UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley’s redshirt junior season got off to a brutal start in the opener against Virginia, hitting 20-of-33 pass attempts for 242 yards while averaging 2.6 yards per carry in a surprisingly close 28-20 win.
It wasn’t hard to watch due to his individual performance, but rather because of the big hefties that were supposed to be protecting him inside the pocket. The Bruins’ offensive line submitted to Virginia’s pressure defense from the moment it stepped onto the field, allowing five sacks and led the way to just 4.9 yards per play.
While there is cause for concern – UCLA’s offensive line was simply manhandled for nearly all four quarters – it isn’t a time for fans to press the panic button just yet.
First, this wasn’t a huge surprise. Lest we forget that UCLA allowed the most tackles-for-loss in the Pac-12 Conference in 2013, was forced to convert a linebacker to running back in hopes to kick-start the ground game, and had no continuity along the offensive front with plenty of injuries and inconsistencies.
We also knew that replacing Xavier Su’a-Filo was going to be an extremely difficult task. The anchor of the offensive line, Su’a-Filo’s versatility as a plug-and-play lineman takes away a dimension of the UCLA offense that has yet to be re-established.
Then there’s this:
“I looked out there one time, and our right tackle’s a sophomore, our right guard is a sophomore, our center is a sophomore, our left guard is a freshman and our left tackle is playing his first game for us,” coach Jim Mora told ESPN.com. “I know there’s going to be a lot of concern about our offensive line, and it’s warranted at this point.”
Virginia deserves most of the credit, though. Its defensive line is one of the most underrated in the country, bringing size and speed to the trenches that was an obvious mismatch from the start for a developing UCLA front, letting play-making linebackers such as Max Valles and Hery Coley (4.0 combined sacks) to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Together, the two units put together 11 tackles for loss against the young UCLA offensive line – 15 percent of the Bruins’ total snaps.
According to 247Sports Composite ratings, the Cavaliers have the fourth-best defensive line UCLA will see all season, with Texas, Oregon, and USC bringing more firepower in terms of projected stardom. This was justified by Phil Steele, who ranks Virginia’s d-line 16th in the country (and its linebackers No. 35 overall), with Texas and USC ranking inside the top 10.
So the good news is this: UCLA gets to host Memphis at home this Saturday. The Tigers are an interesting story and their true strength lies on the defensive front, but there’s absolutely no reason UCLA shouldn’t be able to overwhelm and take advantage of the talent discrepancy.
That should give Mora an opportunity to get his five guys on the offensive front enough reps to gain some more experience and a new level of comfort as the Bruins prepare for Texas the following week.
UCLA doesn’t have to play Oregon until October 11 and USC isn’t scheduled until late November – both home games. Time is a key factor to allow this group of underclassmen to gel and form a chemistry with Hundley under center, and not having to see these high-caliber defensive units until mid-season is a huge advantage.
The bad news? There’s always the chance that the offensive line simply doesn’t get better.
But with junior center Jake Brendel set to return soon after spraining his MCL in early August and tackle Simon Goines working hard to get back on the field sooner than later, improvement seems like the only viable option moving forward.