One of the most interesting developments in spring was the change in defensive front. With linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich moving into his new role as the defensive coordinator, there have been some significant changes to UCLA’s base 3-4 defense. Whether it was a byproduct of not having enough linebackers or a drastic philosophical shift, UCLA went to many more four down-linemen arrangements this spring, with the defense often looking like either a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5. August in San Bernardino should give us a clear idea whether the shift in formations is a permanent one.
If the defensive line actually is likely to make a leap this fall into a truly elite unit, we’ll start to see it this fall. Vanderdoes, if UCLA does use more 4-3 elements, should be able to slide into his more natural three-technique position at times, which could be exciting to watch. Alongside Clark, Odighizuwa, and McCarthy, not to mention the talented backups and freshmen UCLA will also have in the fold, the Bruins should have one of their most talented defensive line groups ever.
-- From what we’ve heard, Vanderdoes has been fully cleared to participate in offseason workouts and training camp after sitting out all of spring with a leg injury.
--Sophomore Kylie Fitts’ wrist, which he had surgery on prior to his freshman year to insert a plate and then an additional surgery toward the end of the year to remove the plate, is fully healthy, which has allowed him an offseason of lifting and improving his technique.
--Incoming freshman Matt Dickerson’s back is fully healthy, clearing him for workouts and fall camp.
--Redshirt sophomore Ian Taubler is very likely going to retire from football after dealing with multiple concussions over the last two years.
Angus McClure has made a habit of restocking the defensive line every year with talented prospects, and this year is no different. Taua, Dickerson, and Tuioti-Mariner are all four-star prospects with varied skill-sets intended to fit different parts of UCLA’s system. Taua is squat and wide, clearly projecting as an interior lineman at either the three-tech or at nose tackle. Dickerson is a chiseled 270 pounds or so, at about 6’4, and looks like a good fit to play any of the defensive end roles in the system. Tuioti-Mariner probably has the highest upside of the three, with volleyball athleticism on a 6’4, 260-pound frame that should continue to fill out.
Right now, clearly the four-man rotation of Vanderdoes, McCarthy, Clark, and Odighizuwa will see the lion’s share of snaps. If UCLA is in a four-man rotation, we could see those four as the main down linemen, with Kenny Orjioke sometimes playing a hybrid role on the edge with either his hand down or standing up. In a three man rotation, we think the likely rotation would have Vanderdoes, Odighizuwa, and Clark starting, with McCarthy acting as a super sub who can fill in at all three positions.
Odighizuwa could go from sitting out last year to being a high draft pick next spring given how he looked during camp this spring. Physically, he looks arguably better than he did at the end of 2012, and it doesn’t appear that he’s sacrificed any of his athletic gifts with the hip surgeries.
Between McCarthy, Clark, and Vanderdoes, UCLA has three additional players who will more than likely be NFL Draft picks, with Clark and Vanderdoes looking like early round picks. Think of it this way: in that group of four, UCLA has three Army All-Americans, and the one who wasn’t (Kenny Clark) might be the best of the bunch.
UCLA was perhaps a little light on depth this spring, but restocking with Taua, Tuioti-Mariner, and Dickerson has alleviated that concern a bit. The Bruins have the four starter-types, then a group of Kylie Fitts, Eli Ankou, Kevin McReynolds, and one or two of Taua, Tuioti-Mariner, and Dickerson to fill out McClure’s typical seven or eight-man rotation.
This fall, it’ll be interesting to see which of the freshmen emerge as contenders for the last two rotational spots. The obvious candidate would be Dickerson, despite sitting out a year with a back injury, because he looks, physically, the most like a college player right now. Taua probably still has work to do on getting his body into optimal shape, and Tuioti-Mariner is still growing into being a football player after being a volleyball player for so long.
One bright spot this spring was McReynolds, who showed some flashes of ability at times. He’s bounced around between offense and defense over the last two years, but this spring he slotted in as the backup nose tackle at times and didn’t look out of place. He may not have the bend or flexibility to be an elite player, but he’s very strong and showed some ability as a pass rusher from the inside spot during 1-on-1 drills.
Generally, there aren’t many significant question marks or worries with the defensive line. It may have the most talent in the starting group of any unit on the team, and with depth enough to handle one or two injuries, it should be one of the main strengths of a defense that should be among the Pac-12’s best this fall.