Prior to the start of the season I would have said that the left side of the UCLA Football offensive line would be the strongest portion of a rebuilt unit. So far it hasn’t lived up to expectations in 2017.
It was a bad year for the offensive line in 2016 and that’s putting it lightly. They were porous against pass rushers and couldn’t open any holes in the run game. Graduation and the NFL draft came calling for a few players including former UCLA Football LT Connor McDermott whom many said was the best player on this offensive line last year.
Now in 2016 I saw a left tackle that struggled with power and speed. He was lighter in the pants and while he had athleticism he was beaten more than a few times on the season.
McDermott had to be replaced following the end of the season and the team turned to current left tackle Kolton Miller. A player who had finished the previous two seasons injured but showed promise seemed like a really good fit for the position. On the right side of the line he had displayed power and athleticism but he had his growing pains as well.
There were two other factors working in Miller’s favor. The first was the hiring of new OL coach Hank Fraley who took over for Adrian Klemm following his dismissal. One of his first moves was taking a guy I think is a strong guard player for the Bruins in Andre James and moving him to left guard. The combination of both Miller and James looked like a sure fire homerun and I believed it would become the dominant side of the offensive line.
Of course injuries and the need to find the strongest combination on the line separated the two and Najee Toran became the starting LG with James moving to right tackle. Here’s where things went a little south. While the line as a whole is a much improved unit thus far, Miller has had a rough start to his season.
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I believe James really helped cover the inside of the line for Miller who has been susceptible to inside moves especially when he is facing a rusher who knows how to use his speed to force Miller into oversetting. Toran is a capable guard but James really covered up some of the weaknesses in Miller’s game. He can cover up some of these with technique but the staff has to find ways to give him some help in the form of backs or TEs who can chip before releasing out into their routes.
Things won’t get any easier Saturday when Miller will see plenty of LB Genard Avery when they take on the Memphis Tigers. Avery has been upgraded to “probable” for the game and is a defensive monster for the Tigers. Used as an off-ball LB, Avery is a downhill thumper but is stiff in the openfield. That stiffness can be exploited by forcing him to play in space which is something the UCLA Football offense has recently emphasized to great success.
Where he’s most dangerous is as an edge rusher when in obvious passing downs. Built like a bowling ball, Avery is already low to the ground and is able to show some bend around the edge that makes it difficult for taller players to get a hand on him. He can also beat tackles with power when he gets into their chest and using his power and leverage is able to drive them back into the QBs lap.
Miller has the talent and the coaching to put his rough start behind him and graduate to a steady left tackle option. Of course like anyone looking to graduate to the next level, there’s always a big test to tackle first.