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Say what? UCLA’s offensive linemen aren’t afraid to make verbal jabs

UCLA coach Chip Kelly signals from the sideline during the second half against Arizona on Saturday.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly signals from the sideline during the second half against Arizona on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Justin Frye’s voice is no longer the only one that carries across the practice field whenever the UCLA offensive line makes a mistake.

The linemen are now just as willing as their position coach to verbalize their displeasure.

“We’re not afraid to yell at each other for messing up in practice,” left tackle Sean Rhyan said Tuesday, “just because we’re trying to get it right.”

The increased accountability involves everyone from the freshmen to graduate transfer guard Paul Grattan Jr. as part of a new perfectionist mindset. Rhyan, a sophomore, joked that he’s willing to get on Grattan “even though he’s like 40 years older than me.”

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What’s most important is that nobody takes the verbal jabs personally.

Despite the COVID-19 problems at Arizona State, the game between the Sun Devils and UCLA is still scheduled for Saturday.

“The biggest thing is whenever players correct players, people start getting mad at each other,” Grattan said, “and it’s not that at all. People are really bought in.”

There hasn’t been much to gripe about in the games. UCLA’s offensive line has allowed only three sacks, the fewest of any Pac-12 Conference team that has played four games. The line has also opened the way for the second-best rushing offense in the Pac-12, the Bruins averaging 241.8 yards per game. (Arizona State leads the conference with 258 yards rushing per game, but the Sun Devils have only played one game, against USC.)

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The linemen credited the differing styles of Demetric Felton Jr., a shifty tailback who can run inside or outside the tackles, and Brittain Brown, a bruiser who covets contact so that he can slough off defenders while his legs keep churning.

“If you only have one type of back, defenses can scheme that up and shut that back down,” Grattan said, “and so when you have two different types of backs who have the skill level that those two guys have — I mean, they’re absolutely ridiculous — it makes our job so much easier.”

UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin looks for a receiver during the second half against Arizona on Saturday.
UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin looks for a receiver during the second half against Arizona on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
(Associated Press)

The line’s success has been all the more remarkable because it has come despite holes created by the graduation of center Boss Tagaloa and the departure of guard Christaphany Murray for Oklahoma and right tackle Jake Burton for Baylor.

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Rhyan said the Bruins are better conditioned than they were last season, allowing them to stay fresher for longer and handle the increased tempo that coach Chip Kelly has used in pockets over the last three games.

Improved depth is another asset. UCLA has used a heavy rotation that involves five players regularly subbing in for starters Rhyan, Grattan, tackle Alec Anderson, guard Duke Clemens and center Sam Marrazzo. Josh Carlin, Atonio Mafi, Siale Liku, Jon Gaines II and Lucas Gramlick have all played off the bench, with Gaines getting his first start of the season in Clemens’ spot against Arizona.

Grattan said all the mixing and matching does not lead to a drop-off in performance because it’s a repeat of what happens in the days leading up to games.

“It’s super easy because in practice we have rotations constantly,” Grattan said. “We have every possible combination at all times, everybody’s getting as many reps as they can and so we already have that cohesion. I have thousands of reps with every single guy on the team on every single side of the line, so it works out really well.”

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Kelly said Marrazzo’s ability to identify the defensive fronts and communicate that information to his fellow linemen had sparked their collective success. Ever the perfectionist, Marrazzo acknowledged that he could do even better.

UCLA’s secondary is playing better under new defensive backs coach Brian Norwood — something old defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads saw first-hand Saturday.

“Sometimes I get in trouble when I go out looking for looks instead of letting them come to me,” said Marrazzo, a former walk-on. “Because I know what to do when they’re presented. I just can’t go out and make false IDs and false looks.”

The linemen have also adopted what might be described as a mauler’s mindset of not getting beat.

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“It’s like, my guy is not going to make the play,” Marrazzo said. “That’s the mentality we have. I mean, you can talk technique, you can talk scheme and whatnot, but at the end of the day, it comes down to not letting your guy in on the tackle.”

Should anyone slip, they can be sure their teammates will let them hear about it.

“It doesn’t feel good during practice when you mess up,” Rhyan said, “but once they get on your case and you get it right, it’s a lot better than getting it wrong in the game and it costing a sack or a turnover or something unfortunate.”


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