UCLA Football Season Review: Defense

Dec. 8 -- In the second part of our season review, we go over our cumulative Unit by Unit Analysis grades for the defense...

UCLA’s defense was obviously limited by substantial injuries this season to Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Fabian Moreau, among a wide variety of others. Those injuries were the most significant, though, because they happened so early in the year, were season-enders, and also happened to three of the best players on the entire defense. It was pretty natural to assume that, with those three guys out, dreams of an elite defense went with them.

Now, that said, as we learned throughout the year, UCLA has some talented depth on the defense. With Jack out, Jayon Brown and Isaako Savaiinaea emerged as legitimate Pac-12 caliber starters at linebacker. With Eddie Vanderdoes out, Kenneth Clark took his game to a new, entirely stunning level. With Moreau out, we quickly learned just how good Johnny Johnson can be, and how much potential Nathan Meadors has down the road.

So the question is: was there enough talent for the defense to be better than it was this year? And while the defense was among the top units in the Pac-12, we’d probably lean toward yes. UCLA ran a pretty conservative scheme all season, predicated largely on not giving up big, explosive plays, and it was successful in that respect. But all too often — against Colorado, Arizona, and Stanford in particular — the defense gave up long, clock-eating, exhausting drives where they did far too little to disrupt the opposing offense. The run defense was abysmal at times during the season, and we’re still not entirely convinced UCLA ever figured out how to defend a zone read this season. Some of that was the conservative scheme, and some of it was personnel usage, with certain players probably playing a little too much, and certain players probably not playing enough.

NT Kenny Clark (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Defensive Line: B+
Unit GPA: 3.18
Unit MVP: Kenneth Clark

UCLA’s defensive line actually held up remarkably well without Eddie Vanderdoes, which makes you wonder precisely how good it could have been with the talented defensive tackle. In large part, the defensive line’s overall quality of play was due to the massive leap that Clark made this year. Already one of the top nose tackles in the Pac-12 heading into this season, Clark solidified his position as the No. 1 guy this season. He not only was stout against the run, but he actually added a real pass rush to his skill set this season, recording five sacks on the year, including three in a massive effort against Washington State.

Eli Ankou filled in for Vanderdoes through most of the first part of the year, and while he wasn’t going to make anyone forget Vanderdoes’ ability to command double teams and provide a road block for any rushing atack, he was surprisingly serviceable. Toward the end of the season, it appeared that UCLA used Matt Dickerson more and more to try to generate even more of a pass rush from the interior linemen. Dickerson was actually key in UCLA shutting down Utah’s running game in the second half of that game, which is a testament to his budding versatility.

Takkarist McKinley had flashes of really good play this year, including a breakout game against Oregon State where he was hugely disruptive for long stretches. There’s still a little bit of a learning curve there, and he was at times a little undisciplined in edge containment, but for his first full year in the program, this was a very nice season.

Jacob Tuioti-Mariner was solid playing behind McKinley, and it’s still a question whether he grows into more of an interior player as time goes on. We also saw some of Ainuu Taua toward the end of the year, but not enough to really gauge how much of a chance he has to make a major impact next season. He showed some pretty good interior quickness, though, so, as we’ve maintained for a while, perhaps he could provide something close to what Keenan Graham provided as a senior in terms of an interior pass rush.

The big issue for the defensive line this year wasn’t even necessarily a defensive line issue, but a formation/personnel issue. UCLA ran what had all the trappings of a 4-2-5 defense this season, but the fourth defensive lineman was the 225 to 230 pound Deon Hollins. Teams were often able to take advantage of that mismatch in the running game, and it made the actual defensive line look quite a bit worse than it really was.

LB Jayon Brown (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Linebackers: B-
Unit GPA: 2.55
Unit MVP: Jayon Brown

Where would this group have been without Jayon Brown? In terms of the margin for error behind him (virtually no depth) and the player he was replacing in the starting lineup (the do-everything Myles Jack) you could make an argument that Brown was the most important player on the defense this year. He played basically every linebacker position this year at various points, and did well basically everywhere he was placed. Despite being undersized, he showed a knack for knifing between huge players to make big tackles. He also somehow tied for second on the team in pass breakups.

He needed to play that well because his counterpart in the starting lineup for most of the year, Kenny Young, went through some major growing pains. Young just didn’t look comfortable most of the year, and looked shockingly tentative at times. Teams were able to run at his side of the field with great success for most of the year, as he often over pursued or chose the wrong gap to fill, or was simply not quick enough to get where he needed to be.

At one point Young was supplanted by Isaako Savaiinaea, and if Savaiinaea hadn’t suffered a high ankle sprain against California, he probably would have remained the starter the rest of the season. Savaiinaea emerged as a really solid linebacker this year — perhaps not super quick, but a sure tackler and very instinctual. He reacted to plays a lot quicker than Young, which was probably the biggest thing that set him apart.

As we mentioned above, it wasn’t a great year for Hollins. After breaking out as a pass rusher last year, Hollins managed just 2.5 sacks this season as teams seemed to scheme to run at him a fair amount. He had more pressure than that sack total would indicate, but it seemed that teams were more aware of him and schemed around his ability to bring pressure. Aaron Wallace actually had a good deal more success playing a similar role since he was able to hold up against the run much better. He actually managed 7 sacks, and played with a great edge all year.

This was probably the unit where injuries hurt the most. If Jack had stayed healthy, the unit probably would have been significantly better, and even if Savaiinaea had remained healthy after Cal, UCLA probably wouldn’t have had as many issues against the run. The big key heading into next year is to see some real improvement from Young, who started to show some flashes toward the end of the season that the light might be flickering on.

DB Jaleel Wadood and DB Marcus Rios (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Defensive Backs: C+
Unit GPA: 2.47
Unit MVP: Marcus Rios

We’ve given the MVP to Rios, but you could make a case for any of five or six guys in the secondary. As with the offensive line, we think that this grade should probably be higher than the cumulative GPA they ended up with. Overall, there’s a case to be made that the secondary, at least from a statistical perspective, performed the best out of any unit. UCLA was elite this season as preventing explosive passing plays, which is, at least from what we can tell, the No. 1 goal for UCLA’s secondary. If I were to nitpick my own grading, I’d say that sometimes I grade individual bad plays a little more harshly than they should be graded, in the grand scheme of an entire game, and nowhere does that hurt more than in the secondary, where a bad play typically leads to a touchdown.

With Moreau out early on in the season, Rios had to pick up the slack as the No. 1 cover corner, and he did a pretty good job after a rough start to the season. He struggled at the beginning of the year against slants, giving receivers an easy inside release far too often, but he improved a good deal with that as the season went along. He matched up well with physical receivers all year long, including against Juju Smith-Schuster at times versus USC.

UCLA went through a cast of guys at the other corner spot, starting with Moreau, then going with Denzel Fisher, then moving onto Randall Goforth (who dropped down from safety), then going to Ishmael Adams, then trying out Johnny Johnson, and then, after Johnson got hurt, going with converted true freshman safety Nathan Meadors. Stunningly, Johnson and Meadors probably performed the best out of that group at corner. There was talk before the year that Johnson might not be able to play again given his multiple shoulder injuries, but he was UCLA’s best cover corner over the stretch of games that he started. Then, when Johnson went out, Meadors came in and did a great job in coverage against Utah especially, looking like a natural, instinctual corner in his own right.

Fisher still looks like he’s a year away — in his time at the beginning of the season, he just didn’t look quite comfortable, which is perfectly natural since he’s still pretty young.

Safety play was pretty poor at the beginning of the year, at least from a run support standpoint, but picked up as the season went along, with Goforth and Jaleel Wadood both stringing together a few really nice games to close out the season. Goforth just wasn’t wrapping up well at the beginning of the season, for whatever reason, but he tackled better over the last three games. Wadood, after not looking really comfortable in the first six or seven games, settled down over the last few games and also did really well pressing up closer to the line of scrimmage. It might just be that neither of them excels at playing a deep safety role, and they were often asked to play fairly deep this year. To their credit, Adarius Pickett and Tahaan Goodman both made big contributions in limited roles this season.

Ishmael Adams was his usual self in the secondary after returning from his early season suspension. Keeping him at nickel rather than having him play much outside corner has been a nice adjustment over the last season and a half.

Defensive Game Plan, Scheme, and Play Calling: B-
GPA: 2.59

As aggressively frustrating as a bend-but-don’t-break system can be to watch as a fan, UCLA still ended up having a pretty effective year defensively, finishing in the top quarter or so of many relevant statistics in conference play. There were a couple of maddening defensive games (we’re looking at you, Stanford and Colorado), but mostly UCLA held teams under their offensive averages.

UCLA was not particularly aggressive, but after about the midpoint of the year, the Bruins started to try different things to generate a pass rush, including flexing Kenny Clark back from the line of scrimmage to give him a running start and also give him the ability to stunt easier. That helped a good deal.

The main thing that we had an issue with was the consistent cushion the defensive backs gave the receivers through the first half of the season. Against quality quarterbacks, you simply can’t play corners 10 yards off of the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis, and the Pac-12, even in a down year, is full of quality quarterbacks. UCLA did a better job of getting the corners closer to the line of scrimmage as the season went along, which helped.

As a general thing, we’d like to see UCLA get more aggressive on defense. In the Pac-12, unless you have a dominant front four, it’s really hard to have an elite defense with this sort of scheme because the offensive players, schemes, and coaches are too good, as a rule, throughout the league. Now, that’s not to say that UCLA should go blitz-happy like Todd Graham, but we’d like to see a little more boom-or-bust built into the scheme next year. It’s shaping up that the offense for the next two years is very likely going to be the strength of the team with Josh Rosen, and building the defense around the idea of getting the ball back in his hands as quickly and as often as possible seems like a sound plan.

Special Teams: C+
Unit GPA: 2.32
Unit MVP: Ka'imi Fairbairn

UCLA’s kickoff coverage was poor for really the first time under Jim Mora, and it’s a good thing Fairbairn was so good at generating touchbacks this year, or else the Bruins probably would have given up a good deal more long returns. Punt coverage wasn’t great either — the Bruins didn’t allow a return for a long time, but that was mostly because Matt Mengel couldn’t kick it very far, and then UCLA’s coverage let it down against USC, giving up a punt return touchdown to Adoree Jackson.

UCLA’s punting game was a circus of disaster all year. Mengel really struggled, to the point where receiver Kenny Walker was pressed into duty as a punter, and he had the dubious honor of kicking a punt precisely 0 yards this season. Bad punting was a major factor in the loss to ASU and the loss to USC.

Fairbairn was the lone bright spot. He made 20 of 23 kicks this season, with a long of 60 yards. He missed two kicks in the last two games, both of which were from 40+ yards, and his only other miss was from 50 in the opener. He also was among the best in the country at touchback percentage which, as we said, was key given how poor UCLA’s coverage units were this year.

UCLA’s return game wasn’t awful when Devin Fuller was doing it, but was pretty much awful anytime Ishmael Adams touched the ball. Adams really had a rough time as a returner this year, and his fateful decision to return a punt from inside the five might have cost UCLA a win against Washington State. His decisions were pretty head-scratching all year. Fuller was significantly better, and did a nice, reliable job on both punt and kick returns.

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