When offensive line coach Adrian Klemm recruits players, he looks for offensive tackles, mostly because the best offensive lineman often play tackle in high school. The philosophy is simple enough, but it also allows Klemm to shift those players around once they get to UCLA. It's a lot easier to go outside in, he says, than it is to go inside out.
That's why Klemm doesn't seem too concerned about starting center Jake Brendel's status for Saturday's game. The redshirt junior has started 27 straight games and is UCLA's most important offensive player not named Brett Hundley, but he's also trying to recover from a sprained knee he suffered two weeks ago in training camp. When asked about Brendel's status on Tuesday, all Mora said was, "We'll see."
In the past, this might have been a bigger issue than it is in 2014. Offensive line was never a Bruin strong suit, but because of the way Klemm and head coach Jim Mora have recruited and developed offensive linemen, they feel confident in the "next man up" mentality. It's no accident that every lineman, regardless of position, snaps the ball before practice.
"Coach Mora treats guys like they're pros, that's where most of us come from, so we're trying to develop that type of atmosphere and mentality," Klemm said. "Just be ready to go when your time comes, and don't get hung up so much on what position you're playing so much as the opportunity to play and do the nest you can when you get out there."
The likely candidate to replace Brendel would have been Scott Quessenberry, but the sophomore is still getting acclimated to practice after receiving a concussion in training camp. In practice, left guard Alex Redmond has been filling in at center, but he could shift back to guard if Brendel returns.
If everyone is theoretically healthy the starting offensive line, from left to right, would read: redshirt senior Malcolm Bunche (a transfer from Miami), Redmond, Brendel, freshman NaJee Toran and sophomore Caleb Benenoch. What UCLA ends up trotting out Saturday remains to be seen.
It's still better than last year.
"Yes, absolutely," Mora said when asked if the unit is better than last year's. "A lot better. More depth, more experience, a greater understanding of what we're trying to do, more continuity. I feel really good about that group."
Toran, the true freshman, made a name for himself early in training camp. He's not very big for an offensive lineman, at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, but combats that with a nasty streak. In San Bernardino, he didn't go unnoticed for long.
"Naji ... gets after it every single day," Benenoch said. "When I play tackle, it's fun to play next to him at guard … I think he puts a chip on his shoulder because he's so small and nobody thinks he can do it."
Klemm is also not concerned about Toran's size. The coach was a former lineman with the New England Patriots, where he won three Super Bowls. The offensive line on those teams did just fine, yet Klemm can't remember a lineman being over 305 pounds.
"Obviously he's going to get stronger and bigger as time goes on, but I'd rather have a guy like that than a guy who is 6-foot-7, 320, that can't move, doesn't have any recoverability and doesn't play with a certain level of intensity," Klemm said.
Saturday could be a cluster of linemen, with tackles playing guard and guards playing center. According to Klemm, that's by design.
"For everything we've been through over the last couple seasons and what the history has been here, you just always want to be prepared and create depth wherever we can," Klemm said.