clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UCLA Football Preview Part II: The Defense

The Bruins return nine starters and a new coordinator who knows exactly what he's doing. Will these things make the difference for a defense that's full of talent, but struggled to find high-level consistency?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

INTRODUCTION

UCLA's last two defensive coordinators left the program, and the college ranks, to accept demoted positions in professional football.

Long-time NFL assistant Lou Spanos packed up after the 2013 season to coach linebackers in Nashville, Tennessee. Spanos may have been ready to coordinate at the college level, but he didn't test his theories and schemes long enough to find out. Despite having excellent talent, the cream of which has gone on to the NFL, with others primed to get there, the Bruins under Spanos finished 58th (27.6 ppg) and 35th (23.2 ppg) in scoring defense–which is far and away the most important defensive category, followed by forced turnovers.

Jeff Ulbrich last year was promoted to command the defense, and executed the job with a hot-headed mediocrity that produced drastic on-field inconsistencies. The Bruins, despite superb, though young talent, were 77th nationally in points per game at 28.1, and 102nd in turnovers forced with 16 over 13 games.

Combined with last year's offense, UCLA finished at a zero turnover differential, giving the ball away as many times as they took it from opponents. Most agonizing for fans was watching the defense play its worst and most discombobulated football when it needed to dig in and hold the line, most infamously in home blowout losses to Oregon and Stanford that each nosedived the trajectory of the season, leaving the Bruins to climb slowly back. In the Stanford case it simply was over, UCLA lost its chance to play for the conference championship.

Ulbrich, a relatively young position coach with no coordinating experience, was not seasoned well enough mentally or emotionally for such a high-stakes job, and Bruins' Nation mostly was at peace when he took work as an NFL assistant coach in Atlanta.

The fact is, both Spanos and Ulbrich took a downgrade leaving UCLA, going from game-planning and brain-storming strategy for a season-long campaign to instructing ground-level tactics and drilling players to execute other men's orders, even if it is at the professional level. At UCLA both men had been, in effect, freshly-promoted Colonels, at best, when the Bruins wanted a General with experience "in theater" to command the post.

The General has arrived this year in new head coordinator Tom Bradley, he of the 37 season, glorious Penn State lineage. Four of those years Bradley spent playing linebacker at "Linebacker U," a nickname UCLA is trying to usurp and update with its recent production of Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, Erik Kendricks and now Myles Jack.

Bradley was awarded Associated Press defensive coordinator of the year in 2005, and from 2000 to 2011 presided over several of the stoutest, strategically soundest, hardest hitting and surest tackling defenses of recent college football vintage.

In Bradley's final eight seasons (2004-2011), the Nittany Lions finished top five in points per game three times: 2004: 5th at 15.3 ppg; 2009: 3rd at 12.2 ppg; and 2011: 5th at 16.8 ppg. And they finished top 10 four times: 2005: 10th at 17 ppg; 2006: 9th at 14.4 ppg; 2007: 7th at 17.5 ppg; and 2008: 8th at 14.4 ppg.

Consistent excellence is the track record Bradley brings to Westwood. That, and the type of multiple-fronted, bewildering, zone blitzing, aggressive defenses that not only are fun to watch in action, but under his command have been devastatingly effective. A defense that can limit scoring output and, just as importantly, get the offense the ball in favorable positions, will be vital in a scorer's Valhalla like the Pac-12.

"Everybody is involved in what we're trying to do here," Bradley told the Los Angeles Times about his scheming process with defensive line coach Angus McClure, linebacker coach Scott White and defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin.

"It's not my ideas, it's our ideas. We've gotten together and talked about what we can do well. What pushes the envelope? What's too much? What can't we do? We kind of stirred the whole pot together."

Jim Mora was quoted in the same Times piece about the defense.

"If we're able to play to the level of our potential, and if we remain injury free, we can be a really dynamic defense," the head ball coach said.

DEFENSIVE LINE

An otherwise young, talented 3-4 front lost starting defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, its top sacker and fourth best tackler, to the NFL. He'll be hard to replace, but the Bruins are going to run three experienced juniors out to give it the old college try, with ostensibly good, though unproven talent, behind them.

Overall, UCLA returns 12 of its top 16 tacklers and has big-time game experience across the board, including nine starters off last year's team.

Defensive end Taakkarist McKinley, a JUCO transfer who played well almost immediately, has added 20 pounds of muscle, according to multiple reports, to become a more traditional 250 pound anchor at the edge. About the time McKinley really joined the fray last year, the Bruins' sack totals began a dramatic rise.

During the same span the offense began protecting quarterback Brett Hundley, the defense began mauling opposing quarterbacks, and the two production lines crossed quickly headed in the right direction, with sack totals shooting up from 10 over the first eight games to 19 over the last five, and sacks surrendered plummeting in similar fashion.

McKinley is conscious of his physical progress and making the effort to master his role in Bradley's new defense.

"It gives me a better chance to stay in my gap, plug that hole," McKinley told the Orange County Register about his weight and strength gains.

"I'm in the playbook every night," McKinley said later in the same piece. "I pretty much know the plays in back of my head."

The far bookend is the savage Eddie Vanderdoes, a former freshman All American and honorable mention All Pac-12 in his sophomore season. Vanderdoes, at 6-feet 3-inches and 305 pounds, is a heavyweight edge setter with enormous athleticism for his size. If rumors out of camp claiming he has cut fat are true, Vanderdoes is on the brink of becoming one of the Pac-12's dominant defensive linemen.

The nose-tackle is Kenny Clark, a second-team All Pac-12 player last year and named to the Bednarik Award watch list this year. Clark recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and 58 total tackles, sixth best on the team. Clark might seem to be undersized for a nose tackle at 305 pounds, but he has proven an ability to jam up an offensive line and leave linebackers free to scorch on the highlight reels.

"The nose guard, he's usually the unsung hero of any really good defense," coach Mora told The Daily Bruin during training camp. "So often last year Kenny would hold a double team and the offensive linemen couldn't get up near the second level."

The Bruins will back up the line with massive 6-foot 5-inch, 280 pound sophomore Matt Dickerson, sophomore Jacob Tuloti-Mariner and redshirt junior Eli Ankou.

"I thought we had to get some depth and I feel pretty good about that. I feel good enough that we've been able to move people around to play different positions," Bradley told Bruin Report Online. "Each day we're trying to have guys play a couple of positions and that helps depth, especially when you're on the road."

LINEBACKERS

The sensational Eric Kendricks, after winning the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in college football, and the LOTT Trophy for personal character combined with athletic excellence, has moved on to the NFL. The Bruins' leading tackler (149), second leading tackler-for-loss (7.5) and top interception man (3) will be no easy fixture to replace, but the Bruins, once again, are deep in a position group.

"Just crazy depth. Offensive line. Defensive front. The front seven. I think the backer core is the best linebacker core in the Pac-12," said Yogi Roth, one of Pac-12 Network's lead analysts. "And their secondary core is above average. I've never seen players work for a head coach like they do for Jim Mora, the admiration that they have. I think he's got something through here. They are as gifted as anybody."

UCLA will start three juniors: Kenny Orjioke, Deon Hollins and Myles Jack, and an experienced sophomore in Kenny Young. Orjioke, Hollins and Young combined for 74 tackles, while Jack—the former offensive and defensive conference freshman of the year, and second team All Pac-12 last year—made 88 stops on his own while leading the team in tackles for loss at eight. Jack has been named to Sports Illustrated's pre-season All America first team, in addition to multiple All America nods from the country's most prestigious sporting magazines.

The linebackers should have fun under Blitzing Tom Bradley, either in attacking the quarterback or dropping off into "fishy" passing lanes with an opportunity to snag a few picks and reverse the Bruins' recently-weak forced-turnover numbers.

"The Bruins were more aggressive during two weeks of training camp than they were during the 2014 season," wrote Chris Foster, offering up the skinny for the Los Angeles Times. "They use a variety of looks and appear capable of creating pressure with their linebackers."

"That's one of the things coach Bradley brought to the scheme, just confusing people," Deon Hollins said during a video interview with Bruin Sports Report.

Hollins alongside Jack have been talked about as one of the best interior linebacking duos in America.

Hollins continued talking about Bradley in the same video piece.

[He's] brought a lot of multiple looks, different things, different coverages, but I think we've figured it out pretty well. One thing about coach Bradley is he always likes to challenge us. Sometimes we don't execute a play as good as he likes and he'll lay into us pretty good.

The potential for personality clashes between the players and Bradley, who grew up and spent the vast majority of his playing, coaching and personal life on the East Coast, has not come to fruition, and in fact appears to be headed the opposite direction, according to Hollins.

Again, from Bruins Sports Report.

"We were worried he was from the East Coast, such a regimented program [Penn State]. But he's such a down to earth guy, such a funny sense of humor, he's a great coach."

Behind the starters are redshirt senior Aaron Wallace; redshirt freshman Cameron Griffin; junior Isaako Savalineaea; and junior Jayon Brown.

Smart Football's Chris B. Brown gets the final word on the pairing of line and linebackers in a Tom Bradley defense.

What [made] Penn State's defense go—what makes an entire old-school-we-still-play-Cover-3 approach sound—is that wired into the old school structure is the latest technology in terms of technique, disguises, and blitz packages. And the fulcrum of Penn State's defense is the zone blitz.

It's old but time tested, and Bradley and company make it work because they get the details right. They tie the front (defensive line alignment and the position of the linbackers) to the coverages, thus enabling them to get into an old-school, run stopping eight-man front (to overwhelm the offense's blockers) along with a zone defense behind it.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

To the surprise of many, with head coach Jim Mora's vast experience working with defensive backs, including NFL Hall of Famers like Rod Woodson, this unit has been the weakest link on that side of the football. It never has been terrible, but almost as bad, it hasn't been reliable, giving up too many first downs and big plays when the defense had to get off the field and give the offense a chance to score.

Last year the Bruins finished 96th in passing yards per game allowed at more than 250, with an opponent completion percentage of 61.6, which ranked 97th. UCLA allowed 22 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, and a passer rating of 126.81, which put them 62nd nationally. Like every other group on defense, the backfield was up and down, but the season averages tell most of the story.

This year they lose second team All Pac-12 safety Anthony Jefferson to graduation, and a corner who coach Mora thought could be an All American, Priest Willis, in a surprise transfer to Texas A&M. But the Bruins do get back tough, playmaking junior safety Randall Goforth, who sat out last year with a shoulder injury, and experienced sophomore Jaleel Wadood at the other safety.

In a training camp shocker, redshirt junior Marcus Rios beat out redshirt junior and last year's first team All Pac-12 cornerback Ishmael Adams. Adams, who has 26 games experience at the edge, will still be used heavily as a nickel back and to provide depth at the position. Rios, who has solid size at 6-feet and 185 pounds, will pair with senior Fabian Moreau, also well proportioned at 6-feet and 180 pounds, at the other corner.

According to the Daily Bruin, both corners showed out during the fall camp and made the defensive backfield look like the group in ascension.

Four interceptions in 10 minutes is all that needs to be said here. That's what UCLA's secondary did during the padded practice Wednesday morning.

The Bruins secondary was dominant in 11-on-11s through the camp, and showed a penchant for big hits and strong deflections when necessary. Perhaps the biggest standout in the group was Marcus Rios, who really seized the starting cornerback position opposite Fabian Moerau. Rios made several pass breakups throughout camp and was very effective in press coverage situations.

D-coordinator Bradley also liked what he saw from his keepers at the corners.

"Size is a great thing to have and corner length is a great thing to have, so long as you're playing well, but being big doesn't mean you're playing great," Bradley told Bruins Sports Report. "I gotta give those guys some credit, they've had a great camp."

"They're all business," continued Bradley in the same piece. "You watch and you don't hear them. They want to play, they love to play, they love the challenge, and they don't back away from it. We put them in some tough situations and you don't hear a peep out of them. Football is a tough game because you have to play with emotion but you don't want to become emotional—they've learned to stay focused."

As Yogi Roth noted in his evaluation, the core of the defensive backfield appeared "above average," without stating its ceiling. This group, with its athleticism and competitive fire, no doubt can prove a lot of people wrong and lead this defense to higher ground. With the amount of pressure and confusion the Bruins' front seven likely will create, the backfield will be put in position to make game-changing plays on a regular basis for their teammates. That would be a welcomed change and generate massive excitement for this year's team

"We like our swag," the freshly returned, and hungry, Goforth told the LA Times.

In closing, Chris Brown of Smart Football returns to summarize what made Penn State's defenses under Bradley so superb, and preview the kind of football UCLA can expect to see under its ace, veteran coordinator.

Penn State's defense is throwback chic; more traditional, more disciplined, more focused, and more brutal than most of its modern counterparts. Paterno's defense has ridden through revolutions and ended up ahead of the curve. Indeed, if you look around college football and ask who does it like Penn State - lots of single-safety, Cover 3, and zone blitzes - the best analogue is probably Nick Saban, a guy who knows a thing or two about defense. But in State College they have their own way. And maybe that's the thing that's best about a good Penn State defense. It's as sound as it is simple, and both of those things let the players make plays.

Let the players make plays?  With this Bruins roster, that sounds like a great idea.