A move back to guard has re-centered Christaphany Murray and UCLA’s offensive line.
The line has been at its sturdiest since Murray ceded the center spot to Boss Tagaloa before the Bruins’ game against Colorado on Sept. 28, allowing Murray to resume playing a more familiar position.
“I’m more comfortable in it,” Murray said of guard, “just because I’ve played there my whole life.”
Murray drew praise for becoming UCLA’s first true freshman to start a season opener at center since at least 1982, the first year for which records are available, but the Bruins’ line struggled to protect quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson or sustain much of a run game early in the season.
Neither has been an issue over the last three games.
UCLA has allowed only five sacks over that span while Joshua Kelley became the first Bruins tailback to rush for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games since Jordon James in 2013. Kelley will try to become the first UCLA player to reach that threshold in four consecutive games since Tyler Ebell did it in six straight games in 2002 when the Bruins (1-5 overall, 1-2 in Pac-12 Conference play) face Arizona (3-4, 2-2) on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
Kelley’s success has made blocking a joy for his linemen.
“You love your job, but you just love seeing the product of what you’re doing,” Murray said. “We love opening up gaps and just seeing No. 27 fly by us.”
Murray’s three-game apprenticeship at center has given the Bruins two linemen who have mastered the essentials of the position. He said it accelerated his understanding of the offense and prepared him for all the calls that need to be made.
“It’s good,” Murray said, “because now there’s eyes at center and at guard for anything that’s going on.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly said there remained some communication issues that hindered the run game against California despite Kelley’s career-high 157 yards. Tight end Caleb Wilson said the Golden Bears showed some unexpected defensive fronts that the Bruins did a poor job countering. Murray said players could be louder before the snap to ensure that everyone knows which play they’re running and what they need to do when the ball is snapped.
But most of the developments have been positive. Murray credited offensive line coach Justin Frye with cleaning up some problems that had been causing breakdowns in pass protection.
Murray also said the Bruins were upping their pace in practice, which had some carryover during the 37-7 rout of Cal.
“I would think that Coach Kelly is a genius, so he probably did design it that way so we’re not as gassed in a game,” Murray said. “Sometimes in a practice I might be gassed, but when I hit game time, I just feel like [I’m in] the perfect condition.”
Catching back on
After a quiet stretch in which he caught only two passes in as many games, Wilson is back to being a focal point of UCLA’s offense.
He had eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown against Washington before making five catches for 92 yards against Cal.
“Dorian, he’s trusting me to make plays and this offense is trusting me to make plays,” Wilson said of his uptick in production. “So I’m just trying to do my job, but the ball has been finding me a little bit more.”
Once it found him wholly by accident. A third-down pass intended for Michael Ezeike against Cal bounced off the receiver’s hands and into those of Wilson for a 14-yard gain that set up the Bruins’ first touchdown.
“I was just running my corner route and I was expecting the ball,” Wilson said. “I turned around and I saw it was going to Mike and it was going off his hands. At first, I thought the safety was going to try to intercept it and it just slowly kept falling toward me and it just dropped right in my hands.
“Sometimes it works out like that.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch