We'll kick off our unit previews today with the defensive line, which could be one of the stronger units on the team this year...
**Eddie Vanderdoes, after recovering from an ACL tear and sitting out the spring, is fully cleared for fall camp.
DT Boss Tagaloa
We are going to get our first look at Tagaloa in a college uniform this August, and it should be fun to see how he matches up against college offensive linemen. We identified Tagaloa as one of the most critical recruits in the 2016 class almost a year before he signed, and we think there's a good chance he ends up a multi-year starter at UCLA. Whether he cracks the lineup this year or redshirts, though, will depend on his performance in camp, as there actually is some pretty good talent ahead of him. Tagaloa's combination of leverage and strength, though, could put him on the field sooner rather than later.
Nnoruka might be the big unknown in this class, as we have never seen him in person and only have reports and some highlight tape to go on. Heck, it wasn't even known until a few weeks before Signing Day that UCLA was even pursuing him. He's listed at 6'3, 255 on UCLA's roster, and those are dimensions that, really, could play well at either defensive end or defensive tackle, depending on how he moves. It'll be very intriguing to see where he ends up.
DL Jake Burton
As Tracy wrote recently, there's a non-remote chance that Burton perhaps moves to tight end at some point in the future. For the time being, though, we're going to discuss him as a defensive lineman. As with Nnoruka, it's going to be interesting to see where he stands up. Back when UCLA ran a 3-4 defense, we thought his obvious best fit was as a 3-4 defensive end. In the new defense, though, he could fit anywhere from end to three-tech, and it'll be very interesting to see how that plays out. He's a big guy, with a frame to get even bigger.
DE Marcus Moore
Moore, like Burton, could easily end up as a tight end as well. We've actually watched him play some tight end in 7-on-7 action and he moves pretty well for a big guy, and has decent hands. As it stands, he's probably an end for UCLA, and just looking at the depth chart at end, he'd probably have to wildly outplay expectations to crack the two-deep this year.
DT Nick Terry
We'll throw Terry in here, even though we got a long look at him during spring practice, since he enrolled early. Based on what we saw, we'd be stunned if he wasn't a significant rotational player for UCLA this year. He has very good quickness for his size, and is violent with his hands, two qualities that could make him a devastating interior pass rusher. He had reps this spring where he embarrassed UCLA's second-string offensive line. He could play either position on the interior, but we probably like him best as a three-tech to best take advantage of his potential as an interior pass rusher. Necessity might push him to the nose, though, with Vanderdoes and Tuioti-Mariner already locked in at three-tech.
We'll just say this right now: it wouldn't be a shock to us if, at the end of the season, UCLA is regarded as having the best defensive line in the conference. The combination of edge rush from Takkarist McKinley, stout run defense from Eddie Vanderdoes, Eli Ankou, and Matt Dickerson, and the overall scheme change this year could result in vastly improved performance from a year ago.
McKinley, as we wrote about in our 30 most important Bruins breakdown, wowed us this spring. He was magnificently disruptive during spring practice, showing the combination of strength, speed, and technique that could make him one of premier pass rushers in the conference and perhaps the country this year. He showed flashes last year, but it seemed to solidify for him this spring, when his performance recalled memories of Anthony Barr and Datone Jones in years past. If he can come even close to replicating that on the field, he should go a long way toward solving UCLA's pass rush issues from a year ago.
UCLA returns Vanderdoes on the interior, which is probably the most significant and positive development for the defense as a whole. Having a player like Vanderdoes to plug into the interior after losing Kenny Clark to the NFL is quite a luxury. Vanderdoes will have to shake off some rust, obviously, having sat out since the Virginia game last year, but judging by the offseason video that's been posted of him, we're confident he'll be able to do so, since he already looks to be physically ready. When healthy, he's one of the best run stoppers in the conference, and if UCLA can get a little more pass rush out of him at the three-tech this year, that would drastically increase his already considerable value.
Ankou, as we have written about, is very solid, and gets progressively more solid with each passing year. Last year, he emerged as a legitimate Pac-12 starter at defensive tackle after Vanderdoes went down, and this year he'll slide over to nose tackle to replace Clark. Nose in a 4-3 is a bit of a different role than in a 3-4, and the demands shouldn't be quite as strenuous as they were on Clark, which is good, because while Ankou is a good player, he's not Clark. That said, if he's made progress from last year, which we'd bet on given his trajectory as a player, he'll be a very solid starter at nose for the Bruins.
At the other end is Dickerson, who played mostly on the interior last year. He's playing end this season, largely in an effort by the coaching staff to get more size on the field, and we think he'll be solid enough there, especially against the run. Based on last year, though, we think that his ultimate best position might be as a three-tech, especially in this 4-3 defense. Obviously, UCLA wants to get better against the run, and putting a guy Dickerson's size on the field over a guy the size of Deon Hollins will help, but it'll be interesting to see if UCLA sticks with that all season.
In any case, that starting group looked pretty set in spring ball, and we don't see any reason why it would change in fall camp, barring injury. Just looking at it from a preseason perspective, it's easy to imagine it being a unit that's both better in run defense and in pass rush this year, which is a stunning thing to say given that the line lost its best player in Clark. But the addition of more size should help against the run, and we're very bullish on McKinley's ability to turn into a very good pass rusher this season.
Last year, UCLA was fairly thin in terms of depth on the defensive line, but the move to a 4-3 actually added some critical bodies to the mix, and Angus McClure brought in a big class of defensive linemen, some of whom should contribute this year.
First, let's talk about the additions that came in due to the formation switch. Both Keisean Lucier-South and Deon Hollins are now working with the defensive line full time, which is probably a good move for both of them. Hollins, as we've basically always maintained, is a defensive end by skill-set, if not by size. He has a good get-off, but lacks lateral range, and should fit best as a situational pass rusher. Lucier-South has more versatility, since he's quite a bit longer, and if he can ever put on a considerable amount of weight, he's a potential starter at end down the road. He probably has a better first step than Hollins, and it's going to be very interesting to see which one of them ends up as the primary situational pass rusher at the Razor spot behind McKinley. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Breland Brandt as well, because he could also end up fitting as a defensive end if he gets bigger.
At the other end spot, Rick Wade should be second-string behind Dickerson at that bigger end position. Wade, as we've been saying for a year, is an impressive physical specimen at 6'6, 255 or so, and he looked very good on the Scout team last year. His length and strength will again help the run defense when he fills in for Dickerson, and he was starting to show a little bit as a pass rusher toward the end of spring ball. That's not a strength of his game at this point, but he's gotten better. Behind him, we'll slot Burton and Nnoruka for now, but it's anyone's guess how that depth shakes out. Moore will also likely be in the third-string range at either end spot.
The tackle depth is actually pretty good. At three-technique, UCLA has Jacob Tuioti-Mariner behind Vanderdoes, and he acquitted himself nicely filling in for Vanderdoes this spring as the first-string tackle. He has gotten significantly bigger compared to when he first arrived on campus, but he's maintained good athleticism for his size, which makes him fun to project on the interior. If he gets much bigger, he might end up a nose, but as it stands, he's a nice fit at three-tech.
Behind Ankou, as we wrote, we're projecting Terry pretty much as a necessity. He looks to have the strength necessary to play that position, though we'd like to see him be freed up to rush the passer a little bit more than is typical for a nose. In any case, he showed us enough this spring for us to be pretty confident in his ability to be an effective backup to Ankou.
The remaining depth on the interior will be filled out by the freshmen Tagaloa and Odighizuwa. How much they show in fall camp will likely dictate whether or not they play this year. Burton and Nnoruka could also factor into the mix there, depending on how they end up projecting once we get a look at them.
What to Watch in Fall Camp
-- Of course, #1 on this list is how Vanderdoes looks, if he's fully recovered, or even in better physical shape. He's been cleared to practice, but we anticipate UCLA will bring him and his ACL along slowly in camp.
-- How the defensive tackle depth develops. If UCLA can get playable contributions from Terry (and it looked very likely in spring) and Tuioti-Mariner, if he's physically big enough, then that's a huge element to the DL's success. Then it would be a luxury if Tagaloa shows that he's actually too good to redshirt. We're not expecting anything from Nnoruka, so if he proves to be a potential contributor that, again, would be big.
-- Who emerges as the go-to situational pass-rusher, Hollins or Lucier-South. Short-term it could be Hollins, but once Lucier-South gets settled he could prove to be more effective.
-- Improved run defense in general. It's always difficult to get a gauge in practice, since the team practices against itself. One of the reasons, though, UCLA went to the 4-3 was to shore up the porous run defense from 2015 and get some bigger bodies up front, guys like Dickerson and Wade.
-- Will McKinley continue to look as dominating as he did in spring, or even more refined.null