This offseason almost has the feel and excitement of an offseason after a coaching change, thanks to all of the changes UCLA is making in terms of scheme on both sides of the ball. Jim Mora has talked about wanting to move toward more of a pro-style scheme on offense and more of a 4-3 scheme on defense, and that could make for some very interesting personnel changes and adjustments on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the biggest change will be the addition of more formations involving tight ends and fullbacks, and, if we had to guess, probably fewer three-wide and four-wide sets. With new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu being a running backs coach, we also would imagine that the team will be attempt to feature much more of a downhill running style, which could favor bigger, more powerful offensive linemen capable of man-blocking.
Defensively, the biggest changes happen in the front seven. A 4-3 gets more bulk on the field, and allows defensive linemen who are more role-specific an opportunity to flourish -- not everyone in a four-man front needs to be 270+ pounds, as they do in a 3-4. At linebacker, with fewer players on the field, each player needs to be pretty adept in coverage, but there's slightly less complexity to the different assignments a player can have, especially in terms of blitzing.
So, with that said, here's our look at some of the players who could benefit most from the scheme changes on both sides of the ball.
DE Rick Wade
To be honest, this is really just another opportunity to talk up Wade, because we think he'd flourish in either a 3-4 or in a 4-3. That said, adding an additional true defensive end to the front gives Wade an opportunity to get on the field, and potentially start, as early as this year. With Takkarist McKinley probably locking up one side of the line at 245 pounds or so, Wade, who is probably pushing 260+ at this point, can handle the other side, giving UCLA some nice size on that edge. With his length, he should be very effective holding the edge against mobile quarterbacks.
The other intriguing thing with Wade is his tight end background. While we don't foresee him making a position switch -- from what we heard, he's sticking with defense -- Jim Mora has shown a propensity for using players both ways, so we wouldn't be shocked to see Wade getting some offensive snaps at some point in the coming years.
FB/TE Nate Iese
If ever there was a moment for Iese to shine, it'd be this year. He played both fullback and a pseudo-tight end role last year, and with the offense moving toward featuring both of those positions more, you have to figure that Iese is going to be used and featured a good deal more. He improved as a blocker this season, which would help him transition to tight end, if that's the role he ends up playing. UCLA has just one tight end signee coming in (Jordan Wilson) so if UCLA wants to go with actual double-tight sets, we'd bet that Iese is going to have to see a good amount of time at tight end.
DT Ainuu Taua
What we said above, about a 4-3 allowing defensive linemen who are role players to excel a bit more? That's certainly the case with Taua. He lacks the size to be a true nose tackle in a 3-4, and probably doesn't have the length to be a significant rotational player in a 3-4 front at any of the positions, but in a 4-3, those issues aren't quite as pronounced because he'll be bookended by two players with good size and length. As such, he could find much more of a fit as a situational three-technique who can be brought in to disrupt on passing downs. While we still don't see him as a starter, he could find a much more defined role in a 4-3 than he had in the 3-4.
Assuming Halalilo makes it back from his leg injury in roughly the same shape as when he went down, he could find himself thrust into an offense that fits his size and strength even better than Noel Mazzone's scheme. Mora has talked repeatedly about getting bigger on both sides of the ball since the end of last season, and Halalilo would certainly fulfill that size component. While we wouldn't bet on him starting this year with Scott Quessenberry coming back, Jake Raulerson coming in, and Halalilo recovering from his leg injury, his future in this offense appears bright.
Savaiinaea emerged this past season as a real Pac-12 level starter at inside linebacker, where he showed off great instincts, a nice ability to track down ball carriers, and a knack for sure tackling. If UCLA moves to a 4-3 with a true Mike linebacker, Savaiinaea could be a nice fit. He certainly has the size to play the position, and he showed this year that he can make clean one-on-one tackles, which becomes even more of a priority in a 4-3. There's a little bit less going on for the linebackers in a 4-3 as well, with fewer blitzing responsibilities and just fewer moving parts that need to be put in order before every play, which can make it a little easier to play.
LB Kenny Young
By that same token, though, Young might also be a better fit for a 4-3 at middle linebacker than in a 3-4. First, it's more of a natural fit for most players, as it's what the vast, vast majority of high school defenses run. And then second, as we said with Savaiinaea, it's just generally a little bit simpler in terms of assignments. Young's biggest issue this year was tentative play and overthinking, and if he can be freed of a little bit of that, it could go a long way for him.
LB Jayon Brown
Brown was great last year, but if ever there was a guy tailor-made to play Will linebacker in a 4-3, it's Brown. He can cover really well for a linebacker, is a much better tackler than his size would indicate, and can range all over the field. He gives up a little too much weight to probably project at middle backer, but he makes a ton of sense on the weakside. We would be pretty stunned if he didn't end up starting at Will this year.
Tuioti-Mariner was pretty much destined to be a three-technique, and the move to more of a 4-3 gives him that opportunity to get on the field a bit more. He's still growing, and it's uncertain where he's going to settle weight-wise, but with his athleticism, he could make an impact inside.
Griffin is another player who could see a better fit in a new defense. While he never really found his footing in the 3-4 defense, he could find a much better role as either a strongside linebacker or as a defensive end in a new-look 4-3. He's about 6'3 and 240 pounds and a good athlete, so, just speculating, if defense doesn't work out, he could be one of a few players who could try their hand at tight end.