Spring Preview: Ulbrich Interview

We talked with new special teams and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich about the new defensive scheme, what he's looking for out of his return men, and how the 3-4 differs from the 4-3 for the linebackers...

Q: Was it a big adjustment for you, switching to coaching a bit abruptly after finishing up your playing career in 2009?

A: No, I didn't feel like it at all. The hours were obviously different. Different demands from that standpoint, and longer days. But I felt like as a player, especially later in my career, I always assumed that role as the coach, whether it be on the field or in the classroom or whatever it may be. I kind of always felt like it was my duty to pass along what I'd learned. I always got a lot of enjoyment out of seeing guys, even if it was my competition, getting better, and seeing them utilize some of the things that I knew and that I could pass along. It was something that always in my plans, so it wasn't a big adjustment at all.

Q: What do you think the advantages are for you, in terms of on field coaching, because you've done it all and done it so recently?

A: You know, I think, especially for myself, I was an overachiever from the standpoint that I was never the tallest, the strongest, or the biggest guy, and I always had to find a way. I always talk about, you know, I put together my toolbox of tricks, and the beauty of that is, especially now that I'm working with kids that definitely have more athleticism and tools than I did, but no matter what the game presents, no matter what they face, I feel like I can give them a tool. I feel like I can give them an option to win, whereas some coaches, they see it one way, right? They've done it one way their entire career. They read a block like this, or they read a passing progression like this, or whatever the case may be. I've had to look at it through multiple angles and win different ways, not just one way. So I feel like I can give the guys the tools that fit their skill sets, which I think is a really big part of being a good coach.

Q: So you can kind of customize the coaching for each different guy.

A: Without a doubt, and I think that's critical.

Q: In terms of recruiting, how has your recent NFL experience been an asset for you?

A: I think, through the recruiting process, they come to find that out, but I try not to throw that out there too often. I think that it's something that some parents, it's important to them. Some kids, it's important to them. But at the end of the day I think, just based off my limited experience here through this recruiting process, that it's more about the relationships that you have with the kids. And that the parents are comfortable that you're essentially going to be their kids' surrogate parent for the next four years. And the kids feel comfortable that you're going to challenge them as a player, as a man, and that hopefully we'll develop them and make them successful people. I think football, that's a given. I'm going to develop these kids as football players. But we want to develop them as men, and I think that's become the most critical part of this recruiting process, that I feel like I can offer these guys.

Q: Has recruiting been a natural thing for you, or did it take some getting used to? The last recruiting experience you had was as a player at Hawaii, right?

A: Yeah, and I didn't get recruited much there either. I was a junior college kid and I didn't have too many offers out of junior college. But I feel like it's been a pretty natural fit. The only thing that's unnatural is the rules and the structure of it all, and just making sure that I'm not violating anything, because there's a ton of rules that are involved with this sort of thing. But I feel like I've always kind of been a people person, and gotten along with most. Like I said earlier, it's about relationships, and I enjoy that part of it. So it's been natural from that standpoint.

Q: Getting back to Hawaii, weren't you and Adrian Klemm teammates back in your college days?

A: Yeah, we came out together. We both came out in 1999.

Q: Is it nice to have a kind of reunion here at UCLA?

A: It's really cool. It's really cool to have a familiar face here. I've actually got a few familiar faces here. Obviously, Coach Mora was my defensive coordinator when I played at San Francisco. Eric Yarber was the wide receivers coach when I played there. I knew Marques Tuiasosopo from when he was with the Raiders, we were kind of always doing functions together. I got to know him that way. And then with Adrian, it's been nice to have a lot of familiar faces here.

Q: Do you think that's played into the good chemistry as a coaching staff, the fact that you're all very familiar with each other?

A: I think that's part of it. I think a bigger part of it, though, is that we're like minded in a way that we're just insanely driven. I think that, it's just my experience in coaching, but some coaches tend to lose their fire a little bit, over time, to whatever the case may be. Sometimes it just might not be the time, or they're just not…I don't know what their goals or ambitions are. But this staff is just insanely ambitious and driven and focused. And Coach Mora did a great job of getting some like minded guys together. So we have a lot in common from that standpoint and we all feed off each other. And it's been awesome. We're competing no matter what we're doing, whether it's meeting, or recruiting, or whatever the case may be. It's a great environment I think, to be successful.

Q: Shifting gears a little bit to this year's team, how much tape have you been able to watch of the linebackers and the guys you're thinking of for special teams?

A: I watched them quite a bit. Honestly, I'm trying not to…I'm just trying to get a really general feel for the guys, based on what they did last year. This is not, I'm not saying anything bad about any prior staff, but they're being taught differently than I want to teach them. So I'm really trying to hold my judgment until spring ball, when I can get my hands on these guys and challenge them and kind of teach them the way I want to teach them. So as far as creating opinions about guys, I'm trying to withhold judgment for right now.

Q: Absolutely, but you are kind of seeing generally that you will need to be doing some fundamental technique work with these guys?

A: Yeah, but I think that's true no matter what level of football you're at. Even at the NFL level, there were guys that, you know, you could be in your tenth year and still need to get better. So, the most critical thing is that these guys are willing and that they're eager. They're in my office almost every day trying to come up and ask questions and get better and pick my brain. So it's been a great start, and guys have a great attitude, so I'm extremely excited about all the linebackers we have here. Plus, the special teams group we have here is exciting as well. We've got a senior punter in Jeff Locke, who's been good, and hopefully this year we send him off the right way, and give him the opportunity to play in the NFL. And Kevin McDermott, I think, has a chance to go as a long snapper as well. And then with a freshman kicker, you know, that'll keep me up at night. But that'll be exciting.

Q: With McDermott, I'm not sure he had a bad snap all year. Seemed to be pretty nails.

A: Yeah, he was really consistent. He's got enough athleticism. He's got good size. He's, in a lot of ways, what a lot of these NFL teams are looking for, so this year, I'm going to put him in a position to excel and do well and I'd be excited to see where he can take this thing. I always tell these guys, there's no job in America better than long snapping. I mean that, there's no better job.

Q: Yeah, you're not as much in the spot light as a kicker, which is probably the next best on the football field.

A: Yeah, and you get to work on your golf swing 300 days a year. Nobody knows your name and you just kind of do your own thing.

Q: In terms of the linebackers, not to get into what kind of defense you're going to be running because I know it's going to be a hybrid thing, but in general, can you talk about the difference between running four linebackers out there as opposed to running three? What changes for guys?

A: For one, we're going to get better matchups. So our outside guys, they have to be- it's critical- that these guys are our best pass rushers, by far. These guys are going to have opportunities to not beat tackles in pass pro, but to beat running backs and tight ends. And in our world, that's a win. Every single time, that's a win. Our guys are going to be trained to the point where, when they get a back or they get a tight end, which they will get because offenses won't be able to dictate our four downs because we're not a 4-3, we'll get opportunities for these guys to make huge plays for us, huge plays on the outside. And then on the inside, you know, I've had the opportunity to play in both, 4-3 and 3-4, and it's a great opportunity to really work to hone your craft as a linebacker, because it's not as clean cut as a 4-3. A 4-3 is all about the fit, right? You fit here, you fit here. And don't get me wrong, it's still sound, and there's still a fit that's involved with a 3-4, but there's a little bit of reading the guy in front of you, whether it's a 2 gap, as the case may be, so these guys need to become better linebackers. Because it's not just closing their eyes and hitting the gap and just giving themselves up. We're going to get to the ball, and I think good linebackers do that. It's exciting for the inside guys because they have the opportunity to make every play. Whereas sometimes, in a 4-3, when the play's away, you have to hit your gap and you're out of the play. So it's keeping these guys active.

Q: Keeping them ranging from sideline to sideline.

A: Yeah, they'll be able to do that. And then on the inside stuff, they have to be very very good at what they do, because they're not going to be quite as covered up all the time, you know? So they're going to have to learn how to strike lunge, and disengage, and do some things they didn't have to do before. But at the same time they're going to have opportunities to make more plays, and more tackles. They'll definitely be, to me, they'll be more NFL ready, from that perspective.

Q: And then I saw there were a couple of position changes, which kind of goes with what you were saying. Damien Holmes and Keenan Graham, defensive ends from a year ago, have switched to linebacker, both guys who are pretty used to bringing a pass rush. How much will you spend this spring just getting those guys used to not having their hands down all the time?

A: You know, we've kind of worked on it already, worked on their staggered stance, you know, how to come out of a two point stance. And they're all really comfortable in doing it. They have the experience from the defensive line, so they are experienced pass rushers. I think the biggest obstacle for these guys is now getting in in space. And forcing them to get in coverage, and to drop, and do things that they haven't done on a consistent basis as a defensive lineman. So I think that's a way bigger struggle than having them come out of a two point stance. I think rushing the passer is definitely what they're more natural at right now. But by the time next season hits, they'll be all right. They'll be able to drop, they'll cover, they'll rush. They'll do all the things we ask them to do. To me, it's exciting, when you've got a guy that's switching positions. From a pass rush standpoint, he's already got a vast background and a lot of experience as a pass rusher. From a pass drop standpoint, he doesn't have a lot of the bad habits of a lot of these guys, because he just hasn't done it as often. So I'm working with some fresh clay, which makes it sometimes easier.

Q: And you've also got Anthony Barr, who's kind of a long, rangy type athlete. Overall, what do you think of the talent level you've inherited at linebacker? Happy from what you've seen on tape? Think you've got a lot to work with

A: Without a doubt. I'm extremely excited. I came off the field this morning. We did our drills, which are more mat drills and conditioning type things, and it's good to see a lot of these guys move around. It got me fired up, and you mentioned some of the names, but all of these guys bring something special to the table. A few of them move better than a lot of the NFL guys that I played with. So it's exciting. I'm excited to know that a lot of these guys haven't been where they need to be, or want to be, and to be able to take them there will be an exciting process.

Q: For Holmes and Graham, is there an effort by Coach Alosi and the workout to get them a little bit leaner?

A: I think they're kind of doing that naturally. We have a dietician who works with our guys, and Coach Alosi works with them as far as weight training and the nutrition. I think both of those come into play. I don't think either guy is too big for an outside linebacker. There's a lot of play in that position, especially when you look at the NFL. You've got 5'10 guys or 5'9 guys like James Harrison, and then you've got 6'4 guys like DeMarcus Ware. It kind of runs the gamut at that position. As long as they're capable of dropping, I don't care if they're on the bigger side. Now, if they're struggling in space, and they're struggling to cover, and they're struggling to drop, then they've got to drop a little weight off. But I don't see either as too big right now.

Q: Switching back to special teams, obviously you've got Jeff Locke at punter, who's an All-American type. Given the situation, having a freshman kicker coming in in the fall, are you expecting to give Locke a longer look in the spring?

A: He's going to be our guy in the spring. We've got one other guy, a walk on in Joe Roberts, who'll share that duty with him. He does the kickoffs, which he's done his entire time here, and he punts. He's got experience doing both. The worry is that you over kick these guys, that you have them do an entire practice of kicking, and then having them kick from the ground, which can wear a kid out. So you've just got to be smart about it with him. We'll definitely try it out, and he'll definitely be a guy that we'll have as an emergency type kicker, that we're comfortable to have go in. But I'm extremely confident with this freshman, just from a technique standpoint, he's about as sound as it comes for a high school kid. He kicked off the ground, which is very atypical, because usually these guys are kicking off a two inch block. He's a guy who I'm confident can contribute as a freshman.

Q: I don't know how much you paid attention to it in the tape you watched, but UCLA's had its issues the last couple of years getting playmakers at kick return and punt return, just because they were having a lot of catching issues. How do you solve something like that? Is that a concentration issue, technique?

A: First of all, I've got a wide range of drills that we can work on that. And we've got a lot of coaches who have experiences working with returners, so we're going to have a lot of experience from that standpoint. And then there's guys who are just innately good at catching punts and kickoffs. It's our job to try to identify those guys and then to try to improve them. To me, it's the most critical part of returning. Before anything else, you've got to give our ball back to the offense. And if you don't catch it well, and you don't field it well, you're going to have no opportunity. So we're going to find guys that can catch it, and then once they learn that and they hone that skill, I think we have a return scheme that, it doesn't take…we don't need the guy that's going to hit the home run every time. We've got to have the guy that's courageous, who's going to hit it up there. Who's not going to dance. As long as he can field the ball, we're always going to have a great opportunity to, not always score, but at least set our offense up.

Q: Are you expecting to use a lot of your linebacking corps on coverage teams as well?

A: Typically that's how it works out, but it's going to be the best guy. We do not have the luxury to not play our offensive or defensive starters on special teams. We don't have that luxury. We have to play the best guy, no matter what. We have to have the best guy out there. And that's the only chance we have to win the hidden yards that special teams gives you. And you know, I think that more and more these games are, whether you realize it or not, decided by special teams.

Q: Obviously UCLA lost its return guys from last year. Do you have any early thoughts on the couple of guys you're going to try out there? Will Damien Thigpen factor in?

A: That's another thing. We're going to wait til Spring. I don't even want to go there with a leading candidate. I want to see the guys that we talked about first that can field the ball. If you can field the ball, and then we're going to see who's got the courage to return it the way I want it returned, because I don't want dancing. I don't want the guy who's looking for the home run all the time. If you look for the home run, you end up taking negative yards half the time.

Q: You want the ten tough yards.

A: That's it. And when you do that, you do that consistently, the by product is the home run. We've got to definitely…special teams is largely based on attitude. So I think the first thing I have to coach, before returners and kickers, is the attitude of special teams and how we approach it. And I'm excited about that.

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