Fall quarter midterms are almost over at UCLA, the freshmen getting their first taste of high-pressure college tests.
Duke Clemens and Sean Rhyan might feel like it’s no big deal given the study habits they had already developed learning the nuances of the offensive line. The freshmen like to quiz each other about plays that are put in each week.
“We’ll be in the dorms studying sometimes new things that coach inputs,” Clemens said Tuesday.
It would be hard to argue that they deserve anything less than an “A” considering the way the offensive line has sparked the Bruins’ offense since Clemens and Rhyan started playing side by side.
Clemens made his season debut as a reserve left guard in the Pac-12 Conference opener at Washington State on Sept. 21 and moved into the starting lineup at Arizona the following week, joining Rhyan, the left tackle who has started every game this season. Senior center Boss Tagaloa, sophomore right guard Christaphany Murray and junior right tackle Jake Burton have also started every game.
UCLA (3-5, 3-2) has rolled up an average of 488.4 yards of offense in the five games Clemens and Rhyan have played together after averaging just 263.3 yards per game earlier in the season.
“We can’t do what we do without the offensive line,” said running back Joshua Kelley, who is the Pac-12’s leading rusher with 105 yards per game.
What the Bruins have done is become an offensive juggernaut that has topped 200 yards rushing in four consecutive games for the first time since 2014. They are also averaging a robust 6.0 yards per play regardless of whether they run the ball or throw it.
Clemens and Rhyan have become UCLA’s first two freshmen to start on the offensive line together since Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch and Scott Quessenberry did in 2013.
“They came in here knowing their plays, which is really beneficial because we didn’t have to waste any time holding them on a leash,” said redshirt freshman left guard Alec Anderson, who is now backing up Clemens after starting the season’s first four games. “They really held their own and did their part, and now, as you can see, it’s clicking and everybody’s coming together as a whole.”
Clemens said he has become more relaxed each week but doesn’t ever want to become too comfortable.
“The game has kind of slowed down,” Clemens said, “but I don’t want to have that mind-set because if I think that, then it’s going to come right back and bite me in the butt.”
The veteran linemen, including injured left guard Michael Alves, have mentored the freshmen by providing tips. Tagaloa has been a steadying influence as the oldest member of the line, even though that designation comes with something of an asterisk considering he played defensive line before last season.
“He’ll just calm me down if I’m stressed out about missing a block or something,” Clemens said. “He’s always been there.”
Clemens and Rhyan are the new staples of the offensive line who intend to stick around for the foreseeable future, helping the Bruins build upon their recent success.
“I’m just taking every opportunity,” Clemens said, “as a chance to prove myself.”
Catching back on
Sophomore running back Martell Irby made a career-high three catches out of the backfield against Arizona State last weekend as part of what might be called the team’s Demetric Felton Jr. package.
”It for sure has become a bigger part of our offense with the effectiveness Demetric showed coming out the backfield,” Irby said.
Felton’s 36 catches and 439 yards receiving lead the team, and with four games to play, he has already tied the school’s single-season record for catches by a running back. Irby had never caught more than two passes in a game before Saturday.
“It just so happened that the defense was dropping out and I was open in the middle of the field, or I was open in the flat,” Irby said, “so I just capitalized on the opportunities that I had.”
It was Irby’s first appearance since late last month after he tweaked a hamstring that began bothering him the week of UCLA’s game against San Diego State on Sept. 7. He had just one carry against Arizona State, gaining two yards, but said he was happy to contribute wherever he’s asked.
“I like doing anything that I could help this team,” Irby said.