Last spring, UCLA signed the top quarterback of the 2015 class. Perhaps you’ve heard.
If you live on the West Coast, there is little doubt you have heard of Josh Rosen. He was a 5-star prospect across the board while at St. John Bosco, the No. 1 senior in the nation in most recruiting rankings. His highlight videos — impressive, to be sure — of him, carving up opposing defenses, even the likes of vaunted power Bishop Gorman, litter the Internet.
Bruins coach Jim Mora has been surreptitious in naming his starter for this season, the one who will be tasked with replacing the mighty shoes of Brett Hundley, though all roads are pointing to Rosen.
There is Jerry Neuheisel, the red shirt junior who helped engineer a 20-17 comeback win against a so-so at best Texas team in 2014, though that’s essentially the extent of his college resume. While talented, and a safe option, he is not the future of UCLA football.
Then there is Mike Fafaul, a red shirt junior who hasn’t thrown a collegiate pass since the Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech in 2013.
Finally, there’s Rosen, the most-hyped recruit in one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
He’s wildly talented, as evidenced by his unanimously positive evaluations and track record at St. John Bosco.
But here’s the thing: It really doesn’t matter who Mora trots out under center, especially not for the first three games of the season — Virginia, UNLV, BYU — which could be a valuable teaching opportunity.
Aside from Cordell Broadus quitting the team and P. Diddy using a kettleball as a weapon, the only topic discussed about UCLA football has been centered around the quarterback competition.
Which is unfortunate, because whether it’s Neuheisel or Rosen or Fafaul, the quarterbacks, barring a monumental upset, will enjoy immense success early on, thanks to what appears to be the best offensive line in college football that nobody is talking about.
The Bruins return four starters from last year’s team, the one that finished in the top 10 in the AP poll for the first time since 1998. Throw in right tackle Simon Goines, a starter in 2013 who missed last season with a litany of injuries, and Junior College transfer Zach Bateman, and UCLA has six linemen with starting experience.
Cumulatively, they add up to 131 starts, most in the FBS.
Last year, the most experienced offensive line belonged to Appalachian State, and all that front five did was nearly double their rushing yards per game (from 138 to 242) and cut their total sacks almost in half (from 20 to 11) — in their first year in the FBS.
Experience doesn’t translate as immediately to success as, say, size and talent does, but it can make a supreme difference.
UCLA’s line last year was supposed to be one of its finer points, and it was, though there was still the 10-sack debacle against Utah and some oddly apathetic performances from the offense, namely a 10-point egg laying in the final game of the regular season against Stanford.
For the most part, however, the line more than held up, giving Hundley enough time to graduate as the program’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns and total offense.
Just think of what Paul Perkins, the conference’s rushing leader, will be able to do to defenses with that line opening up holes big enough to dance through.
UCLA has arguably one of the Pac-12’s softest schedules and could feasibly be favored to win every game up until its Nov. 28 date at USC, and even those Trojans have suffered back-to-back-to-back double-digit losses to the Bruins.
The Bruins open with a Virginia team that lost five of its last six games and finished tied for 32 in sacks. That precedes UNLV, who allowed nearly 40 points per game.
Behind that offensive line, against those two opponents, there is no reason Neuheisel or Rosen or Fafaul should not be able to win, and win easy.
The headlines will continue to center around Broadus, or Myles Jack’s recent practice spat, or Kanye, or the decision between Rosen and Neuheisel and Fafaul.
But once the season begins, none of that will much matter. The anonymous fellows up front will take care of that.