Defensive Line Review
Top Performer: Takkarist McKinley
It's safe to say the light bulb turned on for McKinley in a major way this spring. He showed flashes last fall, particularly against Oregon State where he took over the game for a stretch with disruptive play off the edge, but the move to a 4-3 this spring, along with some added strength, has appeared to do wonders for him. He was incredibly disruptive off the edge all spring, having the kind of camp we remember seeing from the unblockable Datone Jones in 2010 and Anthony Barr in fall 2013. It was a rare practice where he didn't have at least one sack or tipped pass in the backfield, and most practices he had multiple disruptions. We hate make predictions for player performance since so many variables play into it, but McKinley looked good enough against the strength of UCLA's offensive line that we're pretty comfortable saying he's poised for a very nice senior campaign.
Most Improved: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
This one is actually pretty difficult, because there has been a good deal of improvement across the board for the defensive line. Eli Ankou continued his steady progress since he came onto campus in 2012, and looks like a good Pac-12 starter at nose tackle. Matt Dickerson also made some strides and looks more comfortable than we expected at defensive end, given that his best attribute last year was his interior rush. Rick Wade would also be in the conversation, as he had a very nice final two weeks of camp after a bit of a slow start, and you could make a case for Keisean Lucier-South, who moved to defensive end this spring, as well. We'll give it to Tuioti-Mariner, though, who filled in for Eddie Vanderdoes at the three-technique and did a very good job, considering he played mostly defensive end last year. Of course, there's the caveat that UCLA's interior offensive line wasn't very good this spring, but Tuioti-Mariner looked solid against the run and actually showed off enough interior rush ability that we're excited to see his progress this fall.
The move to a 4-3 was probably the best choice UCLA made this offseason. Getting McKinley out on the edge more, and then also getting another big body up on the line in Dickerson, is going to immediately help both the pass rush and the run defense. With four big guys on the defensive line, the offensive line won't be able to so easily double the interior linemen either, which should open up more one-on-one pass rush opportunities for the three-tech as well.
In any case, it was a mostly successful spring for the defensive line. The pass rush was probably the big story of the spring, with McKinley obviously being the primary force, but there were contributions from a host of defensive linemen. Deon Hollins, who made the switch to the defensive line this spring, was also disruptive off the edge, as were Lucier-South, Dickerson, and Wade at times. The interior rush was harder to judge because, again, it came against the interior OL that was a work in progress all spring, but it's safe to say UCLA was disruptive there as well.
It looked like the unit as a whole took to the 4-3 pretty naturally, which makes sense given that it's a more natural fit for most defensive linemen, who mostly spend their formative high school football years in 4-3 defenses. Wade is about the one guy who we'd project as a slightly better fit in a 3-4 than a 4-3, since he's kind of that long-armed, Stanford-type defensive end that makes so much sense for a 3-4. Even still, he seemed to get the hang of it by the end of spring and started to make the most of some one-on-one pass rush opportunities.
Nick Terry, the JC defensive tackle who entered school this spring, looks ready to play and contribute immediately. He has an explosive first step and plays with an edge, which could make him an intriguing pass rusher on the interior. It did not look like there'll be much of an adjustment for him coming from junior college to the Pac-12, though we'll obviously have a better assessment in the fall once we've seen him after a few months of strength training. He had a very positive spring, though, and projects as a pretty key backup on the interior this year.
Getting Vanderdoes back for fall (as he posted on Instagram this week, he's been fully cleared to return to team activities) significantly increases the upside of this unit. We loved the edge rush from McKinley et al. this spring, but if there was a slight concern, it was that the offense was still able to generate some yards up the middle against the interior of the defensive line. Vanderdoes, who's a very good run-stuffer up the middle and probably still has 20 or 25 pounds on Tuioti-Mariner, should immediately shore that up. Ankou at nose and Vanderdoes at three-tech, which seems like the likely starting interior this year, should give UCLA a pretty good run-stopping tandem up the middle.
Projected Fall Two-Deep
DE: McKinley, Hollins, Lucier-South
NT: Ankou, Boss Tagaloa
DT: Vanderdoes, Terry or Tuioti-Mariner
DE: Dickerson, Wadenull