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Opponent Defensive Preview: UCLA

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NCAA Football: Oregon at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Apologies for the belated defensive preview.

Let’s get to it:

Personnel

Soo... UCLA... These guys are interesting for reasons that are somehow infuriating for opponents’ and their own fans.

On one hand, they have so much four and five stars it should be illegal for them to not be perennially top 10. Specifically, their defensive starters include two former five star recruits, six former four stars, and three former three stars. During their last five years of recruiting, which has included numerous defensive standouts, the average ranking of their recruits was .895 per 247’s composite ranking. (For comparison, Washington’s has been .866 which, for two comparable Power 5 programs, is a pretty big difference.)

And yet, they uh... They’re not doing so hot, defensively.

For one, they give up an average of 36.7 points per game, so there’s that. Teams doing better in that category? Oregon, Arizona, Rutgers, Tulane, Akron, Rutgers, Old Dominion, Fresno State, Rutgers, New Mexico State*, Rutgers. (Teams doing worse than that: Uh... Kansas?)

Of the seven games they’ve played so far, the only times they’ve held an opponent below said opponent’s points per game average was against middling Hawaii in the Mountain West (5.9 points below Hawaii’s PPG average), Colorado (2.8 points below the Buffs’ PPG average), and Oregon, where, even with the Ducks’ struggles while quarterback Justin Herbert is out, UCLA had arguably their only truly successful defensive game by holding Oregon to almost 21 points below their weekly average. In the other four games against Texas A&M, Memphis, Stanford, and Arizona, UCLA gave up an average of 11.75 more points than each of those teams typically score.

If that trend is duplicated against Washington, the Huskies would score exactly 49.65 points.

It’s not that UCLA’s destined to be a bad defense, necessarily, it’s just that they should be so good based on who they have playing for them.

And sometimes, they are that good. Just rarely for an entire game.

Any given play, they’re equally likely to ruin the hopes and dreams of the opposing offense as they are to shoot themselves in the foot and give up 30 yards. In the latter cases, that could be the product of penalty yardage or yardage an offense actually earned. They’re 124th in FBS in penalties per game (nine) and 128th in penalty yards per game (86). That’s UCLA.

But I should emphasize — before all y’all get cocky about this matchup — that we’re not just saying it; they really can make some plays which will have Washington fans throwing full bottles of beer at the TV. Well, hopefully not full bottles. Hopefully you’ll get a few swigs out of that sweet sweet Rainier before a spectacular play by a Bruin messes things up.

So now that we’ve got the “UCLA Defense Inexplicably Sucks Sometimes Except For When They Don’t And Then They’re Scary” out of the way, here’s what you can expect to actually see:

What first stands out is that, while they play plenty of nickel, what I’ve seen from them is noticeably less than the typical Pac 12 defense. That isn’t to say nickel is rare for the Bruins; they frequently rotate between a 4-3 or 4-2-5 and, while I can’t say for sure what the stats are for this, it looks like they spend about 50% of their time with five defensive backs on the field.

If you associate UCLA’s last few years with star defensive backs, that won’t be changing anytime this year. Familiar names like Jaleel Wadood and Adarius Pickett are back, while Nate Meadors has grown during each of his first two seasons. Joining them is true freshman Darnay Holmes at cornerback, who was easily one of the top 50 players in the class of 2017. It’s not hard to see why. Holmes has complemented the more senior players seemingly with ease; he’s a crazy athlete who’s also seen time returning kicks and finds ways to mess up passing plays even when they look bound to be successful.

Then in the next level, there’s guys like Kenny Young. Young has been a starter for the last two years and, when he’s on and diagnosing plays quickly, can be quite disruptive.

Otherwise, the linebackers have been hit with some injuries, with Josh Woods, Lokeni Toailoa, and Breland Brandt probably out and Krys Barnes either having or recovering from pneumonia. Even if Barnes is on the mend, that will be lingering with him for months so I would be shocked if he’s playing.

The trench also has taken some hits, with linemen Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson both out.

What they still have up front includes former Washington target in DT Boss Tagaloa who — if you’re one of the people worried about the Dawgs’ tackle depth in the coming seasons — you shouldn’t dwell too much on the alternate universe where Washington signed him because it’ll just make you sad. He’s a cannon-ball on their defense and, while he doesn’t rack up crazy stats, will make way for others to do so.

On the ends, there’s Rick Wade, thrown into a more prominent role after the injury to Tuioti-Mariner, and true freshman Jaelan Phillips. If you remember the latter name, it’s because he was arguably the best high school football player in the class of 2017.

As mentioned above, this defense clearly has the talent to pull of domination, yet they rarely can keep up an above-average performance for an entire game.

The lack of discipline we see in their aforementioned penalty troubles also manifests itself in the play of the defense as a whole. It’s not hard to find examples of them being caught out of position.

Where that’s noticeable is with the front seven’s difficulty with dynamic quarterbacks; against Colorado and Arizona, Steven Montez had multiple gigantic runs and Khalil Tate couldn’t be contained.

The secondary can at times rely on superior athleticism than opponents, but has again been called for unnecessary penalties this year that would drive me crazy, were I a Bruins fan. Still though, if they play disciplined that unit can give opponents major headaches.

And that’s the UCLA defense in a nutshell.

*Where’d our resident New Mexico State fan run off to? I miss them...

Bottom Line

Their defensive line against Washington’s offensive line could be frustrating at times on Saturday. Whether Andrew Kirkland or Luke Wattenberg fill in at tackle for the injured Trey Adams, they’ll have to go up against a physical monster of a man in Jaelan Phillips. New guys in an offensive line tend to have some growing pains anyway and this won’t make it any easier.

What else could be worrisome is the shear athleticism of UCLA’s defensive backs. It’s no secret that Jake Browning doesn’t have the arm strength to chuck the football a billion miles an hour into tight windows plus, for whatever reason, his anticipation has regressed on some level this year. If he is as hesitant this Saturday as he’s been in his worst moments this year, it will be maddening to watch against this secondary. On the other hand, if his receivers can get a bit of separation and he can trust them to throw on time, it will be no problem.

That could be a case of one way or the other with no in between, though.

On the plus side, Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman can wear down the UCLA front seven if they get halfway decent run blocking. With a relative lack of depth here, the ability to tire out the big guys up front will allow the Huskies to break away and control the second half.

Lastly, the Bruins have obvious trouble with mobile quarterbacks. And while Jake is no dual-threat (despite the fun I’ve had suggesting we call him one anyway), setting up that threat whether in RPO or otherwise feels like it could lead the UCLA defense into a spiral of mis-positioning and result in a certain amount of defensive chaos that Browning and Co. can turn into success in other phases of the game.

Essentially, if Washington executes well, they win. Period. Otherwise... We’ll see. (Or, hopefully we won’t see, but you get me.)

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.