Spring Review: Defensive Line

UCLA's defensive line was beset by injuries this spring, but a few players emerged, and Cassius Marsh made another leap forward...

Heading into the spring, there was reason to think that the defensive line would be the strongest unit on the team this year. However, April showed some cracks. First, defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa sat out the entire spring recovering from hip surgery, and we've since heard word that his other hip is now bothering him, and he may need surgery on that hip. In that case, Odighizuwa could actually redshirt this season. Next, Brandon Tuliaupupu, who actually supplanted nose tackle Seali'I Epenesa in the first string this spring, tore his ACL midway through camp. Lastly, Epenesa came into camp a bit out of shape, and had to spend most of the spring working on his physique and fighting to reacquire his starting role.

Even with the bad, there was certainly some good news. Eli Ankou, in the absence of Tuliaupupu and Ellis McCarthy (who sat out most team drills recovering from knee surgery), had an excellent spring, and showed versatility, slotting in at both end and nose. He's a big kid, at about 6'3, 290, and showed good strength, flexibility, and explosion. He has a great deal of mental upside, as well, since the game is still fairly new to him. Kylie Fitts had some good moments as well, and physically, he has the strength to compete now if need be. Cassius Marsh, who, like Datone Jones, found his niche as a 3-4 defensive end last season, continued his growth as a player and leader on the team, and seems poised for a big senior year. Brandon Willis had some moments as well, but probably hasn't done enough to secure a starting spot at this point. Keenan Graham, who bulked up this offseason, looked good over the last week as a pass rusher, but might not have the bulk to play every down. Nate Iese, who came over from the linebackers, showed off some pass rushing ability despite being fairly undersized at this point.

All in all, though, it was probably a disappointing spring for the defensive line, mostly because of the injuries. However, there is much that can happen before the fall to help with depth, not least of which would be the healthy return of Odighizuwa.

Who Rose:

Eli Ankou RS FR: Thought to be a defensive end or even an outside linebacker when he was a high school prospect, it was obvious as soon as Ankou was on campus last year that he'd have a chance to play nose tackle in this defense. Finally getting his chance this spring, he thrived. His wide, strong body is able to eat up double and triple teams at the point, and he showed good enough hands and explosion to beat single blockers whenever the offensive line cheated off of him. He's still learning the position, and he's still very new to the game, having only spent a season or two in American football prior to arriving at UCLA. However, with his position versatility, and the newfound depth issues for the defensive line, Ankou has a very good chance of playing this year.

Brandon Tuliaupupu RS SO: It's a real shame that Tuliaupupu was injured, because he was in the midst of what could have been a breakout spring. The coaches have always been high on Tuliaupupu, since he has a good motor and has the physical measurable you'd want from the position. This spring, he overtook Epenesa early on, and seemed poised to head into the fall as a potential starter. He'll sit out the year, which is unfortunate, because it could put him behind several others at the nose tackle spot.

Ellis McCarthy SO: He participated in few, if any, team drills, but McCarthy was physically more impressive than even last year. He has trimmed down quite a bit, and, by the end of the spring, might have gotten all the way down to 315 or so. During individual drills, he looked better athletically than he has in his time at UCLA, and we've heard that the knee is more or less fully healthy at this point. From what we've heard within the program, there's an expectation that McCarthy could be poised to overtake Epenesa for the starting nose tackle job.

Who Fell:

Seali'I Epenesa RS SR: Epenesa arrived fairly out of shape to spring camp this year, and, with the competition at nose tackle this spring, it left him fighting to get back into the first string most of the month. Both he and Coach McClure acknowledged his need to lose weight over the summer to get back to playing shape, and it'll be interesting to see whether that's enough to earn back his starting spot. For now, it's fair to say that the nose tackle job this fall will be an open competition.

Where Things Project:

This is probably one of the tougher units to project, because so much can change before the fall. Among other things, if Odighizuwa manages to bypass surgery and come back healthy, that likely fills one defensive end spot. If Epenesa comes back in shape, then there will, at the very least, be very good depth at nose tackle.

At this point, though, we'd guess that Odighizuwa will have hip surgery, and it will likely keep him out for a good portion of the season. That left defensive end position is probably the biggest spot to fill this fall, and there isn't an obvious candidate to fill it on the roster. Willis is the most ready to play among the bunch, but Willis would represent a pretty significant downgrade from the play UCLA received last year from that position. Keenan Graham, who bulked up this spring, could also factor into the competition, although we expect he'll be used as more of a situational lineman.

We suspect, as well, that McCarthy could begin the season as the starting nose tackle, assuming he has a good fall camp. That would leave UCLA with some significant depth at nose tackle, which could push Ankou back outside as a candidate at the left defensive end position. Again, much may change by fall, so consider this depth chart one of the more tentative of these post-spring reviews. True freshman Kenneth Clark is expected to come in and immediately compete. He appears physically ready, at about 6-2 and 285-ish, and is strong. He has good athleticism and it's believed he'd be able to play either nose or end. We don't see third year sophomore Sam Tai SO being able to crack the two-deep, especially coming off an injury that has continued to keep him out during spring ball.

One potential position move we've been anctipating is linebacker Jeremy Castro potentially switching to defensive end. We thought he didn't look comfortable at the outside linebacker spot this spring, but you also have to take into consideration it was his first action after greyshirting. Still, we think he projects as a defensive end, and we're hearing that could be a move that's made this fall.

Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada

Left Defensive End
Brandon Willis RS JR
Keenan Graham RS SR
Nate Iese RS FR

Nose Tackle
Ellis McCarthy SO
Seali'i Epenesa RS SR
Eli Ankou RS FR
Kenneth Clark FR

Right Defensive End
Cassius Marsh SR
Kylie Fitts FR
Jeremy Castro FR
Sam Tai SO

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