Season Review: Defense

Dec. 2 -- Like the offense, the defense was plagued by inconsistency throughout the year, though they hit a pretty good stride through the second half of the season...

Heading into the year, we thought this would be the year that UCLA’s performance on defense started to match its talent, and that all the talented pieces would come together into an near-elite side of the ball. But, while there were moments where the defense truly did put together an elite showing (Arizona and USC stand out in particular), too often the defense did not perform up to its considerable talent level, for a variety of reasons.

Early on, we thought the scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was a bit passive, and it relied too much on the assumption that UCLA’s players were so much better than the players for other teams that they could play in a passive scheme and simply out-execute the opposition. As we saw this year, and have seen throughout years of college football, it takes elite talent and a great deal of experience at every position to pull off anything close to that level of defense, and UCLA probably didn’t have the pieces to do so. After the Oregon debacle, UCLA’s defense became more aggressive, and churned out a few very good performances in the latter half of the season.

There were obviously a few big standouts — Eric Kendricks put together his first healthy season of the Mora era, and looked like a legitimate NFL prospect. Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes had flashes up front where they looked like dominant forces on the interior. Even Fabian Moreau, who started the year shaky, looked a bit more like the potential pro prospect by the end of the year that we talked about in fall camp.

It was a decent enough year for the defense on the whole, but there was a distinct lack of consistency from game to game, much like the offense. The hope is that Ulbrich, in his second year, will have a more aggressive approach to start the year, and a year of playing in his 4-2-5-hybrid scheme will give the eight returning starters an excellent foundation to carry the defense to a higher level.

As with the offensive review, below we’ve compiled our thoughts on each unit, along with an overall season GPA based on our unit-by-unit analyses throughout the year.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
Defensive Line: B
Season GPA: 2.88
Unit MVP: Kenneth Clark

Our biggest concern heading into the year had to do with the pass rush, and if there was a real weakness in the defensive line this season, it was that there wasn’t a really excellent pass rusher in the group to make up for the loss of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is more of a power player than either of those two, and while he might have been better at setting the edge than either of them, he wasn’t as good at swimming past tackles and finishing sacks. Deon Hollins, who played what was effectively defensive end for most of the year, generated six sacks, and more than a few hurries, but gave up so much in the running game, especially early on, that it’s uncertain how much of a net positive he was. Takkarist McKinley had 2.5 sacks in very limited time, but wasn’t deemed ready to play considerably, having not been with the team through fall camp or the first three games of the year. As a whole, the team generated just 22 sacks, with 19 of them coming from defensive linemen (including Hollins). By comparison, last year, UCLA had 32 sacks, and in 2012, the Bruins had 47. Clearly, the team did not find any real replacements for Barr or Marsh. Creating negative plays in general was not a strong suit, as UCLA had only 68 tackles for loss all season.

That said, throughout much of the year (basically aside from Stanford and Oregon), the defensive line did a good job of stopping the run, especially up the middle. At various points, the unit showed flashes of excellent one-on-one play, particularly against USC, where Odighizuwa, Vanderdoes, and others beat blocks to get after Cody Kessler.

Clark, to our eyes, was the clear MVP of the unit. The nose tackle finished fourth on the team in tackles, which is a very good sign in that it means he’s beating blocks and making tackles for minimal gain. He commanded double teams frequently, and even made a few big plays behind the line of scrimmage. He might never be a huge stat guy, but his impact in the middle is unquestionable.

Vanderdoes had a rough start to the season, seemingly still working into game shape as the season started (he sat out all of spring and most of the offseason with an injury). By about the midway point of the year, his conditioning seemed to pick up and he started to play very well. UCLA, by the end of the season, started to move him around more, sometimes even having him come in behind Clark on a stunt, which allowed Vanderdoes to use his short-area quickness to get some pass rush. Going into the offseason healthy will be big for him, and should allow him to get in much better shape heading into what could be a money-making junior year.

Odighizuwa wasn’t quite the dominant force we anticipated out of spring and fall camp, but he still put together a nice year. He led the team in tackles for loss with 9.5, was second in sacks with five, and had countless hurries. He didn’t do a great job of finishing sacks, often getting to the quarterback and not having that last little burst to bring him down. Over the last four or five games, UCLA started to use him both inside and out, which seemed to give him some more favorable matchups.

Hollins struggled for most of the early part of the year in the running game. He didn’t appear to have the strength or discipline to set the edge and play effective containment against outside runs, which allowed teams like Oregon to run right over his side at will. Toward the end of the season, though, he started to play with much more discipline in the run game, which took away the big negative in his game. He’s a very good pass rusher, and he’ll always have value there, but playing him so much in the base defense this year was likely largely a product of Kenny Orjioke’s injury. It will be interesting next year to see what happens in that spot.

Ellis McCarthy came into the year out of shape and played himself into better conditioning as the year went on. He struggles to get his pads low, since he’s all of 6’4 or 6’5 without a great deal of bend, and that led to him not holding up in the run game very well. He was able to use his strength and a nice swim move to get a couple of sacks throughout the year, but he’ll need to get in much better shape this offseason to have a hope of an NFL career after college.

McKinley, as we noted, made a huge impact in limited time over the last eight games of the season, showing a level of athleticism and speed that UCLA really didn’t possess in any of its traditional defensive ends. While he did show a lack of discipline at times in holding the edge, we would have liked to have seen more of him over the last stretch of games because of the obvious advantages he gave UCLA as a pass rusher.

The freshmen — Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner — both showed flashes at times, but all-in-all, proved to be fairly unready for the demands of college football. With an offseason of strength training, we’d have to imagine both will be ready to contribute a bit more heavily next season.

Myles Jack.
Linebackers: B-
Season GPA: 2.61
Unit MVP: Eric Kendricks

If there was a more nationally hyped unit on the team than quarterback, it was the linebacker group, specifically because of Myles Jack. It seemed that every national pundit who had something to say about UCLA’s playoff chances said something to the tune of “It’s hard to bet against a team that has Brett Hundley and Myles Jack.” Of course, Jack was not the best linebacker on the team this year, nor was he last year. This year, that title was held by the newly healthy Eric Kendricks, who showed why he might be the player most difficult to replace on next year’s squad.

Kendricks was excellent for most of the year, and had some truly sublime performances down the stretch, especially against USC. It was really nice to see him have a truly healthy season for the first time since his redshirt freshman campaign. He was extremely versatile, playing well in the run game and also proving adept in coverage, if not the absolute phenom that his counterpart was. He’ll be a big, big loss next year.

Jack had flashes of brilliance and periods of inconsistency, especially at the beginning of the year. He was a little undisciplined, and seemed to struggle with his gap responsibilities in the new defense. Still, he can do some things athletically that few other players his size can do. Case in point: covering Nelson Agholor. We’d have liked to have seen a little more pass rush out of him, but it seemed that UCLA opted to use him more in coverage over having him rush the passer. Going into next year, we’d expect Jack to build on his improved play in the second half and become one of the leaders of the defense.

Kenny Young probably played the most behind Jack and Kendricks out of the group, and was ostensibly a starter, but UCLA only rarely used that extra linebacker. Young, who was very impressive in fall camp, struggled during the season, as newcomers often have at inside linebacker. Early on, he looked tentative, reacting slowly to plays as he adjusted to the speed of the game. He hit a nice rhythm in the last quarter of the season before looking a little out of his element covering tight ends against Stanford. If he’s to be the heir to Kendricks at inside linebacker, he’ll have to make some strides in the offseason, but it did look as if he was starting to get more comfortable as the season wore on.

Aaron Wallace mixed between playing a more traditional linebacker position and also playing that defensive end role that Hollins filled, and didn’t do great in either. He had the same issues in containment that Hollins had, but didn’t provide as much in the pass rush to offset those issues. Isaako Savaiinaea also played some of that role, and actually looked a bit better than Hollins, though clearly not a natural fit there. It’ll be interesting to see if he moves back inside once Kendricks is gone.

Fabian Moreau.
Defensive Backs: C+
Season GPA: 2.42
Unit MVP: Anthony Jefferson

We expected it to be possibly the strongest unit on the defense this year, with four returning starters, so naturally it was the most suspect. Part of the issue was that Randall Goforth got hurt so early in the year, which forced a bit of musical chairs shuffling in the defensive backfield. Anthony Jefferson dropped down to cornerback for much of the year, Ishmael Adams spent some time at safety, and both freshman Jaleel Wadood and sophomore Tahaan Goodman got a good deal more time than might have been expected.

Jefferson, for our part, was the clear MVP of the group, excelling at both safety and cornerback. We’ve long thought that he might be a better corner than a safety, and through most of the year, it certainly did look that way. He did an excellent job against Jaelen Strong when UCLA went against ASU, and did a good job locking down in man coverage throughout the rest of the year. We don’t know for certain whether or not he’ll pursue a sixth year, but we’d assume he won’t judging by our read of the situation.

Fabian Moreau, the other starter at corner for most of the year, struggled a bit to open up the season. After looking like a lockdown cornerback in fall camp (and in the spring), he really struggled playing the ball through the first half of the season. Seemingly every time a deep ball was caught on the secondary, he was in the frame, not able to make a play on it. He actually seemed to be covering well, for the most part, but was just unable to make a play on the catch. Toward the end of the season, he looked better, and started to make some of those pass breakups that were so common in camp. His improved play did coincide with UCLA playing more press coverage on the outside, which played more to his strengths.

Ishmael Adams showed some big play potential, picking off a few passes and returning one for a touchdown. He was mostly solid all year, though bigger, taller receivers were occasionally able to make plays on him. Wadood actually did a really good job for a freshman at safety. He misplayed a few deep passes, and probably was responsible for making Moreau look a little bit worse than he was early on, but his run support was excellent through the middle stretches of the season, and he showed himself to be a sure tackler for a smaller player. Goodman was inconsistent; he put together a couple of really nice games where he looked like an enforcer over the middle (especially against Arizona), but then had other games where he missed a few tackles and looked out of position.

Priest Willis was the big enigma in the group. He actually looked like he was playing better heading into the Utah game, but soon after he was essentially absent from the defense, playing the majority of his reps on special teams. Adjusting to the speed of the game has been a struggle for him, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with him going forward. Marcus Rios seemed to pick up many of his reps at cornerback through the last six games of the year. Rios looks like he’s close to making his way back fully from the infection that sidelined him for over a year, and it’ll be good for him to get a full offseason under his belt.

Defensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Planning: C+
Season GPA: 2.36

As we’ve said a few times, the scheme was probably too passive and vanilla through the first six games or so. UCLA rarely blitzed, very often played its cornerbacks 10+ yards off the line of scrimmage, very often lined up two deep safeties 20+ yards off the line of scrimmage, and rarely stunted its defensive linemen. The result was very little pass rush, mediocre run defense, and middling pass defense. While some are inclined to pin the Utah loss on Fairbairn’s missed kick or Hundley’s struggles or the offensive line, we’d pin it mostly on the defense, which was far too conservative against Utah’s running attack.

So, the first half of the season was not so great. We probably should have expected something akin to it, with a first year defensive coordinator at the helm. We thought Ulbrich would have an easy transition to calling plays, having played middle linebacker for so many years and having coached under Spanos and Mora for the previous two years in this system, but it turned out not to be so easy.

To his credit, Ulbrich made some big changes after Oregon, and while the scheme never became some blitz-happy system like Arizona State, the Bruins started to work in more safety and corner blitzes, began to stunt the defensive linemen more, and started to use press coverage more on the outside. The result was three of the best defensive performances of the season in the last six games (California, Arizona, and USC). To put it in terms of our grades, the GPA for the first six games of the year was 1.84. The GPA for the last six games, even including the Stanford debacle (which, again, we’ll discuss in depth later this week), was 2.88. If UCLA could have maintained that level throughout the entire year, the Bruins would probably be in the Pac-12 Championship game this Friday.

The hope is that the defensive staff got through its growing pains with a new leader at the helm this year and will be ready to come out with an aggressive scheme built on the lessons of 2014 next season. If so, there’s reason to believe, once again, that UCLA should have a very good defense next year.

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