Bruins’ offensive line has spent a lot of time in the trenches

By Chris Foster
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington – UCLA will send out an offensive line with plenty of experience Tuesday in the EagleBank Bowl. Whether that’s a good thing is to be seen when the Bruins play Temple.

Four of the five linemen got considerable playing time in 2008, with 32 starts among them before this season. That training, though, came during a 4-8 season in which the Bruins couldn’t run the ball consistently — but did consistently leave their quarterback fleeing for life and limb.

“They’re who we have and they’re excited about playing,” Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “They know they’ve got to play well enough to get this done.”

The Bruins had to plug holes in the offensive line when guard Eddie Williams suffered a season-ending ankle injury in October. Ryan Taylor, his replacement, injured his foot in November. That thrust junior Jake Dean, who started seven games last season, into the lineup.

The line took another hit last week, when center Kai Maiava became academically ineligible. That shifted Dean to center and put senior Nick Ekbatani into the lineup. Ekbatani started 12 games last season. Tackle Mike Harris (five starts in 2008) and guard Jeff Baca (eight starts in 2008) are already starters.

The Bruins were one of the worst teams nationally in rushing offense, averaging only 83 yards per game. They also gave up 35 sacks.

That was then; offensive line coach Bob Palcic hopes this is now.

“I’ve seen them grow and watched what they did during the off-season,” he said. “They have become stronger and are more familiar with the system.”

Harris and Baca certainly were this season. Both have started every game, as has freshman Xavier Su’a-Filo. UCLA improved, averaging 116 yards rushing and giving up only 22 sacks.

“Everybody who was on that line learned from last year,” said Harris, a sophomore. “With all that went into this off-season, we knew that we had come back and prove ourselves.”

Prince to start

Neuheisel said he needed to see quarterback Kevin Prince operate in cold weather to gauge whether the freshman’s injured right shoulder was up to the task.

“He’s our guy,” Neuheisel said after the Bruins practiced in 30-degree weather.

Prince made several accurate deep throws. More important, he showed he could throw across his body with little or no pain.

“There was one play today where he was on the run and made a great throw to Nelson Rosario,” Neuheisel said. “That had been one where he had been wincing just two days ago. Today there was no pain. That’s a good sign.”

Quick hits

The Bruins received a scare when defensive tackle Brian Price appeared to injure his knee in practice. After being examined by trainers, Price returned for a few reps and said after practice that the knee was fine. . . . During Saturday’s news conference, Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty read a city proclamation that the teams “. . . almost guarantee an exciting game . . .” Almost? “The mayor, obviously, hasn’t watched enough football this year,” Neuheisel said, smiling.