In 2018, UCLA was one of the four youngest teams in the country. With 48+ freshmen and sophomores on the 2019 roster, that is likely to be the case again this season. No one is chalking up the 3-9 performance last year completely to youth. But if there is an upside going forward, it is that the younger players got a lot of snaps. So, while the 2019 version of the Bruins is still very young, it is also reasonably experienced. That experience is key for the UCLA Defense
Experience Is Key For UCLA Defense
UCLA is exceptionally deep at linebacker, particularly if senior Josh Woods can return in full health after missing last season with an injury. The status of Keisean Lucier-South is up in the air, due to academic issues. Since he started all 12 games last year and led the team in tackles for loss, his potential loss would ordinarily be a major body blow. Tyree Thompson is also out for an undefined period of time. He underwent surgery Tuesday for an undisclosed injury. UCLA has not disclosed the details, buy Thompson posted a picture from his hospital bed and it seems clear the surgery was on his left foot and/or ankle.
But linebacker is where UCLA has most of its experience. With a healthy Woods back, joining experienced seniors Krys Barnes, Je-Vari Anderson, and Lokeni Toailoa, along with some younger players like Bo Calvert and Jayce Smalley, they can absorb what they need to on the roster.
Likewise, in the secondary, even with the graduation loss of Nate Meadors and Adarius Pickett, UCLA is ripe with game-snap-cultivated talent. Juniors Darnay Holmes and Quentin Lake are going to get the attention and the headlines. But after Spring camp, it is easy to imagine getting a lot of quality snaps from Shea Pitts, Kenny Churchwell, and Jay Shaw as well.
That leaves the defensive line, a relatively under-identified part of the roster. If there is a group that mirrors the roster, this is it. They are both young and experienced. There is not a senior on the defensive line, but there is a plethora of experience. Osa Odighizuwa, Tyler Manoa, Martin Andrus, and Atonio Mafi all return having seen significant playing time last year. Add in that Elijah Wade, who played in nine games last season at linebacker, is moving to defensive line. Also there is newcomer Datona Jackson, the transfer from College of the Desert in Palm Desert. He had 47 tackles last season as a sophomore and is expected to see significant action right away.
At Pac 12 Media Day two weeks ago, Barnes made special note of defensive lineman Odighizuwa becoming a unit leader. Odighizuwa, a 6-2, 279 pound redshirt junior is, of course, the younger brother of former Bruin defensive lineman, Owa Odighizuwa. For what it’s worth, he also has a brother on the wrestling team at Oregon State. Hard-nosed physical athleticism is clearly in the family gene pool. He started the last eight games of the season in 2018 and had three sacks. But that three sacks tied him for the team lead, an ignominious stat. It’s an issue going forward that UCLA had only 15 sacks all season. That is where his pulling his line-mates together for extra work during the Summer comes into play.
Odighizuwa told us he expects it to pay off. “I’d say we’ve grown a lot as a unit, just in working and being more familiar. You know we have a lot of guys returning. We’ve played together before. The chemistry is a lot better.”
And how do you overcome the horrific sack stats from 2018? To have no viable pass rush leaves the linebackers and defensive backs vulnerable. Odighizuwa says it is not just about the stats. “It’s not always about the sacks. It’s about being able to help the secondary out, getting the rushed throws. We are all just playing off each other.”
Much of the buzz during the off-season has also been about Mafi and his conditioning. The sophomore confesses that at one point over the last two years he weighed as much as 411 pounds. He is now down to a “svelte” 365. He says it is a matter of diet and conditioning and acknowledges he has not to been to In-n-Out, down the street from campus, in a few months.
Mafi credits Odighizuwa with a change of attitude on the defensive line. “He led us through most of our optional work. He set up drills. He knows exactly what to do. He is kind of like that big brother. It’s real easy to work with him.”
Mafi started nine games last season. He told us that having so much returning gameday experience on the defensive line is a big difference this camp. “We know what we are doing, and have that experience. We know the playbook inside and out so we are able to move into new and extra stuff that we couldn’t install last year.”
It’s a theme that head coach Chip Kelly hit hard on at the conference media gathering in Hollywood a couple of weeks ago. He said at the time, there are no surprises anymore with a veteran team. “They know how we work. They know what we look for on a daily basis; the consistency part of it and not being up and down.
Our players know how we practice, how we train, how we meet, how we take notes, how we communicate as a group, the whys and wherefores of what we’re doing. And then it’s incumbent on the guys that have been here last year to kind of help the young guys assimilate to that, where a year ago everything was a first. Everything was the first meeting that we had, the first practice that we had, the first away game that we had, the first road trip that we had. I think the familiarity is the big thing that will really benefit us going into year two.”
The veteran leadership is there at most units on both sides of the ball. They have been through the Kelly process now. As for the experienced defensive line, Odighizuwa said it is about a mindset in terms of improving the execution from last year. “Everyone just hit a reset button after last year and focused on what we have here and building on the program and what we have to do going forward. “
Going forward. If the defensive line does more of that this season, the success for the entire defense figures to follow.