UCLA's defense was really the only thing that kept the Bruins in games last year, and a big part of that was the experienced and talented defensive line. With Eddie Vanderdoes, Takkarist McKinley, and Eli Ankou, UCLA had seniors at three of the starting positions. McKinley had a tremendous senior year, despite nursing a groin injury all season and apparently a long-term shoulder injury, and shot up the NFL Draft projections over the course of the season. Vanderdoes started the season very strong, and while he tailed off a bit over the last half of the season, he was still one of the premier run-stuffing defensive tackles in the conference. And Ankou, as he had throughout his entire career, continued to improve during his senior year and helped provide more stability in the middle.
Now they're all gone, and UCLA will have to replace their snaps and production with new faces. In any other season at UCLA, we'd start talking about rebuilding and how significant the drop-off might be. But the Bruins have actually recruited the defensive line very well, and player development has been more than solid across the board on the defensive line. Assuming some decent development from players already in the program, and contributions commensurate to talent from some of the star recruits, the defensive line could be anywhere from just about as good as last year to perhaps even a little better.
A Look at Spring
The biggest hole to fill is McKinley's, but UCLA might have just the guy to do it. Former five-star recruit Jaelan Phillips is already on campus, and we're already hearing raves about what a true freak he is. He's about 270 pounds, from what we're told, and it's all very good weight. At 270 pounds, he's doing things like standing backflips, which, for any of you who have never attempted a standing backflip, is insane. Phillips is going to lack McKinley's reps and experience at the collegiate level, but from a talent perspective, Phillips has everything the Bruins loved about McKinley -- quick first step, speed, strength, tenacity -- and is doing it three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. He might not be better on day one than McKinley was in his last spring at UCLA, but we wouldn't be shocked if he's better than McKinley was by game 12 of the season.
Replacing the interior guys will rely on some more familiar faces. From what we've heard, Boss Tagaloa is about 315 pounds and is slated to be the starting nose tackle. He played well last year as a true freshman, and now that he has had a full offseason in a college strength program, he should be comfortable manning the critical nose position. If there's a concern, there really don't look to be many true nose tackles in the program right now -- it's going to be interesting to see how Greg Rogers and Martin Andrus project when they come in this summer. At the three-tech, Matt Dickerson, who's bounced a little between end and defensive tackle at UCLA, will likely start out as the first-string guy. We've always liked him as an interior rusher, but he'll need to continue to improve as a run-stuffer, especially if he's taking over Vanderdoes' spot. What's encouraging about Dickerson is his experience, he's started to really come into his own toward the end of last season, and he was a lean-looking 290 pounds last season.
At the other end spot, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is projected as the first-string defensive end. He really finished last year very strong, and his natural athleticism really started to shine. It's crazy to think about this, but as of two years ago, UCLA was trying to get by with 215 pounds of Deon Hollins at one end and 230 pounds of McKinley at the other end. If this spring's projected depth chart holds, UCLA will now start 270 pounds of Phillips at one end and another 275 pounds of Tuioti-Mariner at the other. And, unlike last year, when Dickerson got the first shot at end, Tuioti-Mariner actually has the athleticism to play the position at a high level, as we saw toward the end of last season.
The depth at defensive end is decent as well, though we'd love to see a couple more bodies (looking at it now, it wouldn't be a shock if incoming freshman Odua Isibor ends up playing a bit this year, just based on number of bodies). Keisean Lucier-South is expected to be behind Phillips at that weak-side defensive end/Razor position, and from what we've heard, he's actually put on some weight, and is up to 240 pounds or so now. If that's legitimate, that's really impressive, because his frame really has never looked capable of too much bulk. At 240, he might be able to be more than a situational pass rusher. Rick Wade is slated to back up Tuioti-Mariner at the other end position, and we've continued to hear nice things about his progress. He, too, started to come on toward the end of the year last year. As we mentioned before, Jake Burton is likely flipping over to the offensive line. We haven't heard much about Marcus Moore's development over the offseason, so it should be interesting to see how he's looking.
The tackle depth chart is pretty full, when you consider that UCLA has two more talented prospects coming in this fall. Behind the starters, Nick Terry is expected to be second-string behind both guys, and UCLA has liked what it's seen from him this offseason. Osa Odighizuwa and Chigozie Nnoruka have both had very nice offseasons, and both are up into the 285 pound range, which likely projects them inside. Odighizuwa in particular has drawn really solid reviews for his overall strength. Ainuu Taua, who at least of this moment looks to be staying on the defensive line after switching back last fall, is projected to be a situational interior pass rusher (essentially, the role he had before he moved over to offense).
The big piece of speculation is where Devin Asiasi will end up practicing. We've heard that he's going to start out at tight end, but we wouldn't be shocked to see him move over to the defensive line by the end of spring. If we had to speculate a little deeper, perhaps it'll be the case where if he ends up eligible this year, he sticks at tight end, since he knows that position already, but if he ends up having to redshirt, he'll move over to the defensive line (or offensive line) so he can use the year to learn the position that his body seems much more likely of playing long term. If he did switch over to defense, it'd be interesting to see where he lines up on the line. We'd have to expect it'd be at end, at least to start, but he's another 270 to 280 pound body who could become a tackle down the road.
Projected Spring Depth Chart
DE: Phillips, Lucier-South
DT: Dickerson, Odighizuwa, Nnoruka
NT: Tagaloa, Terry, Taua
DE: Tuioti-Mariner, Wade, Moore