UCLA’s offensive line shows both promise and growing pains amid tough start
It was the sunshine and ocean that drew Hawaii native Duke Clemens to UCLA last year. The early playing time, which included a first career start at Arizona on Saturday, has been an added bonus for the freshman offensive lineman.
“I just came out, working hard at practice,” Clemens said, “and coach called my name.”
On this UCLA team, however, early accomplishments such as Clemens’ are becoming common. Just five games into the second year of coach Chip Kelly’s tenure, the Bruins are already accustomed to playing underclassmen on the offensive line.
At left tackle, freshman Sean Rhyan has been a starter from Week 1. At right guard, sophomore Christaphany Murray has also started every game. At left guard, redshirt freshman Jon Gaines II was the opening-week starter, redshirt freshman Alec Anderson took over between Weeks 2 and 4, then Clemens was inserted last Saturday.
The only other Pac-12 schools to start two freshman offensive linemen last week were Stanford and Arizona State, teams that have suffered several losses at the position group early this season.
UCLA football coach Chip Kelly is a proponent of California’s NCAA reform bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.
“I think it’s a plus that we’ve got some depth there,” Kelly said Saturday, trying to put a positive spin on his team’s unproven personnel. “And we continue to develop it.”
But, amid UCLA’s 1-4 start, the growing pains along the line have been evident too.
Behind its inexperienced front five, UCLA ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (120.2) and last in average time of possession (26:36). Only Arizona State, California and Oregon have more sacks allowed than UCLA’s 12. The Bruins also have had to adjust their play calls around their raw rotation of linemen.
“Things like that are predicated on what are those [young offensive linemen] comfortable with, and where are they,” Kelly said. “That’s just the reality of where they are. Whether it’s Duke and Alec, or Sean and Alec, and Sean and Duke, it’s first-year starters and that’s what we have to kind of game-plan around.”
Some indicators have trended up lately. The team rushed for 150 yards against Washington State two weeks ago, then went for 217 yards on the ground against Arizona. They also won the time-of-possession battle in Tucson and allowed just two sacks.
“Our offense is coming around, being a balanced offense,” said receiver Jaylen Erwin. “It’s going to take one game to put everything together and show everybody we really can do it, be consistent with it.”
Clemens, who before his start at Arizona also received significant playing time during the Bruins’ dramatic second-half comeback against Washington State, can attest to personal strides. He said his hand positioning is better. His blocking technique is more sound. He continues to add weight to his 6-foot-3, 273-pound frame.
Austin Burton was particularly thrilled with his performance against Arizona, but the UCLA quarterback could play Saturday if Dorian Thompson-Robinson can’t.
“[Offensive line] coach [Justin] Frye always says to incorporate one new thing in practice to correct and fix,” Clemens said. “I’ve been trying to do that, to work on my craft.”
Yet, for both Clemens and the Bruins’ youthful front, there is still a long process ahead.
“There’s always things to correct,” Clemens said. “[Last week] may look good on the stats, but we’re never satisfied with what we put on the field. We’re always trying to get better. Even though that may have been our best rushing game, we still have things to fix.”
Erwin losing sleep over drop
Erwin’s nights have been a little longer lately. After dropping a pass in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the junior receiver remained bothered by the memory.
“The past two days, I couldn’t really sleep,” he said. “I was just thinking about that play. I just know, whenever the ball is thrown to me, I’ve got to make that play.”
Erwin, UCLA’s second-leading receiver with 195 yards, has dropped throws before. He knows it’s an inevitable reality of playing the position. Usually, he quickly moves on. He said this time is different, however, because it hindered an offense already operating with a thin margin for error.
The pass Erwin missed was the first thrown by backup quarterback Austin Burton, who entered the game in the second half in relief of injured starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson. It came with the Bruins trailing by three points and trying to march down the field. Though it was only first down, he felt it stalled a possession that eventually ended in a punt.
“That play could have possibly been a jump spark for us to score that touchdown,” Erwin said. “We’ve got to make the plays. Do nothing more than what our job is to do.”
A few restless nights removed from UCLA’s latest defeat, Erwin thought his drop was a microcosm of the Bruins’ offensive struggles. Too often, the unit has been unable to get out of its own way.
Despite “several mistakes throughout the game, we were still in the game to the end,” Erwin said. “It’s not something we need to change. We need to make the most of our opportunities, cash in on them.”
Junior safety Quentin Lake practiced Tuesday, while senior receiver Theo Howard and junior safety Mo Osling III worked with a trainer on the sideline during the portion of practice open to the media. None of those three played at Arizona.
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