While there isn't the same amount of personnel upheaval on the defensive line as there is on the offensive line entering spring, replacing Kenneth Clark at nose tackle might be one of the more difficult tasks for the entire team. Clark, a three-year starter at nose tackle, was the anchor for the defense and, while he was always a good player, this past year he took his game to a new level, and almost single-handedly kept UCLA's patchwork defense together at points during the season.
He's gone, and replacing him is going to take some doing. In addition to Clark's departure, UCLA is also transitioning to more of a 4-3 defense, and that'll bring some interesting changes as well. UCLA's run defense was poor this past season, and the move to a 4-3 should aid in getting more bulk on the front line and allowing UCLA to match up more easily with opposing offensive lines.
With the move to a 4-3, obviously there will be some position changes, with guys moving around and finding new roles in the new-look defense. It should make for a very interesting spring along the defensive front.
A Look at Spring
The best thing going for the defensive line this season is the return of Eddie Vanderdoes, who sat out all but the first game last season after tearing his ACL. From what we've heard, his recovery is going exceptionally well and, while he'll be limited in spring, he is on track to be fully ready to go for summer workouts and fall camp. That's obviously huge. Vanderdoes, just based on that first game against Virginia last year, was poised for a very good year last season before the injury, and if he can pick up where he left off, he should secure one of the starting defensive tackle jobs with relative ease.
UCLA also returns Eli Ankou and Takkarist McKinley, each of whom started a good portion of last year. Ankou, from what we understand, is probably going to play more of a nose role in the 4-3 than Vanderdoes, and if the two start alongside each other, Vanderdoes is more likely to be the three-technique. Obviously, UCLA isn't going to just run a 4-3, and there will be variations in where the linemen line up, but from what we gather, that's the way it'll shake out with those two. Ankou had a nice season last year, and has steadily progressed each year under Angus McClure's direction. If he's made a similar amount of progress this offseason compared to what he did last offseason, he could be poised for a very nice senior season.
McKinley could be helped quite a bit by the move to a 4-3. Lining up at times farther away from the center of the offensive line, he'll likely have to contend with double teams less and could shine a little bit more as a pass rusher than he's been able to do thus far as an end in a 3-4. Another year of development will also be key -- even though McKinley is a senior, he's young for his grade and has only had a year and a half in the program so far. It's going to be fun to see how he's developed when we get a look at him this spring, because he could be one of those who makes better than usual progress between his junior and senior seasons.
So, with varying degrees of confidence, we'd expect those three to have the inside track at starting spots for next year's defensive line. The other end spot, though, is the question mark. From what we've heard, Matt Dickerson looks really good physically, and if the goal is to legitimately add bulk on the defensive line, slotting in the 270-ish pound Dickerson in at an end spot certainly fulfills that goal. He'll be pushed by Rick Wade, though, who had a great redshirt year and will be tough to keep off the field with his frame and strength.
UCLA will have options, though, with that other end spot. From what we've gathered, Deon Hollins and Keisean Lucier-South both are going to get considerable work with the defensive ends this spring, and UCLA will absolutely have the option of playing either to generate more of a pass rush at the end spot when they want it. UCLA obviously wants to get bigger up front, so starting Hollins again at end might defeat the purposes of switching fronts, but with a good spring for either Hollins or Lucier-South, anything is possible. Breland Brandt is also in early, so he could factor into the mix as well, though we've heard it's still uncertain whether he'll primarily be an end or a linebacker.
From what we've heard, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner looks phenomenal physically, at a rocked out 285 pounds. He's still a very good athlete at that size, and he'll give UCLA some versatility. He has experience playing end, but he now has the bulk to play inside when needed, and we'd imagine before too long he'll be lining up as a three-technique. Nick Terry is in early and he'll be in the mix at likely both defensive tackle positions. As we said in a story earlier this year, Ainuu Taua is one who could benefit from the scheme change in that there's less of a need for every player on the line to be a huge run-stopper, which should allow a situational pass rusher like Taua more time to shine.
Getting Vanderdoes back was huge. Assuming one of Dickerson or Wade is ready to go as the other starting defensive end, UCLA has a pretty talented starting lineup with some interesting options in the depth chart. We'd have to imagine that simply by adding another big player to the front line, the run defense will be improved. The one question with that starting lineup (with either Wade or Dickerson) is the pass rush. McKinley's development is key this spring, because if he's able to make the leap to being a very good to elite pass rusher, that could go a long way toward turning this into a very good and effective defensive line. With the depth, the biggest key is getting something out of Boss Tagaloa and, probably, Jake Burton this year. The depth on the defensive line isn't bad, but adding two more ready-to-use players to the mix could make UCLA better able to withstand an injury or two this year.
Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart
Defensive End: Takkarist McKinley, Deon Hollins OR Keisean Lucier-South
Defensive Tackle: Eli Ankou, Nick Terry
Defensive Tackle: Eddie Vanderdoes, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Ainuu Taua
Defensive End: Matt Dickerson, Rick Wade