LOS ANGELES -- At first, UCLA's offensive line looks like a normal group going through a normal spring practice.
The sights (gigantic men) and sounds (crunching pads, grunts, whistles) aren't unique. Neither are the drills. There are two non-uniformed men providing counsel. Those unaware of the group's circumstances could mistake one as a young position coach. But Blake Bentz is an undergraduate student coach who came to UCLA to play offensive line before being forced to take a medical retirement. Dave Marsh is a graduate assistant for the Bruins offense.
The most active member of the group is the center, Jake Brendel, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection and fifth-year senior who has 39 career starts for the Bruins. One moment, he's instructing tackle Conor McDermott after a one-on-one drill. The next, he's demonstrating a hand technique to guard Alex Redmond. Then he's chatting with Poasi Moala. There are no sedentary moments.
"It's natural for him," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. "It's almost like he's the dad. They listen to him. And right now, they have to depend on each other."
How often do you hear a college player described as a coach on the field? It's a cliche that's been attached to Brendel before. But this spring, he fits the literal description.
UCLA's offensive line is without a coach after the school suspended Adrian Klemm last month for alleged NCAA recruiting violations. Klemm, a former NFL offensive linemen who earned three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots, is suspended with pay, but he cannot have any contact with the team. Asked recently about when Klemm could return, Mora replied, "I don't know anything."
Brendel looks forward to reviewing all 15 spring workouts with Klemm when the coach returns to work. But right now, it's Brendel's show.
"These past couple weeks have been weird because I'm kind of like the player-coach," Brendel said. "But I've kind of always been that way."
Added offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone: "He’s learned he can’t always be pissed off at them because they don't do things. He has to help them. He's been great."
Brendel encourages questions at all times. If a lineman is unsure of a technique or a call, Brendel -- a three-time Academic All-Pac-12 selection -- has the answer.
"I basically know the entire offense," Brendel said. "I know the little things: Which way to step, how to step, what kind of hands you need to have. It hasn’t been as bad as a lot of people think it has. Certain things are different. At the same time, this team has done a really good job of making it so it’s not hard on us."
Brendel calls Klemm's absence "kind of rough," as teaching points can follow every practice rep. Meetings are longer. But the line pushes forward. With or without Klemm, this is a critical time for a group that, fairly or fairly, drew national scrutiny for its struggles to protect star quarterback Brett Hundley.
UCLA allowed 41 sacks, most in the Pac-12, after surrendering 36, second-most in the league, the previous season. The Bruins allowed 101 tackles for loss last fall, more than all but one FBS team (Wake Forest, 127). Despite those nasty numbers, UCLA had the Pac-12's leading rusher in Paul Perkins (1,575 yards) and ranked fourth in total offense (467.8 ypg).
Quarterback Jerry Neuheisel thinks the line received too much blame, saying the collective unit found itself in too many challenging down-and-distance situations. Brendel agrees somewhat, noting that scanning the stat sheet without greater context provides an obstructed view of reality.
But he also admits, "Pressures and sacks were just way too high."
The first spring meeting of UCLA's offense centered on ways to reduce negative-yardage plays. It's still brought up "every day," quarterbacks coach Taylor Mazzone said, and it's each group's responsibility to reduce the number.
"We all have to be better," Brendel said. "The wide receivers have got to be open, the offensive line's got to protect a little bit better, and the quarterbacks have to see the open guys and get the ball out of their hands."
For the second straight season, the offensive line returns experience, as four starters are back. Brendel has been impressed with McDermott, whom he calls the line's most consistent spring performer, and tackle Simon Goines, who started in 2013 before redshirting last season because of injuries. Kolton Miller is pushing for a starting role, and the quality of competition at several spots seems to be stronger.
Brendel spends less time reviewing assignments and more refining techniques.
"There's not much they aren't prepared for now," Neuheisel said. "There's no excuses for immaturity at this point. We can only go as far as they'll take us."
Brendel is glad to bear the burden. His senior wish list is simple: A reduced sacks total and better protection for UCLA's new quarterback, another Pac-12 rushing crown for Perkins, and a Bruins offense at the top or near the top of the league in production.
"There's no reason," he said, "why we can't achieve the goals we've set."