As we talked about in the linebacker preview, though, the issues for UCLA last year had more to do with the pass rush than run defense (the Bruins were a very healthy 32nd in the country in run defense last year at 3.8 yards per rush attempt allowed). Now, you can't blame all of that on the defensive line, or even the linebackers, as the scheme clearly didn't emphasize putting pressure on the quarterback. But it was clear that with Cassius Marsh and Anthony Barr gone from the defense, UCLA lacked those kinds of individual talents who can perform like a one-man pass rush. Even Owamagbe Odighizuwa wasn't really able to replace the contributions of either of those guys, and he's gone now.
So, UCLA has enough talent in the middle of the defense for the Bruins to be, once again, one of the better rush defenses in the Pac-12. But figuring out a solution for the pass rush will be key, and with UCLA using more 4-3 this season than the Bruins have before, some more of that responsibility is going to fall on the defensive line.
***Ellis McCarthy -- Even though he left months ago now, it still merits mentioning that McCarthy is gone, leaving early for the NFL in one of the stranger decisions we've seen. McCarthy never found a niche at UCLA, and struggled to keep his weight down, but he still probably would have been a rotational player this season.
DE Rick Wade
Wade is the lone true defensive lineman added in this class (we've included Keisean Lucier-South with the linebackers and Fred Ulu-Perry will get a long time to see if he fits on the offensive line). Wade has the frame and length of one of those Stanford defensive ends who have caused UCLA so much trouble over the last few years, but he'll need some time to get to that level of bulk. A redshirt year would make sense for him as he gets bigger and stronger, but Wade has a great deal of upside, and once he gets to 250+ pounds, he'll have the potential to be a starter.
Many schools, especially on the West Coast, would love to have just one defensive tackle as talented as Kenneth Clark or Eddie Vanderdoes, and UCLA has two of them. It's a luxury that UCLA has not often had, two elite interior defensive linemen with NFL potential, and this is, potentially, their money year, when they will be eligible for the NFL Draft for the first time.
Clark is probably the best nose tackle in the Pac-12, and he's started to earn some of that national recognition for his, at times, below-the-radar play. Clark is very strong, plays with great pad level, and uses his hands very well, but he gets overlooked a little bit because he doesn't rush the passer a great deal from the interior of the line and thus doesn't end up with noticeable statistics. His impact on the game is profound, though, with his ability to occupy blockers and free up linebackers to make plays.
Vanderdoes, next to him, is finally going into a season with a full healthy offseason under his belt. He looked a little bit better physically this spring than he has at any point at UCLA, and we'd anticipate him showing up to camp in San Bernardino in better shape still. The only issue with pairing him with Clark is that Vanderdoes, as he's presently built, probably makes more sense as a nose tackle as well. He's a little miscast as a three-technique, where you'd ideally like to see a little more pass-rushing, but perhaps Vanderdoes, in the best shape of his college career this fall, will be able to provide more of that than he has before. In any case, that tandem in the middle should be extremely stout against the run and should make the lives of Kenny Young and Myles Jack relatively easy.
We'll slot Takkarist McKinley in as the third starter among the defensive linemen. As we talked about above, generating a pass rush has to be a key heading into this season, and McKinley probably has the best pass-rushing skill-set among the defensive linemen. He didn't even understand the defense last year and was still a force, at times, when he entered games, so with a full offseason of learning the defense, we'd expect him to be much better equipped to stay on the field for longer periods of time. He had a decent enough spring after putting on probably 15 pounds, and now that he's used to the added weight, we'd anticipate him having a big fall camp.
Despite losing both Ellis McCarthy and Kylie Fitts last year under pretty odd circumstances, UCLA's depth is actually in decent enough shape heading into the 2015 season. There probably aren't quite enough bodies to feel super comfortable about the 2016 season and beyond, but for the 2015 campaign, there's more than enough talent to have a solid rotation.
Matt Dickerson probably had the biggest spring among the backups, and, even though they're not the same kind of player, he actually got a little bit of time at McKinley's spot with the first string. He settled in as Vanderdoes' backup at the three-technique through most of the spring, and looks like he has obvious starter potential once Vanderdoes leaves school, after either this year or next.
Dickerson spent some time behind McKinley, but it was Jacob Tuioti-Mariner who spent the majority of his time there. Tuioti-Mariner, like Dickerson, had a really nice spring, and his performance went a long way toward alleviating our depth concerns along the defensive line. He has gotten considerably bigger, but has retained his athleticism, and looks like he could be a solid pass-rusher down the road. The interesting thing is that he looks like he could still get significantly bigger, potentially pushing into the 280s or 290s, and that probably means a move into the interior down the road. This year, though, he probably projects as an end.
We'd expect those two to be a significant part of the rotation, and then Eli Ankou, Ainuu Taua, and Najee Toran could all see some real time on the line. Ankou sat out all of the spring with a cast on his hand, but he should be mostly ready for fall camp. He projects as an interior lineman, and could probably fill in at either nose or three-tech in a pinch. Taua, as we've maintained for a while, projects best as a situational interior pass-rusher. He has good quickness for his size and body type, but lacks the kind of elite size and strength to be an every-down nose tackle or three-technique.
Toran is intriguing because he just moved to the defensive line this spring, and still had a pretty solid finish to the spring. His tenacity and mean-streak plays really well along the defensive line, perhaps even better than it did on the offensive line. As he got used to playing defense, and the different ways you can use your hands, he got progressively better. He seemed to be playing mostly three-technique this spring, and that'll probably be a nice fit for him going forward.
Carl Hulick worked out at mostly nose this spring and had a few nice practices, especially in the first couple of weeks. He could probably play a little bit this year, but he's more of a plugger than a playmaker on the interior.