It's almost fall football camp, right?
To kick off our camp previews, we took a look at the status of UCLA's offensive line heading into August, analyzed the unsettled running back position after the loss of Johnathan Franklin, broke down the quarterback position, and discussed how UCLA stacks up at receiver. Now, we'll start on the other side of the ball with the defensive line.
There wasn't a bigger piece of news this offseason than the culmination of the Eddie Vanderdoes saga with him arriving at UCLA in June. Vanderdoes, who committed to Notre Dame on Signing Day, spent much of the time after February working to get out of his National Letter of Intent. When his initial efforts failed, he still enrolled at UCLA and is now continuing to go through the appeal process to determine his eligibility for the season.
At this time, it's still undetermined whether Vanderdoes will be eligible this coming season. The Vanderdoes camp is still in the process of trying to get out of the NLI, and if that process is successful, Vanderdoes would be immediately eligible to play this year.
Vanderdoes becoming eligible, and filling the starting left defensive end spot, would be huge for UCLA considering there's much uncertainty surrounding the status of Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Odighizuwa sat out the spring while recovering from hip surgery, and then, at the end of spring, discovered that there were issues with the other hip as well. Although Coach Mora had indicated to reporters that Odighizuwa should be ready to go for the start of the season, from what we know, he'll be very limited in fall camp. How much he's able to perform in fall camp could determine whether or not he plays this year.
We reported in spring that Seali'i Epenesa had shown up for spring practice out of shape, and we've since learned that his weight gain and poor conditioning were due to a personal accident. Over the summer, he's slimmed down to 305, and, according to sources, is in his best shape since arriving at UCLA.
Ellis McCarthy, too, has spent the offseason recovering from knee surgery and getting back into shape. Reportedly, McCarthy is down to 320 pounds, which is more than 30 pounds lighter than when he arrived on campus last summer. McCarthy sat out most of the spring while still recovering from the knee surgery.
Ian Taubler, who played last year as somewhat of a traditional tight end, has made the switch to defensive end. Taubler, we've learned, is now close to 270 pounds. From what we've gathered, the coaching staff actually liked him more as a defensive end prospect coming out of high school than as a tight end.
We reported previously that there was a likelihood that Jeremy Castro would switch to defensive end, but that hasn't yet occurred. Many within the program, though, see the switch as inevitable, given that Castro is already big as a freshman coming off of his first spring, and looks like he'll only get bigger.
It's safe to say that Cassius Marsh will start at right defensive end, but there's little else that can be said with certainty about the starting defensive line. So, we'll start with Marsh.
Marsh, who made the switch to defensive end last year after playing as a 4-3 defensive tackle in his first two years in the program, thrived opposite Datone Jones. This spring, he looked stronger than he has at any point in his UCLA career, and, with Anthony Barr behind him, the pass rush duo from the right side should be formidable.
After Marsh, though, much is still to be decided—which isn't necessarily a bad thing. At nose tackle, UCLA has no clear cut starter, but several quality options. First, Epenesa, the incumbent, is reportedly in much better shape heading into San Bernardino than he was heading into April, and the expectation is that he's ready to compete, once again, for his starting job.
It's expected that he‘ll be pushed considerably by McCarthy. We reported after spring that McCarthy has impressed many of the coaches to the point where they thought he had a good shot to start in the fall over Epenesa. With Epenesa now in better shape, the battle between the two for the starting spot could be a very fun one. If McCarthy doesn't win the starting nose job in the base defense, there's a good chance that he'll still start in nickel packages.
Of course, with no clear-cut starter at nose, others could find themselves in the mix, including redshirt freshman Eli Ankou and true freshman Kenneth Clark. Ankou was very impressive making the switch to nose tackle during the spring, and at just 18 years old, he has tremendous room for growth. He already weighs 285 or 290 pounds, most of it muscle. Clark would be another candidate for playing time as a nickel defensive lineman, since he has some potential versatility.
Left defensive end is where things get potentially dicey. Odighizuwa will be in San Bernardino, but will be extremely limited to start out. If he's unable to participate much in camp, there's a very good chance that he'll sit out the year in order to recuperate and have a shot at a fully healthy senior season. If he's unable to play, and Vanderdoes is eligible, then Vanderdoes will almost certainly start. If both somehow are eligible and healthy, UCLA could have the best collection of defensive line talent it's had in the last fifteen years.
Of course, the flip side is that, if Vanderdoes is not eligible and Odighizuwa is not healthy, then UCLA will have some work to do to come up with a good combination at the spot. The first candidate would likely be Brandon Willis, who had a decent spring after an up and down season last year. Willis, who had some weight fluctuation issues last year, had settled at around 275 in the spring, and looked better at that weight.
There's also a good chance that Keenan Graham, who converted back to defensive end in the spring, could compete for the job as well, if Vanderdoes and Odighizuwa are not available. Graham had a good spring when he was healthy, and the only question with him is how his frame will hold up snap after snap.
At right end and at nose tackle, UCLA clearly has very good potential options, with two incumbent starters and, at nose tackle, quality backups who could compete to start over the starter. The availability of Odighizuwa and Vanderdoes, though, could be what transforms UCLA's good defensive line into a potentially elite one.
Nate Iese made the switch to defensive end in the spring, and, although he didn't have the size you'd like at the position, showed good quickness and instincts. We've now heard that he's gotten bigger in the offseason, which could put him in position for playing time. We've also heard that he and Taubler will both work as short yardage tight ends, in much the same way as Marsh and Datone Jones last year.
Kylie Fitts, who was the lone early enrollee on the defensive line this spring, had an up and down spring as he got used to the speed of the game and the pace of UCLA's practices. His conditioning was a little suspect, which you generally would expect from a high school defensive lineman. He's in better shape heading into camp, and there's a good chance he won't have to redshirt.
Ankou, as we said above, has been one of the bigger surprises since he came onto campus. He's big, but not fat, and is very strong. He started the spring as a defensive end, but switched to nose tackle about halfway through April. He could compete for playing time at both positions this year.
Clark has a good shot to play as well, even with the potential depth ahead of him. He has the quickness and strength to play both as a nose tackle in the base defense and as a defensive lineman in nickel packages.
Sam Tai, who we haven't heard much from since he arrived on campus, has seemingly never been healthy. It's undetermined whether he'll be ready to go for San Bernardino.
Bottom Line on the Line
So much of UCLA's success on defense this year will rely on the quality of the defensive line, and so much of the quality of the defensive line will rely on whoever ends up starting at left defensive end. We hate to put so much emphasis on a single position, but it really is key. If Vanderdoes or Odighizuwa start, then the defensive line has a high probability of being very good to elite, which will have ramifications for both the linebackers and the secondary. Having one of those two starting means that UCLA would have to blitz less to get pressure, which means there will be more players in coverage, which means better outcomes for the defense. If neither is available, then the defensive line has a much more discernible ceiling, and the defense will likely have to resort much more to the strategies of last year, with a heavy dose of blitzing and nickel packages.
Still, UCLA's front seven, with three returning starters at linebacker and two on the defensive line, could be UCLA's best in a long time, even with the question marks on the left side. Marsh and whoever ends up starting at nose tackle will likely be just as good as last year, if not better. The depth, too, is fairly good, with Clark, Willis, Graham, Fitts, Ankou, Taubler, and Iese all looking like they could earn playing time this year.
It likely wouldn't be an elite defensive line, though, without the addition of another high quality defensive end, and we likely won't know whether UCLA will have that high quality defensive end for at least another few weeks. That news, of Vanderdoes' eligibility and Odighizuwa's status for the season, will be huge for UCLA's plans this year.
Look at it this way, though—either UCLA will have the best starting defensive line it has had in over a decade, or UCLA will have its best scout team defensive line in history.
See? Bright side.
Defensive Line Depth Chart Going Into Fall Camp
Left Defensive End: Owamagbe Odighizuwa Sr. OR Eddie Vanderdoes Fr. OR Brandon Willis RS Jr., Keenan Graham RS Sr.
Nose Tackle Seali'i Epenesa RS Sr. OR Ellis McCarthy So., Eli Ankou RS Fr., Kenneth Clark Fr.
Right Defensive End Cassius Marsh Sr., Kylie Fitts Fr., Ian Taubler So., Nate Iese RS Fr.
Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line
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