call or make calls just because I see people moving or the defense moving.”

There can only, however, be one Boss. The oldest of seven siblings, he was given that name because it used to be his father’s nickname as well as the greeting the elder Tagaloa liked to use with anyone he encountered.

But Boss felt more like a peon when training camp opened. Knowing that his starting center wouldn’t be making any snaps while serving his suspension, Kelly assigned Tagaloa to the third string so that the players who would take his spot early in the season could get more practice repetitions.

“That opened up the wound fresh again,” Sam said.

The healing will continue Saturday when Boss plays about 30 miles from home before an expected gathering of around 50 friends and family. Win or lose, his presence alone will be reason for everyone to keep watching a player who feels like he still has lots to prove to those close to him.

“I felt like I let them down,” said Tagaloa, who declined to specify the reason for his suspension. “But no matter how bad it was, my family just made sure that I knew they’re there for me all the time, and just making sure that I wasn’t down on myself and just, that I learn my lesson from the situation.”

Times staff writer Blake Richardson contributed to this story.

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