Interview: Nikola Dragovic

Redshirt freshman defensive end <b>Nikola Dragovic</b> has not only come a long way from where he started in the program, but also from where he started in Yugoslavia. He talks about finding a home...

Redshirt freshman Nikola Dragovic, who came to UCLA as an offensive lineman, spent last year as a fullback, and now finds himself on the two-deep at defensive end, tells us about his journey.

Tell me about the position changes you've gone through since you've been at UCLA...

"I came in as an offensive lineman. Then I moved to fullback because I guess I was undersized for an o-lineman. They wanted to try me out at fullback, so I played there. I played tight end, actually, a lot of last year for the scout team. Towards the end of last season, they wanted to move me back to o-line, but they then brought me over to defense. I've been kind of bouncing around like a ping-pong ball."

When did they decided to move you to defensive line?

"It was for the bowl game. The week of the bowl game was the first week I was at d-line. And then for spring I was at d-end."

Who's idea was it to bring you to the defensive line?

"Coach Dorrell's."

Then it was kind of unclear if you'd play defensive tackle or defensive end, right?

"I came in and I just kind of fell into. They kind of just looked at me and said, ‘Hey, go to d-end.'"

So what's your real height and weight?

"About 6-2 or 6-3, and 250, 255."

Not to use that dreaded word, but many might consider that undersized for defensive end...

"I believe d-ends today can be smaller and quicker. You can be big, like Dave Ball, who was a monster for a d-end. But I think for the Pac-10 it's mostly about speed than size. I think that's where I can come in. I've gotten a lot quicker and faster since I've been here, and I think that's what I'll emphasize."

Has it been a big transition for you, learning the different positions?

"It was easier for me, because I learned the other side of the ball. When you know both sides of the line, you learn their blocking schemes, and you can have a jump on figuring it out. For a d-lineman it normally would take a real long time whether the o-lineman is down blocking, reaching or pass blocking, but I played those positions so I can tell you what they're going to do with one single step. It's easier. You react to it faster. It gave me an advantage I think. There's always no harm in knowing more."

How comfortable do you feel at defensive end now?

"The defense I know pretty well right now. I feel good about our defense. I think I've found a home at d-end. So I'm happy with it. I'm doing well. And I'm optimistic it will go really well."

How does it feel going from two positions where you were deep on the depth chart, to a position where you're probably going to get play?

"You know what it felt like, being bounced around? For a while it felt like I had no purpose here. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I was bounced around so much, I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't know what I was doing the next week. I had nowhere to set a goal. When I came to defensive line I said to myself, ‘This is it. I'm staying here.' I've been working all summer non-stop trying to get it. Fullback was hard. I didn't get much o-line time. I think I would have done pretty well despite my size. But I feel good at defensive end. I played defensive end in high school."

How much does your wrestling background help you on the football field?

"If I hadn't wrestled in high school, I wouldn't be here right now. It changed my life completely. I was a fat kid as a high school freshman. A real fat, slow kid. Then I started to wrestle. And I went to nationals, and I won my first state tournament as a sophomore. It got my feet and hands so much quicker, and made me learn balance. On defense in football it's mostly balance when you get hit, and don't fall the wrong way, and I think it helped me a lot."

So, should all football players wrestle?

"If I had my choice, I'd take all of the d-linemen and put them in a wrestling room and work with them for a few weeks. Wrestling is by far the best sport to help you in football."

How do you think you're doing in fall camp?

"I think I'm doing well. I think our defensive line is doing well. We all have room for improvement. But I come out here every day completely focused. I still make mistakes, but I go into those meeting rooms and I keep reviewing it all, reviewing my mistakes, to make it better. My ultimate goal is to be unstoppable. Until I get there, it's another day where I have to keep getting better. Like Coach Dorrell has told us: You take an inch every day, and then before you know it you've gone pretty far."

What specifically do you think you have to work on?

"The small things. The way our defensive scheme is set up. Sometimes I need to improve a lot more on specifics and details. Like tackling straight up. Never getting a reach. Keeping hands off you on a pass rush. It's the small things that will separate you from the good to the best."

Do you think you need to work more on pass rush or run defense?

"At this point, I think some of both. I feel more comfortable with the run defense. Because I know as soon as the o-lineman takes a step what's going on. I need to work on my tackling and my pursuit angles. My pass rush I think is pretty good. But I haven't gone up against many opponents. I've only practiced against our guys and we have just four offensive tackles. You go up against them like eight times every practice. So once I get some real opponents that I don't know we'll see how good my pass rush is. As of now, though, it's going well."

How do anticipate you'll feel going from not too long ago, as you said, not having a home, to having a position and being out on the field of the Rose Bowl actually playing in a game September 4th?

"I've thought about that a lot. It's going to complete everything I've gone through this past year. My main goal is I just want to prove myself. I want to prove myself to my teammates, my coaches and my family. Win their respect. Once I start playing in the Rose Bowl I think it will be a relief. I've accomplished something. At least the first stage. But I haven't completely accomplished it. I think it's a little step but there's so much more to go."

How will it be for your family to see you play?

"Well, my brother (junior walk-on JC transfer Marko Dragovic) and I came from Yugoslavia. I was six and we left Yugoslavia during all of the conflict. Most of my family is still in Yugoslavia. But my father and my mom, and a few aunts and uncles are here. So it's just to prove myself to my parents."

Do they understand football?

"No, not really. My dad does a bit, but my mom doesn't at all. She's never even seen me play."

Does your dad associate it with, say, rugby?

"Yeah, rugby. In Yugoslavia you tell them you play football and they say, ‘Oh, rugby?' and I'm like, ‘No, it's completely different.' So my dad's been watching ever since my brother played in high school. So he knows what's happening. But he doesn't know all the rules. He knows the basic ones. He knows how to score. He knows what a sack is. But he doesn't know all of them."

And your mom? "She has no idea. She has no clue."

Will she come to see you play against Oklahoma State?

"She will. Once I start playing in the Rose Bowl we'll make her. But she hasn't before. So, that will be a big moment for me."

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