In spring ball, it's difficult to draw conclusions about how a unit looks, since it's relative to their competition. But if we had to go out on a limb about our confidence in one unit on the team as a result of its spring performance, it'd be the defensive line.
Positional MVP: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
There were many candidates for this award, since there is not only a solid group of starters, but plenty of playable depth. That said, Tuioti-Mariner was our pick, narrowly, for the overall DL MVP for the spring. He really started to come on toward the end of last year, and this spring he continued his progress. He's locked in as a starter at defensive end, and looks comfortable both against the run and rushing the passer. We've always talked about his ability to put on weight and maintain athleticism, and that was never more evident than this spring. What's more, his backup, Rick Wade, also had a semi-breakout spring, making that position, strong-side defensive end, perhaps the strongest overall single position on the team this spring.
Best Younger Player: Jaelan Phillips
There were a number of very promising developments with the DL, and probably the biggest was that freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips -- who should be getting ready for his high school prom -- was just as good as we anticipated. The game wasn't too big or too fast for him, and he proved many times to be too big and fast for the game himself. He worked mostly with the 2s all April, behind redshirt sophomore Keisean Lucier-South, but it was evident that it's only a matter of time before he's the starting Razor defensive end, the spot that Takkarist McKinley exploited last season. Phillips is about 260 pounds right now, and we'd expect him to get even bigger and stronger before the start of the season, and benefit from a few months in the film room. He showed many moments of easy dominance over the course of the month, and at times he took over different team drills with his constant impact on the defense. In the spring game, when he had a rolling out Austin Burton in his sights, from the sideline you could hear him laughing through his facemask as he pursued the freshman quarterback and popped him with a nice hit.
Lucier-South is also a contender for this title, actually, even though he's a third-year player now. He seemed to really own the challenge of competing with Phillips, and while we think Phillips will ultimately win the job, Lucier-South came on over the last two weeks and looked like he'll put up a fight heading into fall camp.
One of the relative revelations of practice was redshirt freshman Marcus Moore. He came to UCLA as a fairly unsung recruit, then we didn't really see him last season in practice due to injury. But he might have been the biggest surprise of April, exhibiting some very good athleticism and quickness in rushing the passer and getting to the edge against the run. While it might be difficult to replace the impact of McKinley, and the group of Razors is a bit young and inexperienced, this spring showed there is some considerable talent at the position.
Player Who Most Needs To Step Up: Interior run defense.
We'll punt a little on this one, because we actually liked most of the progress from each individual player this spring on the defensive line. Our concern, though, is with the interior of the defensive line in terms of run defense. Boss Tagaloa, overall, had a good spring, but he started off very strong and then seemed to tail off a bit toward the end. Matt Dickerson is the three-technique and also had a good spring, but if you're assessing his strength as a player, it's more as an interior pass-rusher than necessarily as a run-stuffer. With those two as your starters, stepping in for Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou from last season, there has to be some concern over interior run defense.
That said, we liked what we saw from the amount of playable depth UCLA has, across the board. UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure likes to use many bodies in a game and during a season (he has to, with how so many Pac-12 offenses play up-tempo), and coming away from practice you had the sense there were younger guys who showed they were good enough to get in the rotation. And, that there are so many guys with different types of talents that it gives McClure a good amount of options to play with. Redshirt sophomore Chigozie Nnoruka and redshirt freshman Osa Odighizuwa had good springs, and they plugged in at various spots, but mostly showed they could provide depth inside. Odighizuwa won the award for the most improved player for spring practice, which makes sense since he is a physical and athletic specimen at probably 6-2 and 290 that was pretty raw coming into UCLA last fall. The addition of those two being able to actually get 10-20 plays in a game is really critical. Then, there was also Ainuu Taua, who returned to the defensive line andnow also offers McClure some great options. He looked playable at nose tackle and then very good in passing situations as a pass-rushing three-technique. There is also interior DL Nick Terry, who hasn't seemed to flash like he did when he initially came to UCLA last spring, but still provides some depth on the interior.
Since our overall theme here is depth of talent, too, consider that UCLA has one of the best 2017 interior defensive linemen in the country enrolling this fall in Greg Rogers, and then fellow four-star DT Martin Andrus, along with a DE with some athletic upside in Odua Isibor. It's stunning to think that, from what we saw of spring and know of the incoming freshmen, McClure might go 12 deep of very playable bodies on the DL this fall. The three-deep, essentially, is built on four-year players like Tuioti-Mariner and Dickerson, but is sprinkled with some potential elite talent like Tagaloa and Phillips, and then has some surprises like Moore and Odighizuwa. It's an indication and testament to the excellent recruiting and development job that McClure has done while being the DL coach at UCLA.