UCLA Preview Part II: The Defense

In the week leading up to the match up with UCLA, Jeff Murdock looks at the Bruin defense. The Bruin defense has been a point of ire for many Bruin fans and for good reason, they gave up 426 yards on the ground to Oklahoma State in their first game of the season.

UCLA is looking to replace their entire defensive line from last season, and it has not been an easy task. Last year's defensive line contained a first team All-American and the Pac 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Replacing their losses on the line will be nearly impossible for the Bruins, as last weeks disaster against Oklahoma State showed. Defensive coordinator Larry Kerr will have a lot of work to do to make this defensive line respectable again, and he needs to do it quick, or the Bruins losing streak could continue for a long time. In their season opener, the Bruins showed every possible sign of a very weak defense, including allowing 429 yards on the ground, and only forcing Oklahoma State's freshman quarterback to throw the ball eight times.

Last season, the defensive line was a definite strength for the Bruin defense. This season, the Bruin defensive line is probably the team's biggest weakness. Defensive coordinator Larry Kerr is looking to young players to bolster the defensive line and in just one game this season the Bruin defensive line is best described as an unmitigated disaster. Of the ten players listed on the Bruins depth chart, only one player, Kyle Morgan is an upper classman, and he is listed as a third string defensive lineman.

Starting at the defensive end positions are sophomore Justin Hickman and freshman Bruce Davis. On Saturday Davis and Hicks combined for only seven tackles. Davis had two solo tackles and one assist, while Hickman was in on four tackles and had no assists. Starting at the defensive tackles for the Bruins are sophomores Kevin Brown and Robert Garcia. Brown led the defensive line as a whole with five tackles (two solo, three assisted) and one tackle for loss, netting -3 yards for the Bruin defense. Garcia contributed three tackles (one solo, two assisted) for the Bruins.

The other players that saw time on the defensive line did not have any more of an impact on the game than the Bruin starters as none of them recorded more than two tackles. The Oklahoma State offensive line was able to create large holes, and slide off the defensive linemen to block the linebackers all afternoon, allowing the Cowboys running backs to run into the Bruin defensive backfield untouched.

Line backers should be a strength for the Bruins, but when the defensive line is so poor, the linebackers are not able to shoot the gaps and get to ball carriers and opposing quarterbacks. The porous defensive line inhibits the Bruin linebackers' ability to make plays and bolster the defense like they did last season.

The Bruins are returning two linebackers from last season that have star potential, but they are also looking to replace departed All Pac 10 linebacker Brandon Chillar. Junior Spencer Havnar is being looked at to fill the void left by Chillar. Against Oklahoma State, Havnar looked to take his role as the new leader of the Bruin line backing corps seriously as he recorded 11 solo tackles, and 5 assisted tackles including 2 tackles for loss netting -4 yards.

Red shirt junior Wesley Walker started alongside Havnar at outside linebacker, and had as solid a game as he could have against Oklahoma State. He recorded four tackles, and assisted on four others in his first start since the game against Illinois last season.

Replacing Justin London who was expected to start alongside Havnar, but did not due to a sprained ankle he sustained on August 19th at inside linebacker was junior college transfer Danny Nelson. Nelson made seven tackles (three solo) and split a sack with defensive end Justin Hickman. London is expected to return to practice this week, but at this time it is looking like he will not play against the Illini.

Also seeing sometime at the linebacker position was senior Benjamin Lorier who made one tackle off the bench this past weekend.

Last season, UCLA had the fourth best pass efficiency defense in the Pac 10 last season at 113.7. While the defensive line that was a huge part of that is now gone, the secondary is mostly in tact. The Bruins return three starters from last year's secondary, missing only cover corner Matt Ware.

Both safeties return, and are being called upon to lead the defense this season. Junior strong safety Jarrad Page and senior free safety Ben Emanuel II are solidly in the Bruin's starting lineup. Page is in his third year as starter at strong safety. Page recorded nine tackles on Saturday against Oklahoma State, and he was sixth on the team last season with 55 tackles in twelve games.

Fifth year senior Ben Emanuel returns this season to a common place, starting in the Bruin's defensive backfield. He has started 28 of the last 31 games for UCLA, 22 of those games at free safety. Last year, Emanuel recorded 80 tackles good for fourth on the team, including ten tackles against Illinois in 2003.

At corner back, UCLA is looking to Matt Clark to be the dominant cover corner that Matt Ware was last year. On Saturday Clark had four tackles, including three solo. Last year Clark started all twelve games in which he played for the Bruins (he sat out the Illinois game clearing up an NCAA eligibility matter), and recorded one interception.

Junior Marcus Cassel is starting opposite Clark at corner back after winning the job in fall camp with competition from Eric McNeal, Chris Horton, and Dennis Keyes. Over the last two years, Cassel has been a steady contributor for the Bruins on special teams, and he is looking to increase his contribution as a starting corner back. McNeal, Horton, and Keyes will all be seen in nickel and dime situations for the Bruins, as well as on special teams.

To say the UCLA defense is poor, would be to state the truth. The defensive line is in shambles as they try to replace four departing starters. Oklahoma State took advantage of this weakness to total over four hundred yards on the ground, and this is a definite weakness the Illini can take advantage of. The Illinois offensive line should be able to create large holes for the Illini's running backs, so expect big days from both Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey.

If Illinois is required to throw, Beutjer should have a lot of time in the pocket to find the open receiver. Assuming he continues playing with the patience and precision that he showed against the Rattlers, Beutjer could have another game where he completes over eighty percent of his passes. The Illini should be able to put up points on this Bruin defense as long as they stay away from making mistakes with the football via the interception or the fumble.

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