A group of returning veterans will hold down the interior, but turnover at the tackles could decide how successful the Bruins’ offense is this season.
With UCLA football’s offseason winding down, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2022 campaign and what lies ahead for the Bruins on the gridiron. Before scouting opponents and projecting the Pac-12 pecking order, it’s best to look within by picking apart how UCLA will shape up on its own sidelines.
All Bruins will be breaking down every position group over the next week, and the offensive line is up next. To catch up on the positions already covered, take a look below:
LT 1: Raiqwon O’Neal, redshirt junior
LT 2: Tyler Manoa, super senior
LT 3: Bruno Fina, redshirt sophomore
LT 4: Niki Prongos, freshman
LG 1: Atonio Mafi, super senior
LG 2: Noah Pulealii, redshirt freshman
LG 3: Siale Taupaki, redshirt junior
LG 4: Yutaka Mahe, redshirt freshman
C 1: Duke Clemens, senior
C 2: Sam Marrazzo, super senior
C 3: Benjamin Roy Jr., redshirt freshman
RG 1: Jon Gaines II, redshirt senior
RG 2: Josh Carlin, redshirt junior
RG 3: Sam Yoon, freshman
RG 4: Justin Williams, redshirt sophomore
RT 1: Garrett DiGiorgio, redshirt freshman
RT 2: Jaylan Jeffers, redshirt sophomore
RT 3: Liam Douglass, senior
RT 4: Brad Whitworth, redshirt junior
For losing three starters, there is a decent amount of holdover on the Bruins’ offensive line.
That mostly applies to the interior, though, as the tackle spots are looking very different than they did in 2021.
Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson were mainstays at left and right tackle, respectively, the past few seasons. O’Neal is Rhyan’s replacement on the blind side, and while he isn’t currently projected to be a top-100 NFL Draft pick like his predecessor, the Rutgers transfer was All-Big Ten honorable mention each of the past two years.
Manoa has moved over from the defensive line, and after getting first-team reps at right tackle in the spring, he spent most of fall camp as O’Neal’s backup.
DiGiorgio stepped when Anderson was hurt last season, seeing the field for about two games worth of action. As a true freshman, he was shaky early, but managed to be a solid blocker in the second half of the Utah loss.
Jeffers transferred in from Oregon after not getting a ton of playing time up in Eugene, while Douglass came in from USC. Douglass is currently injured, seemingly long term, so depth at that spot could be questionable. Carlin played there in the spring before O’Neal, Jeffers, Douglass and Yoon arrived, so he could move over there as well.
Speaking of Yoon, he was a tackle in high school, but he might have to be eased into the position at the college level. Of course, he could play either on the inside or outside if necessary, but as the lone true freshman on scholarship up front, he is probably more so a project for the future.
Gaines will be the starting right guard, possibly locked into one position for the full season for the first time in a long time. The veteran has played both guard spots, center and right tackle, but the health and depth at the other spots should let Gaines plant his feet at right guard in 2022.
Mafi is technically replacing Paul Grattan Jr. as the starting left guard, but in the back half of the year, they were essentially splitting snaps 50/50. The defensive line transplant is in better shape than he ever has been while still retaining solid size, and he has proven capable of pulling and moving well in coach Chip Kelly’s run scheme.
Clemens is back as the No. 1 center, while Marrazzo is now full healthy and can take snaps there as well. Clemens could move to guard in some combinations where Marrazzo plays center, but Marrazzo is being used as a pure center.
Roy was part of a big offensive line freshman class a year ago and he has proven to be one of the most capable of the bunch. He won’t get considerable time at center with Clemens and Marrazzo in house, but with both of them set to leave next offseason, he will be a key prospect to keep an eye on.
UCLA does not have the same talent up front that it did last year – at least, not on the outside.
O’Neal could end up in the top half of Pac-12 left tackles, but he is not Rhyan. Anderson was big and experienced, while DiGiorgio still has a lot of kinks to work out in his game.
Going from Grattan-Clemens-Gaines with Mafi to Mafi-Clemens-Gaines with Marrazzo is a wash, and could possibly be better with another year of experience under everyone’s belt. As a result, the Bruins’ interior run game could work just as well as it did in 2021, opening up holes for Charbonnet and preventing tackles for loss.
The changes on the outside will negatively impact the passing game, though, and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson probably won’t have as clean a jersey as he did a year ago. Failure to seal the edge could make outside runs with Keegan Jones or Kazmeir Allen difficult as well, not to mention speed and read options.
Of course, opening the year with games against Bowling Green, Alabama State, South Alabama and Colorado gives the offensive line an generously long runway to lock things down before the tough part of the schedule arrives. The pass protection and outside run blocking issues will be harder to notice against lesser competition, and by the end of it, they may have worked out the biggest issues in terms of experience, play design and rotation.
UCLA will allow more sacks than it did last year, and it will probably record fewer yards per carry. If O’Neal can be an all-conference player – which he has the ability to be, given he stays healthy – and DiGiorgio eases his way into a decent season, those worries can be eased a bit and the Bruins’ offense could end up improving as the year progresses.