UCLA's young O-line will be tested by Aztecs' 3-3-5
September, 1, 2009
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
The odds are that UCLA -- if the LA wildfires don't force the game's cancellation -- will beat San Diego State on Saturday. After all, the Bruins are 20-0-1 all-time vs. the Aztecs.
San Diego State is breaking in a new coach: Brady Hoke, formerly of Ball State. And the Aztecs went 2-10 last year.
Not that the game doesn't have a certain intrigue.
For one, loyal Phil Steele readers know that his magazine projected the Aztecs to be one of the nation's most improved teams, pointing out they welcome back 17 starters and lost only 18 total lettermen, fewest in the Mountain West Conference.
Mountain West? Didn't the Pac-10 cross paths with that conference last year?
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said Tuesday that he has no idea what the Aztecs will do -- "It's as in the dark as I've ever been," he laughed. That's because Hoke has closed practices -- even preseason practices -- a step that is almost always useless and counterproductive for a rebuilding program that desperately needs exposure.
As for mystery -- there is none.
Hoke made some outstanding hires: Al Borges is in charge of the offense and Rocky Long runs the defense. Both are coaching veterans with Pac-10 pedigrees, so you could fill a library with scouting reports on their schemes and tendencies.
That's where the intrigue comes in. You know exactly what Long's defense is going to do.
It's going to be nuts. His 3-3-5 scheme is a real pain for offenses because it's one of the few defenses out there that is truly unusual.
And no matter how good the Aztecs personnel is -- or isn't -- that scheme is going to stress the Bruins young offensive line.
While the final incarnation of the depth chart had sophomore Jeff Baca starting in front of true freshman Stan Hasiak at left guard, the Bruins will still start true freshman Xavier Su'a-Filo at left tackle, first-year JC transfer Eddie Williams at right guard and two other sophomores, right tackle Mike Harris and center Kai Maiava.
Baca started eight games last year; Harris five. That's the entirety of their experience, though Maiava started nine games as a true freshman in 2007 at Colorado. That is an inexperience line for a team that plans to "run the ball or die trying," per Neuheisel's felicitous turn of phrase.
Yes, Neuheisel is worried, but the young guys prevailed in preseason competition. They haven't just been plugged in as desperation moves or because coaches are merely laying a foundation for the future.
"It's troubling from the standpoint that we are dealing with a lot of guys who are unknown with respect to game action," he said. "But they've deserve their chances to be there. They haven't been given these jobs by default. They've earned them. So you just have to trust that they will do fine."
What's more, Long's funky defense will be eager to make life difficult for redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince, who hasn't played in a football game in two years.
"I believe he is going to have a great freshman year," Neuheisel said.
Toss in freshman tailback Johnathan Franklin and sophomore receiver Taylor Embree and you have a really young offense.
That suggests that the Bruins, inevitably, will be confused at times and will blow assignments.
How many they blow -- and how well they bounce back from those mistakes -- might provide a good measuring stick for what we can expect from a UCLA offense that is trying to rehabilitate itself after a horrendous 2008 performance.