Now, however, it’s time to raise expectation further in terms of talent level and recruiting. While UCLA has clearly upgraded its talent level, it was evident this season that it was still lacking some elite talent in certain areas. These are the primary areas of need to keep the UCLA program improving and moving forward over the next several seasons.
It was probably the most obvious talent missing on the 2015 team. Going into the season, perhaps the biggest question on defense was how UCLA would replace Anthony Barr, the pass-rushing linebacker/defensive end hybrid, and you could easily say that, well, it didn’t. There just wasn’t that guy who could consistently beat his blocker one-on-one and get to the quarterback, without the aid of a blitz or a stunt. And it definitely hindered the 2014 defense; a few opposing quarterbacks had big days against UCLA’s defense this year because they seemingly had enough time to write out their Christmas cards in the pocket. With quarterbacks having time, it put a great deal of pressure on UCLA’s secondary, and the playcalls had to adjust – either by dedicating more guys to blitz, or the defensive backs having to play looser to keep receivers in front of them. It wasn’t coincidental that when UCLA did get pressure, the defense had a good day. Getting pressure on the quarterback very well could be the #1 factor in having a successful defense, and almost certainly is in UCLA’s scheme, and being able to have a guy – or guys – who can do that one-on-one relieves the rest of the defense of an added burden of responsibility.
The way UCLA’s defense is designed the showcased pass-rushing spot is that Anthony Barr hybrid position, but that doesn’t mean the other spots on the DL can’t put pressure on the quarterback. There is the hand-down defensive end spot, which was manned by Owamagbe Odighizuwa this year, the same spot from which Cassius Marsh provided a huge pass-rushing presence the previous two years. It’s also very conceivable for the interior DL to provide pressure on the quarterback, particularly the three-technique defensive tackle.
As a whole, the team generated just 22 sacks in 2014, with 19 of them coming from defensive linemen (we’re including Deon Hollins as a DL). By comparison, in 2014, UCLA had 32 sacks, and in 2012, the Bruins had 47. Clearly, the team did not find any real replacements for Barr or Marsh.
Hollins tried to fill in the spot of the hybrid linebacker/defensive end vacated by Barr and, despite a valiant effort, couldn’t fill the shoes this season. He came on toward the end of the season, finishing with a team-leading six sacks, so the hope is that the light has turned on for next season and beyond, since he’ll just be a junior in 2015. Linebacker/defensive end Kenny Orjioke blew out his ACL a couple of games into the season, and he’ll be back for 2015 as a redshirt junior, hopefully completely healed from the injury and improved. He has an athletic advantage over Hollins and perhaps the combination of the two, now a year older, more mature and experienced, will reap benefits. Remember, it took Anthony Barr until his junior year before he was a force at the position (being lost on offense might have had something to do with it, too).
Looking at the rest of the roster, there probably isn’t anyone either as a defensive end or a d-end/linebacker that you would characterize as a pass-rush specialist. We could envision three-technique defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes continuing to improve as a pass rusher and be more of a threat as one next season. Ellis McCarthy got three sacks this season and he’ll probably only get more effective at it next season. Freshman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner flashed some pass-rushing abilities in his back-up role this year, but even with expected development, we’d be surprised if he’s UCLA’s pass-rush answer over the next few years, and the same with freshman DL Matt Dickerson.
The guy UCLA is hoping can someday fulfill that need in the 2015 class is Keisean Lucier-South (Pictured above), the five-star prospect verbally committed to UCLA from Orange (Calif.) Lutheran, who projects to play the Anthony Barr hybrid role. You can’t expect him to have much of an impact next season, since he’ll more than likely have to get bigger and stronger before he makes an impact, and being able to put on weight and strength is one of the concerns with Lucier-South. He does have good athleticism and quickness off the edge – and that is his forte, so UCLA is taking Lucier-South with the hope that he is, in fact, the Anthony Barr of UCLA’s future. Having him committed is a huge recruiting coup for 2015.
In the 2015 class, UCLA has a commitment from a defensive end, Rick Wade, the 6-6, 240-pound prospect from Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Santa Margarita. Wade looks like he’s going to be a very good player on the next level, but we’d project him more as a Owamagbe Odighizuwa type, probably a three-technique, with some pass-rush ability but not necessarily that greatly explosive type.
Tyrone Wheatley, from Bufflalo (New York) Canisius, is a guy we reall like, with his length and athleticism. He projects as a defensive end and has the potential to be an Owa-level pass rusher, if he does, indeed, end up on the defensive side of the ball, being also recruited as a tight end.
UCLA is recruiting Jeff Holland, the 6-3, 230-pound linebacker prospect from Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian. Holland is probably one of the best pure pass-rushing outside linebackers we’ve seen on film, and probably the guy left on UCLA’s recruiting board at that hybrid spot that would have the best shot of being an impact pass rusher. If UCLA got him he would greatly enhance UCLA’s odds of finding the guy to upgrade the production of that hybrid spot over the next several years.
The big recent development with Osa Masina, the 6-4, 240-pound prospect from Salt Lake City (Utah) Brighton, is that he now has USC as his leader after his official visit there last weekend, after UCLA was known to be his leader for a while. Despite reports that he’s verbally committed to USC, we have it on pretty good authority that the recruitment isn’t over yet. Masina doesn’t necessarily project as the pass-rushing type, perhaps more of a Myles Jack-type, with great back pedal and ability to move laterally, but the five-star prospect is probably talented enough to fulfill that Barr role, too.
Two guys we really like as potentially great pass rushers of the future are Joseph Wicker, the 6-3, 275-pounder from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, and Benning Potoae, the 6-4, 265-pounder from Lakewood (Wash.) Lakes. Wicker probably projects inside, with a wide body that will probably only get bigger, and he has great quickness for his size, and a knack for penetrating and getting to the quarterback. Potoae, despite being very big already, looks quite at home beating blockers on the edge, with some exceptional fast-twitch. UCLA is doing very well with both Wicker and Potoae, probably leading for Wicker and neck-and-neck with Washington for Potoae.
There’s another dimension, too, to UCLA potentially boosting its pass rush. It’s very feasible for UCLA’s scheme to feature a true linebacker. Junior-to-be linebacker Jayon Brown has a knack for pass rushing, and we’ll be very interested this spring to also monitor the development of Cameron Judge and Cameron Griffin, the big athlete who sat out last season due to a knee injury. Committed linebacker Josh Woods, from Upland (Calif.), has shown a talent for rushing the passer in high school, too. He might not be able to fulfill that role next season, but there’s potential to exploit his talent for it down the road. UCLA had just four sacks other than those by defensive linemen (and Hollins), so upgrading the pass-rushing ability of the linebackers could be a key element.
We don’t necessarily see someone from the 2015 class coming in and immediately supplying a big boost to UCLA’s pass rush for the 2015 season. Holland, actually, might be the most physically ready but it’d still be a stretch since he’s pretty raw; Lucier-South is probably at least a year of development away; Masina, we think, too, is probably physically not ready and, as we said, could be better suited in a Myles-Jack type of role; Wade is advanced enough to come in and play next season, but probably at about the same back-up-role level we saw from Tuioti-Mariner this year. More than likely, UCLA will have to get a better pass rush in 2015 from an improved McKinley, Hollins, Orjioke, Vanderdoes and even Tuioti-Mariner. The best thing about that, too, is all of them not only return for 2015 but also 2016 (unless someone leaves early). But looking further down the road, UCLA has a very good chance of upgrading its pass rush with Lucier-South, if it adds Wicker and/or Potoae, and especially Holland.
-- Keeping Talent Flowing in on the Offensive Line/Defensive Line
-- Speed/Playmaking Ability at Wide Receiver
-- True Tight End
-- Lock-down Cover Corner