UCLA moves beyond its offensive line depth problems
UCLA Coach Jim Mora couldn’t believe the nickname Conor McDermott had bestowed upon fellow offensive tackle Kolton Miller.
“Mini-Me?” Mora said last month while seated near McDermott during Pac-12 media days, repeating the words he had just heard. “Kolton’s bigger than you!”
Well, close enough.
Miller is 6 feet 9 and 305 pounds. McDermott is a quarter of an inch shorter but roughly five pounds heavier.
The Bruins’ offensive line was one of the weightiest issues going into training camp, but some clarity has emerged after less than a week of practices. Poasi Moala has taken over one of the starting guard spots opposite Kenny Lacy, joining a first team that also includes McDermott, Miller and center Scott Quessenberry.
McDermott and Lacy are the only full-time starters on the line back from last season, though Miller started five games in 2015 and Quessenberry started 19 previously before shoulder surgeries forced him to miss last season.
Depth is no longer a concern for a unit that was so shorthanded in the Foster Farms Bowl last season that it had to use a converted defensive lineman and a walk-on.
“We have like three squads now, which is crazy,” Miller said Friday after UCLA’s first practice in full pads.
The Bruins weren’t sure they would have McDermott after last season. He decided to return after hearing reports he might go as low as the fourth round of the NFL draft, figuring a second full season of college football would make him more desirable.
Moala has supplanted Najee Toran, who started in spring practice, on the depth chart after fully recovering from injuries on both hands that sidelined him for much of the last two years. Moala said he’s also overcome some personal distractions that diverted his focus.
“Last couple years there’s just been a lot of off-the-field issues back home, financial struggles and whatnot,” said Moala, a fourth-year junior. “My mind wasn’t fully here, and I chose to just put my mind on the right path and commit to football and just stop worrying about the outside obstacles.”
Moala has literally taken some weight off his shoulders by recently cutting the hair that extended to around his waist whenever he fully straightened it. The haircut was his first in seven years.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Moala said, “but I just feel more free.”
UCLA might lead the nation with seven quarterbacks on its training camp roster. Realistically, only three have a chance to become Josh Rosen’s primary backup.
Freshmen Devon Modster and Matt Lynch continue to push senior Mike Fafaul in the battle for mop-up duty in games or to take over in case of an injury to Rosen.
Modster has shown poise beyond his years in several practices.
“He’s so even-keel you wonder if he’s ready to go,” quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo said, “then he’ll step up in the pocket and just rope a ball.”
Tuiasosopo said Fafaul had become more consistent and Lynch more comfortable since spring practices. Collectively, Tuiasosopo said, he liked the group’s inquisitive mentality.
“They wonder ‘Why?’ ” Tuiasosopo said. “Some guys, you tell them about the play, they write the notes and they move on and they go study them. These guys are always asking, ‘Why? What’s the history of this play? Why are we running it? Why are we reading it this way?’ And I like that. I was kind of like that as a player.”
Tuiasosopo mentioned Kenneth Walker III, Eldridge Massington and Alex Van Dyke as receivers who have developed chemistry with Rosen as UCLA tries to replace four of its top five pass catchers from last season. … Receiver Theo Howard was held out of practice again as he recovers from a strained hamstring suffered Tuesday.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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