Heading into the season last year, UCLA's defensive line had a reputation as a talented unit that had underachieved. The year before, Datone Jones had gone from a hyped, potential All-American in the preseason to a big disappointment during the season, and the rest of the linemen mostly followed suit. With the Bruins switching to a new 3-4 defense, and with UCLA breaking in a new defensive line coach in Angus McClure, who had never coached defensive line at the college level, the front line of the defense was one of the bigger question marks heading into the season.
That question mark turned into an exclamation point no later than the first quarter of the season. Jones, who had always been an athlete, took his game to another level under the tutelage of McClure, using his hands much better. It also was the case that, with his skillset, defensive end in a 3-4 was arguably a better fit for him than any position in a 4-3, given his combination of size and strength. Despite being in a position where, ostensibly, his role was to plug holes so that linebackers could make plays, he more than doubled his sack total of the previous season.
The rest of the defensive line had similar, if not quite as demonstrable, improvement. Owamagbe Odighizuwa went from an athletic freak who really didn't know how to play the position to someone who could fill in for Jones or Cassius Marsh without much drop off. Marsh, to his credit, played with greater consistency and held up against the run fairly well. You could make the case that for each of those guys, playing defensive end in a 3-4 was a much better fit than their previous positions (Jones and Odighizuwa at 4-3 defensive end, Marsh at defensive tackle). Seali'I Epenesa came on strong to seize the starting nose tackle spot in fall, and was an excellent plug for the middle of the defense.
All told, the defensive line was the strength of the defense last season, and it looks like there's a very good chance that the front three will once again represent the strength of the defense this season.
A Look at Spring
The biggest story of spring will be the loss of Jones. It's one thing to say that there wasn't much dropoff between the play of Odighizuwa and Jones, but it's another to actually see it over the course of hundreds of snaps. Odighizuwa will be tasked with the job of not only replacing Jones' production, but seeing if, with another year of development, he can realize his own tremendous potential and become a star in his own right.
Aside from that, though, UCLA's depth remains pretty similar. The Bruins lost Donovan Carter as well, who has filled in at several different positions throughout his UCLA career, and will need to find another player to play quality snaps at both nose tackle and defensive end (Ellis McCarthy, Brandon Willis, and Kylie Fitts figure to fit into that equation). There are quite a few options, which should make it easy for UCLA to replace Carter's production. Additionally, we've heard that Sam Tai, who has had multiple injuries over the past couple of season, should be ready to play in a limited role by the first week of spring, and could be a full go by the second week.
Even though the talent is similar to last season, the continuity of system is probably the biggest reason why we expect UCLA to have at least as good of a defensive line this season as last. UCLA returns its entire defensive staff from last season, and with McClure still teaching the same fundamentals of hand placement, technique, and never, ever, ever using a spin move, the defensive line stands a very good chance of not only maintaining the success of last season, but actually improving as a unit.
What to Watch For
*Can Brandon Willis finally break in? Last year, Willis manned the first string nose tackle role throughout the entire spring, and had the job through the first few practices in the fall. Unfortunately, he struggled to keep his weight at, or above, 285, and by the end of the first week of fall camp, was probably more like 270. With the way UCLA's 3-4 is constructed, that just doesn't work at the nose, and so he lost his starting spot to Epenesa. With the weight loss, and the lack of practice time at defensive end through the spring and fall, he was behind several other players, which limited his playing time. We've heard that Willis has rededicated himself to regaining and maintaining weight this past offseason and that the coaches are still high on his potential.
*How will Ellis McCarthy recover from knee surgery? McCarthy, who came into last season overweight after knee surgery during the summer, had another surgery on his knee this past offseason, which will likely limit him until the second week of spring practice. We've heard, though, that he's put in some work on his body even during the recovery process and will be much more physically ready for the spring than he was for the fall. Right now, we expect him to slot in at nose behind Epenesa, given his size and strength, but it'll be interesting to see if the coaches experiment with moving him outside again once he's fully up to game speed.
*How will Kylie Fitts fit in? The true freshman is coming in for spring practice, and he kind of fits the mold as a prototype defensive end for the 3-4 system, with long arms and a big body with room to add weight. He'll obviously face an adjustment period, with this being his first year in a college program, but the coaches are very high on his upside. At this point, we'd say he'll slot in early as one of the main two backups at defensive end.
Left Defensive End
SR Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6'3, 270)
RS JR Brandon Willis (6'2, 280)
RS SO Sam Tai (6'3, 275)
RS SR Seali'i Epenesa (6'1, 310)
SO Ellis McCarthy (6'5, 330)
RS SO Brandon Tuliaupupu (6'1, 315)
Right Defensive End
SR Cassius Marsh (6'3, 275)
FR Kylie Fitts (6'4, 260)
RS FR Eli Ankou (6'3, 284)
Spring Preview: Defensive Line
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