The offensive line was one of the main question marks for this team a year ago. A unit that lost four starters to graduation found itself without all five after Penei Sewell opted out of the 2020 season and the Pac-12 appeared fixed on not having a season of any kind.
The staff made due and assembled a group that rotated six players throughout the season, but was nonetheless not on par with the dominant force we've come to expect during the Mario Cristobal tenure.
Now with a full albeit shortened season under its belt, the offensive line returns all five starters and injects an elite group of early enrollee freshmen from the 2021 recruiting class.
Offensive Line Coach Alex Mirabal met with the media this weekend to discuss the development of his group, one he believes was particularly hurt by the pandemic.
"The pandemic really hurt us as an offensive line because you can't use your hands, you can't touch this, you can't touch that-- you can't hit a shield, you can't hit a med ball," Mirabal said.
For a position so dependent on technique, it makes sense why the unit may not have reached expectations. However, he's not using that as an excuse, and the benefits of a "more normal offseason" provide great opportunity to learn.
"Now you're going to get better at it. You're going to (be able to) technically and fundamentally--you can be able to get better at it."
The team may have rotated six players last season (Jones, Moore, Bass, Forsyth, Walk, and Aumavae-Laulu), but Mirabal says that won't dictate the plan this season. The coach said that he is approaching his group "trying to find the first five," and that if the team is going to rotate in any more than that, they will need to have the utmost confidence that there won't be a drop off.
Here's where the freshmen are lining up.
-Bram Walden (Arrived 1/4/21): Right Tackle
-Jackson Light (Arrived 1/4/21): Center
-Jonah Miller (Arrived 3/29/21): Left Tackle
Light is the youngest center of the bunch, but Mirabal is encouraged by his early play.
"You can see the high school stuff, all that the the toughness the physicalness-- the leadership. You can really see that from Jackson, he's gonna be a really good one."
Mirabal is set on making sure everyone in the room knows their assignments, constantly quizzing players regardless of age and experience.
"Every day the entire room is on trial," Mirabal said on holding his group accountable. "I badger them with questions and it doesn't matter whether it's George Moore and you've been in college for nine years, or you're Kingsley and you were just here for three months. We ask them the same amount of questions."
He says it's all part of the process of instilling confidence and trust in the offensive line. With such a talented group of young players, Mirabal says freshmen will need to "put it on film" to earn playing time over more entrenched returners-- a group that he says now looks like a veteran offensive line.
The frosh arguably getting the most early attention from fans is Kingsley Suamatia. Many fans have compared him to the 2019 Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, but Mirabal says it's not a fair comparison.
"Penei is a generational guy to me," he said. "I hope that Kingsley becomes the best version of himself and doesn't become the next Penei Sewell."
While Mirabal doesn't buy into the comparisons, he wouldn't shy away from the freshman's potential, adding that he believes Suamataia can also end up a first round pick down the road.
"You can go win in the Pac-12 with him (Sagapolu) right now, and you can win with Harper, and you can win with JD and you can win with Jaramillo," he said. "They'd start for a lot of other Pac-12 schools right now."
That's pretty significant praise for that bunch, but especially Sagapolu, who hasn't played football in almost two years after serving an LDS mission out of high school.
The group will take a big step this week when the Ducks strap on the pads.
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