This is not a visual that is easy to comprehend, but there are certain times during a UCLA football game when Noel Mazzone becomes a five-year-old girl watching a horror movie in a crowded theatre.
He covers his eyes with both hands, ever so slowly peeling his fingers apart, letting the light crack through, desperately hoping not to catch a glimpse of the terror unfolding before him.
He has a freshman at quarterback and sometimes two freshmen at wide receiver and, most chillingly, down to the very core, three freshmen on the offensive line. He blames – Thanks? Sometimes blames. – Adrian Klemm for that.
But there they are, protecting Brett Hundley’s blind side and his front side and his backside and every side, and it is as if Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are wielding axes as Leatherface comes roaring in with a chainsaw.
“To be honest with you, during a game, I don’t even really watch them,” Mazzone said. “I can’t. Too scared. When you’ve got three freshmen up there, I’m worried about my freshmen in the backfield.”
Noel, uncover your eyes.
There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Somehow, someway, the UCLA offensive line, with a true freshman at right tackle in Simon Goines and redshirt freshmen at left tackle in Torian White and center in Jake Brendel, is not the Haunted House.
There are times it’s felt to Mazzone and Klemm like a roller coaster, sure.
Thing is, in a 3-0 season that seems to promise to get better, it just keeps going up.
When Klemm arrived in Westwood from SMU as Jim Mora’s first and, in some ways, most important hire, he discovered an offensive line in absolute tatters. Maybe that’s too kind. Shreds of the already shredded.
He was faced with a difficult task. Pull from the rubble five guys to comprise a starting line.
Two were just about as cemented in as could be: Senior Jeff Baca, who returned with 33 career starts and the only major experience on the line, and Xavier Su’a-Filo, back from his LDS mission and a two-year layoff. That left three spots up for grabs, with a mix of elder and younger contenders. In one corner, guys like Greg Capella and Albert Cid. In the other, the youngsters, with less than a decade of real football between the three of them.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you play the two juniors with experience at guard, leave Baca and Su’a-Filo at tackle and ease the young guys into the game.
“I think most people expected us to put Jeff Baca and Xavier Su’a-Filo at the tackle spot before the season, but that'd be the easy thing to do,” Klemm said. “Eventually you want to get your best players on the field.”
Talk to Klemm now, and he knew it all along.
Early on, he sometimes said as much. He saw something in the 6-5 White and the 6-7 Goines that he could never teach: pure, sheer, dominating size. The whispers started flying.
Klemm wasn’t too impressed with what he was seeing out of the veterans. He was going to turn it over to the young guys. Mazzone would give the keys of the castle to Hundley, Klemm was going to give the keys to the moat to freshmen, and the Jim Mora Youth Movement would be in effect.
Just think what these guys could be three years from now!
The potential! Oh, the potential!
But come on. Three starting freshmen in the most pivotal unit on the field, for a team that hasn’t had a serviceable line in eons, in a season that featured a favorable schedule and on a team with an experienced defense?
No way were these guys just going to hand it over to potential.
Seriously, no way.
“Listen to this: never mistake potential for performance,” Mazzone said. “Potential has never won a game in the history of anything. Do they have potential? Yeah. But that didn’t win us these games. What wins is performance. Life is performance-based. Two years from now, holy cow, but right now, it’s about their performance. They’ve grown and learned and they’re performing.”
That’s the thing the UCLA coaching staff wants to make very, very clear.
White, Goines and Brendel are not playing on Saturday because they’ll be good in 2014.
There’s work to be done now.
Klemm’s perspective was formed during a lengthy NFL playing career, spent primarily with the New England Patriots. There, he saw the value of raw talent, and what it means to have room to fail.
“If you get a guy, and you think he's talented, like a first- or second-round pick, instead of sitting there and easing him into it for two, three years, you throw him in the fire, put the coals to his feet, see how he responds,” Klemm said of the NFL model. “That's just what you do at that level. The expectations are different. I’m not saying that they’re NFL guys, but I think they are going to be players, so why have them sit there and take their time? They are kids and if you coddle them, protect them, a lot of times they won’t develop as fast as they can because there’s no pressure on them. I wanted to put them in pressure situations all throughout camp and I just rode them every single day. I rode them, Jim rode them, so did Noel. We put a lot of pressure on them to see if they could work under it and they could.”
It took a while to find out, though.
White was sidelined for most of fall camp because of a heart condition – he’ll undergo a procecure to correct a murmur during UCLA's bye week in mid-October – while Goines battled heat-related symptoms. They were dealt with delicately, as their physical health was of utmost concern.
Not just physical health, though.
Klemm ushered White and Goines in gradually, hoping that they would develop their minds and confidence without leaning too heavily on the older guys surrounding them, and that includes Brendel, who may only be a redshirt freshman but who plays with the understanding of a wily veteran.
“I want to talk about Brendel,” Su’a-Filo said, unrelated to the question. “He’s a redshirt freshman but I respect him a lot because he doesn’t play like that. He’s playing like he’s an older boy and Simon and Torian have hopped onto that.”
Added Mazzone: “The guy who is the unsung guy of the group is Brendel. The job he has done as another freshman is unbelievable. Then you’ve got Xavier and Jeff and they know those are their little brothers at the tackles and they all kind of take care of each other, which is cool.”
Klemm didn’t want the older guys taking too much of a coaching burden, though. Particularly not on the field, and particularly not right out of the huddle. There’s a reason it seemed to take until the day before the team left for Rice for the group to be set.
“One of the reasons we didn’t put them in initially is because we didn’t want them to rely on Xavier and Baca to tell them what to do,” Klemm said. “As the young guys, we wanted to force them to learn it. If you’re a young guy, and you listen to Xavier and Baca from the jump, you’re just going to rely on them. ‘Hey, what do I do on this, what do I do on this.' But you put them in there with other young guys, other freshmen, and it forces them to lead. They have to learn it, because they can’t rely on someone else to learn it for them. They have to be vocal. Then when you put them together and you have guys who are experienced and now these guys know what they are doing a little bit, it’s a lot easier.”
What made it even easier was the willingness to learn displayed by the two tackle tykes.
With a wide-open competition, inviting to all of the offensive linemen who had been in the program and the newcomers, Klemm said have at it. The eagerness to compete showed by White and Goines, though, was exceptional.
“All the freshmen were given the opportunity to come in and compete early,” Klemm said. “Some rose to the occasion, and some were content with just, ‘It’s not my year, I’m going to redshirt.’ You could see that early. The guys who were hungry, who wanted it, and the guys who would just let the older guy get it, weren’t jumping to the front of the line. From the start, Simon was a guy who tried to jump in, who was always first in line. When we were going through the offseason, he’d follow Brendel around. You could see he wanted those things.”
Goines wanted them, because Klemm told him early that he could get them.
Goines, the 37th-ranked tackle in the country according to Scout.com, flipped to the Bruins from Missouri in late-January, in part because of the opportunity for early playing time.
“I told him during the recruiting process, ‘I'm going to plug you in there, and if you can keep the job, it’s yours.’ He was able to do that. No one was able to pull it from him. Is he where we'd like him to be all the time? No. But he's been better than other guys at that position. He's been getting better every week. It’s a lot for him as a freshman; he’s learning the new offense, the new tempo, school.”
Klemm points out one of the forgotten advantages that he’s been able to utilize with Goines, and White to an extent – the fact that UCLA has not yet begun classes. Goines has been able to focus on football, Klemm said, and he has spent extra time watching film, dropping in for impromptu lessons and, most importantly, acclimate himself to a weight training program for essentially the first time.
Goines played basketball for Central High in Keller, Texas, and he spent much of his time during the summer playing AAU ball. He joined the Bruins with some grasp of the game, but little of the commitment.
“Simon is raw,” Klemm said. “He’s a guy who has never had an offseason of football, ever. This was his first time really lifting weights, not doing the beach workouts, just the curls. Being with (football strength and conditioning coach) Sal Alosi, that was, well, it was an eye-opening experience for him. We had to have our come-to-Jesus meeting with him.”
You can just picture the bashful, surprisingly timid, 6-foot-7, 324-pound monster cowering in a chair while Alosi screams, eyes twitching, about what was demanded. With Klemm riding shotgun, trying to avoid the spittle.
“We had to tell him what our expectations were,” Klemm said. “He didn’t understand. He thought he was working hard, and he didn’t understand what hard is. Ever since that talk, he’s pushed a lot. But he has a lot of natural strength, grown-man strength. You look at him in the weight room, and he looks strong, OK. But then he gets on the field and he punches people and he uses his tremendous length. He’s 320 and he’s not fat at all. It’s scary to think what he can be even next year after a full offseason with Sal.”
And, there, once more, potential meets performance.
It is difficult with young players to separate the two.
One swift jolt to the clavicle does the job. It is Goines’ best, perhaps only, move, and it’s a good one.
To hear people describe Goines’ punch, you’d think they were describing a boxer, a brawler, a mauler. Someone with a steak on one eye, three teeth missing, blood dripping, in a torn shirt and with a Brooklyn accent. They talk about his punch as if it is his only tangible attribute, the only thing that keeps him in the game, and maybe right now, it is.
His coaches call it violent, and when asked to clarify, they get excited, fired up, like Cus D’Amato talking about Mike Tyson’s hook.
“His punch is amazing,” Klemm said, pronouncing it uh-maaaay-zing. “He is violent at the point and he is really physical. That’s his main attribute. All the technique we work on all the time, but what really saves him is his punch. He just uses his hands well. He’s violent. He has the tendency to lunge, but that is only because he’s such an aggressive person.”
While Goines draws rave reviews for his hands, White gets kudos for his feet.
Lacking upper-body strength when he arrived at UCLA but blessed with athleticism and hops from his days as a volleyball and basketball player, White redshirted last season to develop his body.
It has worked.
“Sometimes you walk behind him in the halls and you’re just like, ‘He’s a pretty good-looking dude,’” Klemm said. “He looks the part. Athletic, tremendous shape, but he’s not real strong. And he doesn’t understand the game yet. He has just tremendous gifts, though; he’s so gifted athletically, and there are times where he gets beat not because of what someone else is doing but because he is just in poor position because he doesn’t understand leverage. But he’s so gifted and he has such great feet, so much length, and he is so quick and sudden that he can recover quickly. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it’s very effective.”
For now, though, it’s not always so pretty.
Klemm sits back in his chair – his knees are still hurting – and he chuckles about the innocent questions that the kiddies ask. The process is this: Youngster asks obvious question, Klemm stands, mouth agape, shaking his head, gives answer, youngster says, “Oooohhhhh, yeaaaah." Klemm stands astonished. When asked for a specific no-duh moment, he says, “too many.”
Sometimes the youthful innocence bleeds into the game, though the success of the line has been noted. UCLA’s offense lagged at times against Houston, the team’s sloppiest offensive performance to date, a showing that included three sacks, 10 tackles-for-loss and several quarterback hurries. Still, the Bruins managed 567 yards, 37 points and 29 first downs.
“At times our youth shows through,” Mazzone said. “These guys haven't played in a lot of games. We had two pretty emotional games the first two weeks, and against Houston, what it proved to our kids offensively was that it's not the plays, it's the players. You've got to prepare every week, be focused every week.
“I think that game was pretty indicative of the week we had offensively. I don't think we were as sharp as we had been the first couple weeks. The youth kind of starts taking things for granted. Hey, mom is always going to have milk in the refrigerator, right? Then you move into your own apartment, and you've got to go buy your own milk, right? A lot was learned by our group that will pay dividends later.”
Right now, UCLA coaches are having a tough time balancing giddiness with the raising of expectations.
Of course, the 3-0 start has the Bruin faithful fired up, and the forgiving schedule lines up nicely.
But the coaching staff is still cautious, still mindful of the fact that freshmen are freshmen.
“Nothing is going to happen overnight,” Klemm said. “Everything is a work in progress. During camp I was real hard on them, but day in, day out I try not to go to crazy on them because I understand they’re developing. It’s not going to happen overnight, and they need to understand that. They need to understand there is a sense of urgency, but they’re going to miss some things as well.
"Every day we can build upon this masterpiece.”
Wait, stop. Hold on.
When’s the last time you could call the UCLA offensive line a masterpiece, something worth building on?
Mazzone credits the line’s quick cohesion to Klemm’s street cred. The same qualities that have turned Klemm into one of the hottest young recruiters in the country – his ability to relate to players and already small age gap – have him connecting with the line on a deep level.
“The thing about Coach Klemm is, he’s not very removed from playing the game,” Mazzone said. “He’s awesome with those kids in terms of talking to them. Sometimes as coaches we get everything on a board – you should be able to do this, you should be able to do that – it wasn’t that long ago he had to do it, so he knows the reality of playing those five positions. He has done a great job with those guys. He is starting to mold them together.”
Pretty quickly, Mazzone is realizing he doesn’t have to hide behind his hands.
He can look at his youthful offensive line and have wide eyes and smile and no know that they don’t have wide eyes and they’re not smiling. They’ve caught on quickly.
Nothing to be scared about.
“Nebraska, I was very surprised how they adjusted to it,” Klemm said. “Not from the physical standpoint of who they’re going against, but it’s a big stage, loud crowd, first game at home. Even the Rice game, I was curious to see how Simon was going to respond. He probably had 50, 60 people at the game. I didn't know if he'd be on the phone the whole night before.
“These are just young kids, and you can forget how young they are, and it's not even football all the time that you're worried about. But if they're mature throughout, it’s important to them, and they get after it -- look, they’ll go through some growing pains, and would I like things to be better, yeah. But from what the tackle play has been in the past, I think it’s an improvement.”
Yeah, it’s not horrifying. That’s for sure.