UCLA O-line wants to run, but first, someone needs to snap

LOS ANGELES (AP) — UCLA offensive lineman Michael Alves is eager to establish a dominant ground game under new coach Chip Kelly.

Just one problem: two weeks into training camp, the Bruins are struggling to get the ball to the backfield.

“We’re having trouble snapping right now,” Alves said Tuesday. “We’re trying to get a consistent snap done. It’s really hard when you’re trying to learn the offense, too, and technique at the same time, so it really just has to become a habit.”

UCLA is trying to replace three starters in center Scott Quessenberry, guard Najee Toran and left tackle and first-round draft pick Kolton Miller. New offensive line coach Justin Frye has been training this year’s group to play multiple positions, but that’s meant asking players who have never handled the ball to work at center.

Among the candidates so far: Alves, who has spent time at all three interior spots after starting all 13 games at right guard last season, and freshman Chris Murray.

“A lot of the new guys don’t really look like they have snapped a whole lot,” Alves said.

The snapping snafus reflect the uncertainty for an offensive line learning its third new scheme from its third different assistant coach in three seasons. UCLA made a disastrous attempt to become a power run team in 2016, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams in both yards rushing per game and yards per carry. Rebounding slightly last season with a spread offense, the Bruins ran for 113.4 yards per game, or five yards per game fewer than Oregon running back LaMichael James averaged in Kelly’s first season as coach of the Ducks in 2009.

Kelly’s Oregon teams were wildly productive in the run game, averaging at least 231 yards rushing per game in his four seasons by using tempo and spacing to make zone runs and read-option plays even more dangerous. While the specifics of the scheme Kelly will run at UCLA are a closely guarded secret heading into the Sept. 1 opener against Cincinnati, offensive tackle Jake Burton said Kelly’s commitment to running the ball has not changed.

“He’s talked about the mindset,” Burton said. “You have to come out and you have to think in your mind as an offensive line, ‘We are going to run the ball today. We are going to come off the line hard, fast, physical.'”

Another newcomer is also making an impression, but graduate transfer Justin Murphy is not lacking for experience. Murphy made 12 career starts at Texas Tech, but did not play last season because of knee and shoulder injuries. At 6-foot-6 and 291 pounds, Murphy could be an option at guard or tackle, and his disposition has already made an impression on his new teammates.

“He definitely adds a nastiness component that is much needed for our offensive line and for our team,” Burton said.

“Oh, he’s a beast,” Alves said. “He came in the first day and was already putting people on the ground. It’s like he has never even been injured before. I don’t know why Texas Tech wouldn’t want him. He’s one of the best guys in our room already.”

Alves is confident the addition of Kelly, Frye and Murphy will restore the run offense that UCLA has been missing.

“My past two years I’ve been here, we’ve had pretty bad run offenses,” Alves said. “My freshman year, I think we were one of the worst in NCAA, so to come in here and not be able to run the ball really hurts me as an O-lineman. It’s a big weight on our shoulders, and I think our guys can handle it.”