- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SAN BERNARDINO--Jake Brendel is one of those quiet, intellectual types who prefers to keep to himself, but these days he's the center of attention for the UCLA football team.
Brendel, a redshirt freshman has all but locked up the vacant spot in the middle of the offensive line with a strong showing through the first two weeks of training camp, solidifying a spot that had been worrisome coming out of spring practice.
And with the offensive line struggling to find a starting five so far, it's a load of the minds of the coaching staff to know that Brendel has a stronghold on the snapper spot.
"Jake being in the middle and being solid and being smart and being tough and handling all the calls has been a real positive for us," coach Jim Mora said. "He’s a redshirt freshman but he doesn’t play like a young guy. He’s tough, he’s out there every day, he’s dependable, he’s able to make the calls."
That last attribute is particularly important in UCLA's uptempo offense. After each play, Brendel is responsible for finding the ball and getting his teammates to it. When the quarterback sets the offense, Brendel must make the pass protection calls for the offensive line and so far the coaches have been impressed.
"Our center is so important to this offense," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "We have to have a center that is just like a quarterback for us because we’re a fast tempo team and he’s trying to get four other guys on the same page with him in a very quick amount of time. I’m really happy with Brendel and how he’s stepped out and stepped up for us."
It didn't come easily for Brendel. During spring practice, he acknowledged that he struggled with the quick tempo that the new coaching staff wanted. He began thinking too much and struggled, especially with snapping the ball. When spring practice ended, Brendel was no lock for the starting role, but he spent a lot of time honing his craft over the summer and has had few issues with snaps in camp.
"It takes a couple of weeks to get in the whole tempo," said Brendel, a deep thinker. "Really it just comes down to reps and just doing the same thing over and over and getting that muscle memory down. It’s just second nature. It’s like you are just doing it and you really don’t have to think about it. It’s unconscious competence, sort of."
Kai Maiava and Ryan Taylor held the position for the past three years, but both have exhausted their eligibility so the Bruins needed to find a center this season. Brendel and Tre Hale, the leading candidates, both had inconsistent springs and the staff was considering moving Greg Capella, a guard and backup center last season, to center.
They prefer Capella at guard, however, so having Brendel show so much improvement has helped give the offensive line some depth. And even though he is still a redshirt freshman, Brendel has quickly developed into one of the leaders on the offensive line. Part of it is because of his position and its requirement to set the tempo, but leadership also comes naturally for a player who started on his high school team as a freshman.
"The leadership thing was expected of me super early so it’s kind of like I’m doing the same thing again," Brendel said.
Brendel and right tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo are the only offensive linemen who have locked down starting spots. The rest of the line has been in and out of practice because of injury or heat-related issues. Mora called it "musical chairs" on the offensive line, but likes knowing that center is in good hands.
"He’s just tough and smart and hard-nosed and gritty," Mora said. "He doesn’t say a lot but I think he is a real leader. I think his fellow players really respect him."
Thursday practice notes:
Use the force, Locke: Punter Jeff Locke, an all-American candidate, told the coaches that he had a sore leg and didn't do much kicking even though much of the practice focused on special teams.
Mora had his suspicions, however, guessing that Locke may have wanted the other kickers--all freshmen--to get in some work without him.
"He’s like Yoda to those other kickers," Mora said. "They follow him around and listen to every word. Either he was sore, which he said, or he just kind of decided 'I’m going to let the young guys see if they can figure it out without me out there. Either way I think that’s pretty smart of him.'"
Camp surprises: Mora singled out offensive lineman Ben Wysocki and linebacker Ryan Hofmeister as two players who have improved their stock so far in camp.
Wysocki, a redshirt freshman, has benefited from attrition on the line, getting a chance to play multiple positions and filling in admirable for some of the many inured linemen.
"I told him you are one of the real pleasant surprises this camp," Mora said. "Coming out of spring, you were just Ben Wysocki a guy competing to play. Now they call him The Franchise because he can play every position and he has a little swagger to him and he’s playing good football."
Hofmeister, a transfer from Riverside College who redshirted last season, has been trying to fill some of the void left when Patrick Larimore retired because of concussions. He left spring camp at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Eric Kendricks, but is now a serious contender for the starting role vacated by Larimore.
"Every time you look at the film, it’s Ryan Hofmeister," Mora said. "Wow, there’s the Hof. Wow, Ryan making another play. Put him at inside backer, but him at outside, put him on special teams. Wow, he just keeps making plays. He keeps showing up. He one of those guys that creeps in there and sticks with you."
Thanks for the memories: Thursday was UCLA's final practice at Cal State San Bernardino. The Bruins will practice on campus for the rest of camp, but Mora wanted to make sure he gave a special shout out to the staff at Cal State San Bernardino, especially Cliff Dochterman, the director of development for athletics at CSUSB.
"Every time we’d ask for something, rather than saying 'we can’t' or 'no or we don’t do that,' it was 'we’ll find a way to get it done,'" Mora said. "It was just amazing and he got it done. This is a guy who it wasn’t unusual for him to be emptying trash cans at 12:30-1 at night and then be up the next morning at 6 making sure the meeting rooms were open and that the food was good."