UCLA's freshmen offensive linemen are getting some serious on-the-job training.
Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond made their first career starts Oct. 19 against Stanford, the nation's top sack-creating defense in 2012 that is third-ranked this season. Fellow frosh Scott Quessenberry joined them last week, making his collegiate debut against Oregon, the nation's No. 16 sacking defense.
Injuries across the Bruins front five forced head coach Jim Mora to patch holes with first-year players, and the result hasn't been without its bumps. But on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call, he said the youngsters have responded well to the adversity.
"What's fun about college football is these guys are young and hungry and they get over stuff quicker. Things don't seem to linger," he said. "You turn the page and you go, but you learn the lessons as you go."
Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley was under consistent duress behind the makeshift front five, which caused him to press. Mora attributed Hundley's uneasiness to "uncertainty."
Hundley has been sacked 17 times on the season. Seven came in the Bruins’ last two games with the youngsters filling in for Torian White and Simon Goines.
Oregon only brings three pass-rushers, but one is sack leader and veteran defensive end Tony Washington. He beats Benenoch to flush Hundley from the pocket and send the quarterback scrambling into a waiting linebacker, Boseko Lokombo.
Benenoch is beat again by Washington, who simply speeds past the freshman tackle to force a fumble.
Such misfires give Mora and his staff teachable moments, which he said is translating to improvement.
"You've got to learn the lessons that were taught in the losses and apply them going forward," he said. "Let's find out what's went wrong and get it fixed."
And the growth of the offensive line obviously impacts Hundley's performance.
"What Brett has taken from that Oregon game is that group well," Mora said. "Brett's confidence will naturally grow just from the fact he understands now that he's got an offensive line in front of him that's played together a little bit, and is showing great improvement."
A facet of the college game that can't be completely replicated in practice is its speed. There are few, if any, teachers as adept at showcasing speed as Oregon.
Similarly, there are few teachers as effective experience, and seeing that speed firsthand accelerates the maturation process, as Hundley explained in his postgame press conference last Saturday, per GoDucks.com:
None of the freshmen that we started are freshmen anymore. I think we need to understand that whoever’s on the field is the best at that position. I don’t consider anyone by freshmen, sophomore—anything like that—we’re all trying to be champions, and at the end of the day we have to get the job done.
Hundley speaks from experience, himself stepping into a key contributing role as a freshman.
Likewise, sophomore Goines started 13 games on the line as a freshman last year. All-American junior Xavier Su'a-Filo started in his debut season, 2009.
The Pac-12 South could come down to UCLA's Nov. 23 date with Arizona State. The Sun Devils pulled ahead of the South's defending divisional champion, the Bruins, after UCLA's defeat at Oregon.
Arizona State was one of the nation's most prolific sack-generating defenses a season ago and have come on in recent weeks after a slow start.
To that end, the line's improved ability to protect Hundley could determine the Bruins' Pac-12 fate. UCLA's freshmen linemen get to enact the hard lessons taught against Stanford and Oregon the next two weeks against Colorado and Arizona.
The Buffaloes and Wildcats each have just nine sacks, ranking No. 112 nationally, and the Bruins are working in this week's practices to pay the lumps earned at Stanford and Oregon forward.
"I was excited about today's practice," Mora said. "[The players] were...wired in and focused and enthusiastic to be back on the field. And they're excited about the opportunities in front of them."
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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