While it's probably unfair to categorize the reports out of fall camp last year as "breathless," there was an expectation, given the way that the defensive line played during practice, that it would be a particularly strong unit for an otherwise solid defense. Eight months, and several Joe Tresey-coached games later, it's now pretty clear that the way the unit looked during fall camp was a far cry from how it looked during games.
So, what happened? It was a number of factors, some having to do with translating practice performance into games, others having to do with personnel usage, and some having to do with an inexperienced defensive line coach at the helm in Inoke Breckterfield.
Datone Jones, who famously looked great in practice, couldn't put it together in games until later in the season, when he was moved inside to defensive tackle. He struggled matching up against higher quality offensive tackles, and we've also heard that there was an issue with him trying to do too much, and not fitting into his role on the defense.
Justin Edison and Nate Chandler, both seniors, probably played too many snaps under a coaching staff that had a tendency to reward longevity over performance. Edison had a few moments toward the end of the season where he looked OK, but for the most part, was a sub par Pac-12 tackle. Chandler did a better job of holding his own inside, but still probably should have seen fewer snaps, especially given the talent behind him.
Donovan Carter was the pleasant surprise of the year on the defensive line. He showed good quickness from the nose tackle spot, doing well in pursuit and in getting into the backfield. Cassius Marsh, who also looked good in fall practice, struggled at times holding the point at defensive tackle, and was suspended for two games for swinging his helmet during the melee at Arizona. After the suspension, he struggled to get back into the flow of playing. Seali'i Epenesa had his moments, and is one of the guys you'd point to as someone who should have gotten more of Chandler and Edison's snaps.
At end, again, there was talent that simply didn't see the field. Damien Holmes, who plays with good energy but doesn't have top-end strength or quickness for the position, played too many snaps and guys like Keenan Graham, Iuta Tepa, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa played too few. Graham was the quickest of the ends, and should have gotten more time on a team that was in desperate need of a pass rush.
A Look at Spring
With UCLA switching to, primarily, a three-man front, there have been a number of position changes along the front line. Holmes and Graham have moved to linebacker. Jones, thought to be a 4-3 tackle type after last season, moved back to end. Brandon Willis and Cassius Marsh, both defensive tackles from last year, have moved outside. And Carter and Epenesa will both be nose tackles.
In a three-man front, often times the ends play like 4-3 tackles, so it probably won't be too much of a switch for Marsh, Willis, and Jones. If anything, Marsh might be in the unfortunate position of having to gain some weight to play end, as he looked pretty skinny toward the end of last year. Weirdly, the biggest switch may be for Carter and Epenesa. Although technically they're not changing positions, the nose tackle spot in a 3-4 generally demands much more from you than either tackle spot in a 4-3, because you line up directly across from the center and have to control both gaps between the center and guards. It'll be interesting to see how each does against frequent double teams. Kevin McReynolds is probably the third option at the nose, but he'll probably have to bulk up a bit more before he would be ready to handle the position permanently.
Of course, many observers are interested to see how Willis performs, after his much-chronicled recruitment. Given his quickness, and his size, he could be a very nice fit at defensive end in the 3-4, and it'll just be a question of if he can beat out the experience of Jones, Marsh, or Tepa for either starting spot.
Things to Watch
-Does this team have a nose tackle? It's the biggest question mark heading into spring. Epenesa and Carter both showed themselves to be serviceable tackles last season, but there's a big difference between being serviceable in a 4-3 and being a starting nose tackle in the 3-4. It's arguably the most important position in the entire defense, because if the nose gets pushed back, everything the defense tries to do is disrupted. Carter will probably get the first crack at it, and it'll be interesting to see whether he's strong enough, or simply has the weight, to maintain it.
-Who will lock down the other end spot? Barring something silly happening, Jones is probably going to be one of the starters. At the other end, the Bruins are going to have some options. Marsh, who looked more like a defensive end last year, is likely going to get the first look, but Willis should push him. Marsh looks quicker than Willis, but Willis is definitely stronger, and it'll really depend on how the defense shapes up. If it's much more Lebeau style, with plenty of blitzing from the linebackers, you could see them opt for Willis to do a better job of not getting pushed back so the linebackers have more freedom to work.
-How "3-4" is this defense going to be? We're assuming that Jim Mora and Defensive Cooridnator Lou Spanos, given their backgrounds, will go with a three-man front the vast majority of the time. Given what each has said, though, we might see some more flexible formations, with four- and possibly even five-man fronts. Keep your eyes peeled this spring.
-Who's working with the line? Angus McClure is the full-time defensive line coach, but given that he doesn't have a ton of experience coaching defense, Mora or Spanos could spend a little bit more time watching the big guys.
-On a scale from 1 to 10, how unblockable will Jones be? I say 11.
Projected Depth Chart
1. Datone Jones
2. Brandon Willis
3. Iuta Tepa
4. Sam Tai
1. Donovan Carter
2. Seali'i Epenesa
3. Kevin McReynolds
4. Brandon Tuliaupupu
1. Cassius Marsh
2. Brandon Willis
3. Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Spring Preview: Defensive Line
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