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Opponent Defense Preview: UCLA

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Something’s probably brewin’ for the Bruins, but it’ll take a while.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Intros are stupid.

Let’s talk UCLA defense:

Personnel and What to Expect

The good thing about playing some really good defenses the first month of the season is that, eventually, you’re gonna get used to that speed and then play a defense not so great.

This is one of those times.

UCLA’s not gonna be bad forever, and they’re probably better than their 0-4 record suggests. But not by much, and it’s gonna take a while: Bruins’ opponents are currently averaging almost 38 points per game, and that goes up to 42 if you take away that one time UCLA lost by less than they usually do to...Cincinnati?

The basics are that they tend to play a lot of 3-4 coupled with a healthy dose of 2-4-5 nickel and then some. Against Colorado, their look changed frequently, but its effectiveness really didn’t.

The good news is that Chip Kelly, while much better known for his offenses, still was/is a better developer of talent than Jim Mora. The bad news is that there were a lot of years of Jim Mora, and old habits die hard. Subsequently, while UCLA under Mora was famous for hauling in some crazy talent and promptly wasting it, much of those players and, certainly, the defensive unit as a whole has yet to put the pieces together. Yet.

That’s on display in a hundred little ways. Shall we list them? Sure:

The Bruins’ pass rush has flashes of efficacy. “Flashes” being the keyword here. The rest of the time, against Fresno State and Colorado they were mostly taken care of and, for the most part, Steven Montez and Marcus McMaryion had the time to make so many reads, they could have finished The Lord of the Rings. (Ey-oh.) In the few times when their rush showed their potential, however, their ability to get to the quarterback looked like a potentially frightening foreshadowing of UCLA down the line.

However, in line with their “still figuring out how to be better” process, finishing what you need to do after getting to the quarterback (i.e., actually tackling him), hasn’t been the Bruins’ strong suit. Multiple times, Montez or McMaryion were able to escape due to poor fundamentals by a UCLA edge rusher and, with both of those quarterbacks’ mobile ability, often could make a throw downfield against a defensive backfield who, by no fault of their own, couldn’t keep Colorado or Fresno State’s receivers covered for the sheer amount of time those plays took to draw out.

But back to the poor fundamentals part, in the most basic sense: tackling.

UCLA’s defense, as a whole, still hasn’t quite figured out how this whole tackling thing works yet. Granted, they’re at least moving in the right direction—players aren’t just running full speed into a target and not wrapping up—it’s just that they haven’t gotten it right yet on how to wrap up the right way. Whether against running backs, receivers, or more physical quarterbacks like Montez, UCLA’s defensive front tackles far too high, and with far too much of the brunt coming from their upper bodies to be effective. Subsequently, particularly strong running backs with a low center-of-gravity give them a bunch of trouble. In fact, if a ball carrier has even a vague reputation as being a slippery runner, they’re probably going to frustrate UCLA’s defense with ease. Gee, if only Washington had one of those. Oh, wait.

Furthermore, with a defense that’s still figuring out both how to be physical and how to stay disciplined with their assignments, the Bruins can be terrorized by running backs with patience and vision, especially in a power run game. This was healthily on display against CU and Fresno; I don’t remember exactly how many times this happened, but there were plenty of touchdown runs of five, six, seven and plus yards within the red zone, many of which included running backs that were barely touched once blockers got into the second level against UCLA’s linebackers. And, with that being such a weakness and subsequent focal point for the defense, quarterback option keeps have been the occasional killer for them as well, with touchdowns allowed on runs by Montez and McMaryion where, with both benefiting from completely committed misdirection, neither was even touched.

As far as their specific units, the secondary is the biggest strength. Sophomore cornerback and former five-star, Darnay Holmes, instantly made his name known both in special teams and against wide receivers, while senior safety Adarius Pickett was a candidate to go pro last year before returning to Westwood to complete his last season. Complementing them is Nate Meadors, who started all 13 games last year. While the front seven of UCLA are still young, undisciplined, and figuring their stuff out, the defensive backs, while not dominant, still get their jobs done.

Then there’s the line and linebackers, which I’ve pretty much already implicitly gone over already. Up front, horrific depth (or lack thereof) in the offensive line meant that the Bruins had to shift former tackle and Husky recruiting target Boss Tagaloa to play center, so that loss certainly doesn’t help their cause. Names you’ll probably hear called include Osa Odighizuwa, Chigozie Nnoruka, and Marcus Moore, plus DE Rick Wade who at 6’6” and 275 lbs. is more physical than you typically expect from UCLA. All of those players could potentially be the foundations for an improving defense in the future. But again, that’ll take time.

The linebackers behind them had some bad injury luck, losing Josh Woods and Je’Vari Anderson for the season and seeing some ambiguity over whether all-everything class of 2016 recruit Mique Juarez is still with the program or is medically retiring. In their places, the highly coveted Bo Calvert has seen time as a true freshman and former juco recruit Tyree Thompson has seen his workload be higher than anticipated in his first year with the program. On the outside, OLB Keisean Lucier-South—a part-time starter from last year—has increased his role, and former #1 recruit in the country Jaelan Phillips continues to build on his freshman year last season as an edge rusher. (But also Phillips might be injured, so who knows.)

Overall, this group is clearly building for the future. Lots of young guys are getting extended playing time and everybody’s figuring out how to be better than the stereotypical soft, undisciplined defenses from Jim Mora’s tenure. Even with Chip Kelly being totally known for his offense and practically never known for his defense, he’s still setting the foundations for better days on both sides of the ball.

Unfortunately for UCLA, that’s not today.

Bottom Line

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised one bit if both Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin run for 100 yards. In fact, I’ll up that in Myles’ case: Ahmed may be more explosive, but Gaskin’s patience, vision, and elusiveness from tacklers—not to mention his leg drive once someone can finally get him wrapped up—means it shouldn’t be shocking if he hits the 150-yard mark. Furthermore, (although I suppose this should be kinda self-explanatory if the above stats materialize) with the way the offensive line has been improving in the run game, I think we’ll probably see their best performance yet.

Where Washington’s passing game is concerned, it’ll probably be efficient but unspectacular; Jake Browning will probably have some boring as heck stat line like 13-17 for, like, 192 yards. Just some real lame but get-the-job-done stat.

What will be more interesting to watch than Browning’s passing will be the O-line’s consistency in pass protection on the relatively few times he does drop back. They’ve done well the last two weeks against far more consistently effective pass rushes, especially in BYU’s case, and, if there’s ever a game to solidify themselves, it’s this one. UCLA’s pass-rush has a few great moments per game, and this will probably be on display Saturday, too, but whether it’s “taking plays off,” not having everything down as muscle memory, or just general growing pains, they just haven’t been consistent enough to mess up a quarterback all game and that probably won’t change against the Dawgs.

But again, every negative description of UCLA in 2018 should come with the caveat: ...Yet.

As always, any lurking UCLA fans are welcome to chime in in the comments!

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