- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- In any conversation with current UCLA linemen, it doesn't take long for the subject of strength to come up.
They'll tell you about how much they can bench press, their personal bests in the squat or how they can roll truck tires clear across the field without stopping.
But mostly they talk about strength in the context of what the offensive line hopes to become on this year's Bruins squad: strength as in the opposite of weakness.
The general perception of UCLA's big men for the past two years has been that they have held the Bruins back. Fans, coaches and media alike have derided the line for lackluster performances that contributed to a mediocre UCLA offensive attack.
But this year's linemen have arrived at camp with a collective chip on their shoulder pads. They hit the weight room hard over the offseason, working intensely with strength and conditioning coach Mike Linn, and insist this is the year the offensive line will lead the way for the Bruins' attack.
"We have received a large amount of ridicule over the past couple of years," said Micah Kia, a fifth-year senior tackle. "It's time all that changed."
The ridicule was based upon numbers.
Two years ago, UCLA ranked 116th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 82.75 rushing yards per game. The Bruins ranked 110th in the nation with 35 sacks allowed.
Those ugly statistics served as a slap in the face for a proud group of linemen, and most of the players keep them in mind every time they hit the weight room, every time they run sprints and every time they are trying to finish a block at the end of a two-a-day practice.
"It's definitely a motivator," guard Jeff Baca said. "People are dissing you. They're talking down on you. As an offensive line, we've done everything we can in the offseason to get where we want to go because we know that as the offensive line goes, the team goes."
The line showed hints of a turnaround last year, when current linemen Mike Harris, Kai Maiava and Baca were among those who helped UCLA improve on its 2008 numbers. In 2009, the Bruins ranked 97th in the nation in rushing with 114.62 yards a game and jumped to 78th in sacks allowed with 29.
Still, few of the linemen were satisfied because the Bruins' offensive line once again entered this season as the team's biggest question mark.
"Everyone is always trying to put us down saying the O-line is the weakest part of our offense," said Maiava, the starting center. "We know they say that about us, but we just have to go and prove that they are wrong."
The questions only grew deeper during the first week of camp.
Baca, a 13-game starter at left guard last season, is academically ineligible pending an NCAA review. He also has been hobbling the sidelines in a protective boot after suffering a stress reaction during the first week of camp, so he's not sure if he will be ready for the opener even if he's cleared by the NCAA.
Harris, who started all 13 games at left tackle last season, has been suspended for the season opener for a violation of team rules. Another 13-game starter, Xavier Su'a-Filo, is on his two-year Mormon mission. A line that looked to be returning four starters may have Maiava as the only returning starter who plays in the Sept. 4 opener at Kansas State.
"I'm not really too worried," Maiava said. "Even with some of the losses, we're still looking good."
Kia, who missed last season because of a knee injury, returns to help offset those losses, as does Eddie Williams, a 6-1, 330-pound rock of a right guard who might be the strongest player on the Bruins. Williams started the first six games last year, but broke his ankle against California and sat out the rest of the season.
Fifth-year seniors Sean Sheller and Ryan Taylor also figure to play quite a bit, giving the line a host of experienced players who have been together for a number of years.
"We have a lot of experienced guys and that plays a huge role," Maiava said. "We all have to be on the same page or the play won't work. With the experience and knowledge we have coming back, it makes getting on the same page a lot easier."
During the 2008 season, when UCLA went 4-8, the play of the offensive line became a scapegoat. It was singled out as the team's biggest problem. But instead of sulking and complaining, the linemen took it upon themselves to do something about it. They rallied and formed a bond.
"Every one of us takes it very personally when people say the O-line is the problem," Harris said. "We got tired of people saying stuff about us. We took it to heart and became more determined and worked harder."
The effort has paid off, according to defensive lineman David Carter, a senior who says he faces a line with a new attitude every day in practice.
"They knew it had gotten to the point where they had to get better and they have," Carter said. "There is definitely an attitude change. Every time I go into the weight room, one of those guys is in there. They're aiming for perfection, aiming for greatness as opposed to just trying to play."
Carter is particularly impressed with how much the linemen have improved their strength.
"They're getting to a point where they're just leveraging guys and when they get in close there is no escaping their grip," Carter said. "It's crazy."
Coach Rick Neuheisel, who inherited an offensive line in disarray when he arrived in 2008, says the line is still a work in progress, but that Bob Palcic, a highly regarded offensive line coach with more than 40 years of experience building lines, has molded the unit into a solid piece of the team.
"We're not there yet," Neuheisel said. "But I think that we're miles ahead of where we were when we first got here, no question."
When Neuheisel first took over, he noticed a big difference in his offensive linemen compared with the linemen of opponents and approached Linn, the strength and conditioning coach.
"He said, 'How long is it going to take for our guys to look like those guys?'" Linn said. "That put the word out. The last couple of years in this program, the offensive line has needed a push and I think we look the part now."
Linn keeps track of which Bruins lift the most in the bench press, squats and the power clean. Currently, Maiava leads the bench press at more than 400 pounds for three reps. Baca leads the power clean at 330 pounds and Ryan Taylor, another offensive lineman, leads squats at 600.
"By position, the offensive line is the strongest pound for pound on the team," Linn said. "That wasn't the case three years ago."
The Bruins' offensive linemen the strongest unit on the team?
In more ways than one, they hope.
Peter Yoon is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
22hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna