Spring Preview: Defensive Line

Owamagbe Odighizuwa returns for 2014 after sitting out all of last year, which is significant for the defensive line this spring, which will be without Eddie Vanderdoes...

After the 2012 season, it looked like UCLA's defensive line would be in good shape for the foreseeable future. Despite losing Datone Jones to graduation, UCLA was returning two starters (Cassius Marsh and Seali'i Epenesa) in addition to Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who was the main sub off the bench at both end spots. With that much talent returning, UCLA's defensive line was expected to be a strength of the team.

By and large, the defensive line was fairly good last year, but it had little to do with the original prognostications. Epenesa, a year after starting, was relegated largely to a backup role as Kenneth Clark overtook him at nose tackle. Odighizuwa, who seemed to finally be coming into his own toward the end of 2012, underwent two hip surgeries soon after the season that forced him to use a redshirt year in 2013. From the top four linemen in 2012, only Marsh was a really significant contributor. The strength of the line, instead, was built on the backs of younger players, in particular sophomore Ellis McCarthy and true freshmen Eddie Vanderdoes and the aforementioned Clark.

A Look at Spring

UCLA has to find a way to replace Marsh, since his contributions as a pass rusher will be important to replicate. Luckily, Odighizuwa is now reportedly healthy, and ready to go for spring, which will be important because it'll give him time to shake off the rust from a year of sitting out. Among the defensive linemen on the roster, he probably has the skill set and athleticism most suited to filling a significant portion of Marsh's role in the defense.

Vanderdoes, though, will sit out the spring after undergoing surgery to fix a fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his foot. As we've seen at UCLA in the past, those injuries can have a tendency to linger, and the recovery time can vary. The expectation, though, is that Vanderdoes should be ready to go again over the summer.

Generally speaking, UCLA has a pretty good idea of its top four rotation heading into the spring, with McCarthy, Odighizuwa, Vanderdoes, and Clark factoring into it significantly. But with the way defensive line coach Angus McClure likes to rotate players and use guys in situational roles, spring should be a proving ground for many of the younger players looking to earn playing time.

What to Watch For

Ellis McCarthy.
— How good is Ellis McCarthy when he's in good shape? In 2012, McCarthy came into camp carrying some extra weight after suffering a leg injury over the summer. He weighed about 350 during the year, and it clearly affected him. Last year, he was much better, and told us a few times that he was between 315 and 325 at points during the year. We know his goal is 300 pounds, or thereabouts, and if he can get close to that, it's going to be very interesting to see what kind of force he can be. His short-area quickness is already pretty good for a guy his size, and if he has shed a little more weight, this spring could be a big one for him.

— How long will it take Odighizuwa to get back to his 2012 self? Odighizuwa's play throughout the latter stages of the 2012 season was exceptional, and there were games that he looked like UCLA's best, most consistent lineman (and this was with Datone Jones playing). Sitting out a year, though, can leave a significant amount of rust, and two hip surgeries require recovery time. If he can get back to 2012 form by the end of April, or even the start of training camp in August, that should go a long way toward shoring up the defensive line to start the season.

— How will the personnel fit with scheme changes? From what Jim Mora told us on the podcast two weeks ago, UCLA will be working more 4-3 elements into the defense than there have been the last two years. UCLA, obviously, has recruited defensive linemen to fit a 3-4 mold more than a 4-3, so it's going to be interesting to see how the personnel shakes out. Largely, last year's 4-3 looks generally came in when the team was in nickel, which usually involved the two defensive ends sliding into the middle and the two outside linebackers moving onto the line. That could remain the same, or guys could see more varied roles. Seemingly, this would have been a great move for a guy like Keenan Graham.

— Who will fill out the rotation? McClure likes to use seven or eight guys pretty consistently on the line. We can pencil in Vanderdoes, Clark, McCarthy, and Odighizuwa into the rotation without much trouble. After that, though, there's a bit of uncertainty. Eli Ankou has shown flashes of ability in practice over the last two years, and certainly has the size to play either nose or end. Kylie Fitts, after losing part of last year when he got a plate removed from his wrist, should be fully healthy this spring and the coaching staff is high on his potential. With true freshmen Matt Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and Ainuu Taua set to come in this fall, though, Ankou and Fitts will want to get a jump on the competition this April.

— How will things look on the injury front? Ian Taubler, from what we last heard, was still dealing with the pretty severe concussion he suffered last year, and it's uncertain when or if he'll be back. Vanderdoes, like we said, is expected to be back during the summer workouts. But if the Bruins suffer any significant injuries beyond those, they could be a bit shallow heading into the season. As it is, the depth chart for spring is fairly skimpy.

Projected Depth Chart for Spring

Defensive End
Ellis McCarthy
Kylie Fitts

Nose Tackle
Kenneth Clark
Eli Ankou

Defensive End
Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Zach Vinci

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