UCLA’s offensive line is happy to revert to the past
What Jonathan Ogden sees seems familiar.
Ogden, who played at UCLA from 1992-95, was the best offensive lineman in what was an era of top offensive linemen in Westwood. He has identified a renaissance.
“It’s amazing to look back at the lines we had,” said Ogden, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. “There was all that NFL talent. Myself, Vaughn Parker, Mike Flanagan, Craig Novitsky.”
Flashing forward, Ogden said, “The talented guys UCLA has now look like they can play at the next level.”
UCLA fans fawn over quarterback Brett Hundley. Running back Jordon James ranks fourth nationally in yards rushing per game. Receiver Shaquelle Evans has caught a touchdown pass in each game.
They get the oohs. The guys making it possible get the “whos?”
The Bruins are third nationally, averaging 52.7 points in three games and UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said, “Everything starts with the line.”
There’s a chance you didn’t notice.
“You don’t want people noticing you,” Klemm said. “It means you’ve done something wrong.”
The NFL passed on every UCLA offensive lineman from 2000-12. Last season, Jeff Baca ended that drought when the Minnesota Vikings took him in the sixth round.
Ogden sees many more NFL draft picks on the way. “All these guys seem to have the athleticism and all seem to have a nasty streak,” he said.
The Bruins gave up 53 sacks, an average of nearly four per game, in 2012. They have cut that average in half through three games this season.
“I feel a lot more comfortable back there,” Hundley said. “You can see me sit back and go through reads and make throws. Last season, I was looking for the pass rush.”
UCLA averages 284 yards rushing this season.
“They love knocking people down,” James said. “And I love running behind them.”
Center Jake Brendel has developed into the cornerstone, even off the field, where he acts as judge, jury and, if need be, executioner. “I appointed myself,” Brendel said. “I’m not a sugarcoater. I’ll get on people when needed, but I’ll also say good job when they do a good job.”
Hundley delegates to Brendel during games. “If I see a different front, instead of me having to stop everything to making changes in the blocking, I let Jake handle things,” Hundley said.
There is little glamorous about the job. “You’re overworked and under-appreciated,” Klemm said.
The Bruins’ offensive line tradition was almost prehistoric by the time Jim Mora was hired as coach and brought in Klemm.
In the 1990s, two UCLA players won Outland Trophies — given to the nation’s top lineman: Ogden in 1995 and Kris Farris in 1998. During that same era, UCLA had Novitsky and Chad Overhauser, who were both named All-Americans. The Bruins also had Flanagan and Parker, who both spent more than a decade in the NFL.
Farris was a third-round pick in 1999. After that, NFL teams looking for linemen misplaced UCLA’s number until Mora and Klemm arrived last season.
“It was very obvious that needed to be fixed,” Mora said. “In order to have a good football team, you better have a lot of things, but you better be sure you have a pretty good offensive line.”
Mora reached out to Klemm to solve the problem. Klemm had success as offensive line coach at Southern Methodist, which had two linemen taken in the 2012 NFL draft. Klemm, who played six seasons in the NFL and won three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots, was a double threat as a coach.
“Everyone talks about Adrian being a great recruiter, and he is,” Mora said. “Kids gravitate to him. He has the sheepskins on the wall with those Super Bowl rings.”
The Bruins signed five offensive linemen in 2012 and seven in 2013, and 10 of the 12 remain.
“Nothing against the linemen who were here, but they were recruited for a different system,” Klemm said. “A lot of those guys couldn’t play at the pace we play at. We had numbers, but it wasn’t quality depth.”
The Bruins now have both. Junior guard Xavier Su’a-Filo returned from a two-year Mormon mission and is projected as a high NFL pick. Brendel and tackle Torian White sat out 2011 as redshirt freshmen. All three start, along with sophomore tackle Simon Goines and freshman guard Alex Redmond.
There is pushing from behind, especially from freshman Caleb Benenoch, who can play guard or tackle.
Said Brendel: “I came to UCLA because I saw promise. It wasn’t so much what had happened, but what could happen.”
What could happen is headed in the right direction. Toward the past.
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