Just months removed from high school, UCLA offensive linemen Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond will play central roles in a stretch head coach Jim Mora dubbed "playoff mode."
The Bruins host Arizona State Saturday in a matchup central to the Pac-12 Conference Championship landscape. An Arizona State win guarantees the Sun Devils a spot in the league title game on Dec. 7. Though UCLA still needs a victory over crosstown rival USC in the regular season finale, beating the Sun Devils puts the Bruins in control of the Pac-12 South.
Such implications make for quite the initiating for UCLA's freshmen offensive linemen, and further heightening the challenge is the defense facing them Saturday in the Rose Bowl.
"This is a very, very, very good defensive front," Mora said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches' teleconference call. "We all recognize what a talent [Arizona State defensive tackle] Will Sutton is, but...I think they start eight seniors [on defense], so they're a veteran group."
Indeed, along with 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Sutton, Arizona State relies on seniors defensive end Davon Coleman, cornerback Osahon Irabor, safety Alden Darby, cornerback Robert Nelson and linebacker Chris Young. Linebacker Carl Bradford is a fourth-year junior.
That's a stark contrast to a UCLA line starting three true freshman, as well as redshirt sophomore Jake Brendel. Junior Xavier Su'a-Filo is the veteran and most well-rounded of the unit.
"He was an All Pac-12 performer last year, and he was very worthy of that," Mora said. "He turns heads every time he plays—not that offensive linemen turn a lot of heads, but comparative to his position, he's turning heads."
Su'a-Filo has played all across the line while helping to patch the Bruins' various holes. His versatility is crucial to matching up with Arizona State's defense, which under head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, is one of the conference's most tenacious.
On Tuesday, Graham emphasized the Sun Devils' need to create and exploit mismatches up front.
"The key in college football [are] personnel matchups, getting guys matched up against the guys you want to take advantage of," he said. "Each week, we try to look at the personnel matchups and set our game plan to those matchups. That’s where we think we have the biggest advantage."
UCLA's young linemen have had to learn on a steep curve, adapting to the speed and complexities of the college game amid a Rose Bowl chase, while also facing some of the toughest defensive fronts in the nation.
Benenoch and Redmond were thrust into prominent roles for UCLA's Oct. 19 showdown with Stanford, the No. 6-ranked sacking defense in the nation, after losing Torian White to an ankle injury for the season. White was suspended from the team indefinitely this week following an arrest.
Quessenberry, who Mora said was expected to redshirt, joined on Oct. 26 at Oregon to face the seventh best defense in yards allowed per play at 4.4. Quessenberry was needed with sophomore Simon Goines lost to a knee injury and reserve Conor McDermott to a shoulder injury. Goines is back, though in a limited capacity.
Nearly every Saturday has brought with it a unique challenge for the Bruins' freshmen. Last week, the test was Washington's top 20 sacking defense. The Huskies brought down UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley in the backfield twice.
It's been a difficult introduction to the conference, thus forced the young Bruins to mature quickly.
"I've been impressed with all three of the freshmen starters," Mora said. "In particular, Scott Quessenberry...has really responded and shown great maturity, picked things up really quickly and played with a high level of consistency."
In the below clip, Quessenberry opens a hole for running back Malcolm Jones and maintains his block, helping spring Jones for 45 yards.
While game experience has helped, Mora said the freshmen's collective improvement is reflective of attitude.
"We're always looking to get better, but for starting three freshmen, a redshirt sophomore and a junior, they've gotten better every week," Mora said. "They take it very seriously. [Offensive line coach] Adrian Klemm does an excellent job coaching them, and they have a real desire to get better."
Graham said in scouting the Bruins, he too sees the youngsters' strides.
"You could tell earlier in the season when they were first playing [compared to now], they’ve got a better grasp of what they’re doing," he said.
Still, compensating for experience can prove especially difficult, and the experience gap between UCLA and Arizona State is reminiscent of the Sun Devils' Sept. 28 matchup with USC.
The Sun Devils were struggling to accrue sacks at the torrid pace they maintained in 2012 heading into the USC game on Sept. 28, but they teed off on Trojans' sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler four times and made nine tackles for loss overall.
Finding a similar way to exploit its edge and get to Hundley is a key Graham recognizes.
"It’s not like those guys they have aren’t very talented. They’re very talented guys, they’re just young," he said. "That’s where we need to dominate up front."