Photo by Steve Cheng

UCLA 2016 Defensive Line Depth Projection

Dec. 28 -- In the next part of our series, we preview what the defensive line could look like in 2016...

Previously in this series 
Offensive Line Projection
Wide Receiver Projection
Running Back Projection
Quarterback Projection

Defensive Line Projection

Kenneth Clark (possible)
Carl Hulick (graduation)

Osa Odighizuwa
Marcus Moore
Nick Terry
Breland Brandt (OLB/DE)

Ainuu Taua
Eddie Vanderdoes
Rick Wade
Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
Eli Ankou
 Kenneth Clark (possible)
Takkarist McKinley
Matt Dickerson

A Look at 2016

It would be lovely for UCLA if Kenneth Clark were to return for his senior season, but it might not be realistic. He received a second round grade from the NFL Draft evaluation board, and those evaluations are notoriously pretty conservative. If he did return, that would massively change the dynamics for 2016 -- anyone who saw Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes play alongside each other against Virginia would love to see that for a complete season -- but we just can’t reasonably project it happening at this point. Stranger things have definitely happened, but as of now, we’ll go with what we’ve heard for a while, that Clark is more than likely done with college.

That still leaves the other part of that duo, though, in Eddie Vanderdoes. We’ve heard Vanderdoes’ recovery is going well, to the point where he’ll probably be ready for limited work in the spring and should be a full go for fall camp. We probably did our part in jinxing Vanderdoes last offseason by belaboring so often that it was his first healthy offseason. This won’t be a purely healthy offseason for him, as he’ll still be working through rehabilitation of his knee, but since the injury happened in the first week of September, he’ll have plenty of time to get in shape by the beginning of the season. With Clark gone, Vanderdoes can also probably play nose tackle, which might be a better fit for him in the long run anyway.

So, we’ve got that settled. We’ll posit that Clark leaves, but we’ll also say that Vanderdoes comes into the season fully healthy and slides in to replace Clark at nose tackle. With the way Vanderdoes looked in admittedly limited action this season, it’s hard to assess yet what the dropoff would be, but let’s say it’s minimal.

The question then becomes: what sort of personnel does UCLA opt for up front? If we drew one overarching tactical conclusion from this season, it’s that UCLA’s scheme needs some overhauling when it comes to run defense. Too often this year, teams would run at the gap covered by a linebacker (whether that was Deon Hollins, Kenny Young, or whoever) and away from the actual big guys on the defensive line. As Tracy pointed out in the Foster Farms recap, perhaps it would have made more sense at some point this year to adjust to a true 4-3 from a personnel standpoint, with Matt Dickerson or Jacob Tuioti-Mariner filling in for Deon Hollins at defensive end, since Hollins gives up so much weight.

Given Jim Mora’s comments in recent weeks about the need to get bigger and stronger, we’ll say that the defensive staff comes to that conclusion as well and opts for more of a true four-man front. That should help significantly in terms of run defense, and should buoy the defense as a whole.

We saw enough from Eli Ankou this year to believe he can be a capable full-year starter at the other tackle position. Ankou has made big strides in each offseason, and given his work ethic and natural strength, we wouldn’t be shocked to see him take his game up another level before next year. At this point, we’d probably pencil him in as the other starter on the interior, though it also wouldn’t be stunning to see Nick Terry open some eyes this spring, as we’ve heard some very nice buzz about him in JC circles.

Takkarist McKinley, in this theoretical 4-3 we’re projecting, probably makes sense as a defensive end. He needs to continue to get stronger, and it’s a shame he only has one year of eligibility left because he has some promising athletic ability but still needs to develop. There were moments this year where he took over games for whole series at a time, and then there were moments where he looked a little lost against certain run schemes. Another year, and another offseason of film study, should serve him well, and we’d probably pencil him in as some sort of weak-side defensive end next year.

And then, again, we’re going out on a limb here, but we’ll say UCLA goes for more bulk up front and plays Dickerson or Tuioti-Mariner at the other end spot. Neither player really shined this year, but Dickerson showed some capability as a pass rusher and he also is a pretty naturally strong player. If neither of those two show the capability, we’ve heard great things about Rick Wade, who impressed us in fall camp, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see him crack the starting lineup next season.

Again, a huge amount of UCLA’s issues against the run this year were due to having size issues at two positions on the front (Hollins at what was essentially weakside defensive end, McKinley at what was essentially strong side defensive end). With McKinley dropping down to what was essentially Hollins’ role, and Dickerson, Tuioti-Mariner, or Wade filling in for McKinley at the other end spot, UCLA mitigates its size issues up front and should, with just that switch alone, become a better run defense.

There isn’t a whole lot of experienced depth outside of those six players. Ainuu Taua played a little bit this year, but with academics sidelining him for the bowl game, we’ll see what his status is for spring. He’s more of a situational interior pass rusher, but that can have value, so we’ll see what he can do next year.

If UCLA does go with more of a 4-3, then it’s probably safe to assume that at least one of the freshmen is going to have to play next year. We’re including Breland Brandt with the defensive ends, but he could play either end or outside linebacker, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll play as a freshman, since he is going to be making a huge leap up in terms of competition level. At this point, we’d probably guess that Osa Odighizuwa will be the most ready to play as a freshman, but assessing freshmen before seeing them in college is truly guesswork. We also aren’t projecting uncommitted freshmen in this story, but Boss Tagaloa would be an obvious candidate to play early given the overall depth situation on the interior.

Clark was a one-man wrecking crew this year, and he had to be given the deficiency in scheme, particularly against the run. If UCLA opts for bigger personnel up front, that could help to prevent a huge dropoff in quality of play next year, even if Clark does not return, and it might even lead to a step up in overall production.

Will the position perform better, worse, or the same? Possibly better with a personnel philosophy change, almost certainly worse without one.

Projected 2016 Two-Deep
DE: Takkarist McKinley, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
DT: Eli Ankou, Nick Terry
NT: Eddie Vanderdoes, Ainuu Taua
DE: Matt Dickerson, Rick Wade

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