UCLA's offensive line looking to help Bruins return to form after slow start
Brett Hundley embraces his role as team leader and understands it’s his job to set the tone within UCLA’s locker room. Ditto for the Bruins’ offensive huddles. So, naturally, after throwing an interception in last Saturday’s game against Memphis that the Tigers returned 17 yards to tie the score 35-35 with 13:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, Hundley strolled back out to the huddle … singing.
The redshirt junior quarterback’s tune of choice: “Tuesday” by Drake.
“He’s cheerful and laughing and because of that no one was worried,” starting right tackle Caleb Benenoch said. “He’s a great leader, and he really understands what individual players respond to. We knew we were gonna back out there and score and get some points on the board.”
They did just that, executing a nine-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in Hundley’s 33-yard pass to Thomas Duarte that put the Bruins back in front and ultimately propelled them to a 42-35 win. Hundley likes to remind his teammates to “play like children without being childish,” a quote he says he stole from Boston Celtics’ legend Bill Russell. Hundley emphasizes fun with focus. He knows his mood can lift or weigh down the offense. And while the Bruins, a popular preseason pick to reach the College Football Playoff, would have liked to blow out Memphis and Week 1 opponent Virginia (a 28-20 win), Hundley says it’s no time to panic.
“Obviously the first week there were a lot of nerves from everyone, but the second week, for our offense to put up 42 points, that’s a good number,” said Hundley, who has 638 passing yards with three touchdowns to go with 65 rushing yards and one score so far this season. “Come game time there are lots of live bullets, and that’s what we needed. There are still some things we can do better, and we will -- we just have to remember to have fun at the same time.”
The No. 12 Bruins (2-0) will travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this Saturday for a matchup with the Longhorns (1-1). This game dripped with intrigue in July; now, it’s a little underwhelming. It has become clear that new coach Charlie Strong's Texas program has a long road ahead, especially on the heels of a 41-7 loss to BYU in which the Cougars had 429 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, UCLA has looked somewhat pedestrian in victories over Virginia and Memphis. The offensive line looked flat-out bad in Week 1 (only 358 yards of total offense) and much improved in Week 2 (540 yards). Hampered by injuries, the Bruins allowed 36 sacks last year; they gave up an eye-popping 52 in 2012.
Through two games this fall they’ve given up eight. Part of that is a byproduct of new bodies: Against Virginia, UCLA plugged sophomore Scott Quessenberry in at center even though he had never started a game at that position. True freshman NaJee Toran started his first career game at right guard, and UCLA is also without junior tackle Simon Goines (ankle), who started 20 combined games in 2012 and ‘13. If redshirt sophomore Conor McDermott (shoulder) can get healthy, the line could look dramatically different come November.
“Between games, I didn’t go crazy or anything,” offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said. “I just reminded them: You’re playing at this level for a reason … There’ll be growing pains, but you can’t be an error repeater. It takes a while to jell.”
|Sept. 13||Texas (in Arlington, Texas)|
|Sept. 25||at Arizona State|
|Oct. 18||at California|
|Oct. 25||at Colorado|
|Nov. 8||at Washington|
Klemm has already seen marked improvement. He’ll look for more continuity as the Bruins move forward. While a quarterback getting hit is not always the fault of linemen, Benenoch understands the expectations pinned on his unit, and he’s happy to take on that responsibility.
“The sack number is surprising,” Benenoch said. “We’ve been one of the higher sack teams in the country the last few years and we have to cut it down. It’s not a good look. Especially with what Brett is trying to accomplish this year [as a Heisman Trophy candidate], we can’t let him get hit that much.”
Saturday will mark a homecoming for Benenoch, who played his prep ball at Seven Lakes High in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston. A four-star recruit, according to Rivals.com and Scout.com, Benenoch spurned offers from Texas and Texas A&M in choosing the Bruins.
“It was a big deal for me not to go to Texas,” said Benenoch, who has received ticket requests from more than 30 friends and family members. “They were one of my final schools, but I just fell in love with coach [Jim] Mora and UCLA. I took a lot of heat for it, from people in town and at school. This weekend, I need to go out and prove that I came here for a reason.”
One of those reasons was to compete for a national title, a task the Bruins seemed primed for this preseason given the roster’s wealth of talent. Beyond Hundley, UCLA boasts two-way star Myles Jack, cornerback Ishmael Adams and wide receiver Jordan Payton. Yet the Bruins squeaked by Virginia in Week 1 and barely edged Memphis in Week 2. The schedule ahead gets significantly tougher: UCLA plays Arizona State, Utah and Oregon during an upcoming three-week stretch.
Klemm spoke candidly about his disappointment after the team's win over the Cavaliers. A seven-year NFL veteran who has been the Bruins offensive line coach since 2011, Klemm told reporters it was one of the worst games he has ever been involved with, as a player or a coach. However, amid the criticism, Benenoch found a silver lining.
“When you watch our film, it gives you hope, because everything we did wrong is fixable,” Benenoch said. “It’s never been an issue of not being physically capable; we just have to be disciplined and focused, no matter how tired we are.”
Benenoch says small details -- staying square, punching through, being more deliberate with hands and executing proper footwork -- will make a big difference going forward. The Bruins also got a boost with the return of center Jake Brendel last week. A junior who started 27 consecutive games before missing the opener with a sprained left knee, Brendel has a knack for putting teammates at ease.
“The things he does go so much further than blocking,” Benenoch said. “The offense runs smoother with him because he knows everybody’s job, and he can coach anybody who’s on the field. He’s been a huge part of my growth as a player.”
Said Hundley: “Jake's been my center since my freshman year, and I’m very close with him. He has so much experience and wisdom, he helps settle everyone down.”
Though he won’t give teammates a pass for lack of focus -- the Bruins have seven false start penalties this season, three against Benenoch in Week 1 -- Hundley thinks a natural chemistry will develop as the fall progresses. While Texas seems headed for a down year, Benenoch and Hundley understand what is at stake.
“Texas has the most talented guys in the country every year,” Benenoch said. “For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to put it together lately, but they’re a team that can cause problems, especially up front. Trust me, we’re not taking it lightly.”
Texas’ name still has cache, Hundley says, which means a win over the Longhorns would be key for a program trying to build its brand. He understands the hype surrounding UCLA, and that the Bruins must walk a fine line between embracing high standards and not allowing the expectations to distract them.
To help them relax on Saturday, he might hum a few bars in the huddle.