UCLA’s most anticipated season in well over a decade is 21 days away.
In 21 days, the offseason hype will be merely a reference point to which everything the Bruins do will be compared. When UCLA takes the field against the Virginia Cavaliers on August 30, the scrutiny begins.
Because this UCLA team has been placed with some really lofty expectations. After a 10-win campaign in 2013 and an offseason which saw quarterback Brett Hundley make his call to come back for his junior year, the national media and the local media have put the Bruins on a pedestal.
(As a side note, for this writer, that pedestal is daunting. After 14 years of inconsistent management, curious personnel decisions, and shoddy football, the Bruins have gone from Pac-12 bottom-dwellers to national title contenders after just two years in head coach Jim Mora’s reign. The team’s certainly talented and the coaching staff’s implicit system for improvement puts them on a serious track for national contention long-term, but this rise is rather meteoric.)
Of course, receiving considerable hype has been the Bruin defense. This, of course, is also pretty terrifying, mainly because the UCLA defense had previously been considered to be the lesser of the two units.
In any case, hype or not, a season must be played. What does this UCLA defense look like, and what can we actually expect from them? Let’s take a look.
Although UCLA has been a competent (but not incredible) defensive squad since Jim Mora (a defensive coach himself) took over, this unit as a whole has improved drastically since his first year in Westwood.
Actually, the trajectory is pretty unreal. In 2012, UCLA’s front seven was a nightmare for Pac-12 squad, earning the third-most sacks in the conference, but this came with several caveats, namely the 2012 Bruins’ penchant for giving up big yards (they were in the lower half of the conference in total offense, passing yards allowed, and rushing yards allowed). In 2013, the Bruins improved in virtually every defensive category that mattered against what most thought was a much tougher schedule, but still struggled in preventing yards and points (earning fifth-best in the conference in both categories). The team’s effectiveness up front had largely stayed the same, but the secondary—UCLA’s Achilles’ Heel in 2012—no longer looked like the easy target (though it still proved shaky at times).
Of course, the sample size for the 2014 campaign is just practice: fall camps, spring ball, etc. But for the first time in the Mora era, it appears the defense has finally caught up—and perhaps even surpassed—the offense. Instead of my re-hashing of this point, let’s look to the local media.
First, Daily Bruin reporter Chris Kalra:
Watching #UCLA‘s offense & defense scrimmage against each other today, it’s clear Bruins’ defense has the adv. They’re an underrated group
— Chris Kalra (@chriskalra) August 9, 2014
Then, Mike W.R. at Go Joe Bruin had this to say as the crew covers the team from San Bernardino:
The Bruins have a deep defensive line that will be shifting back and forth from 3 to 4 players at any given time in the 3-4 and 4-2-5 formations. The linebackers have talent behind Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks, but also have a nice group that is fighting for an open spots at both inside LB and outside LB. As for the secondary, a year ago they were perceived to be the weak point of the Bruins, while this year they are thought to be one of the best in the Pac-12.
Even after losing NFL-level talent like linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, and defensive end Cassius Marsh, UCLA’s defense appears to have gotten better. Much better.
WHY HAS THE UCLA DEFENSE IMPROVED?
There are a few theories, none of which are mutually exclusive. You might chalk it up to the maturity and health of the aforementioned linebackers Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks, as well as the young guys battling for the two remaining roster spots (indeed, sophomore Deon Hollins has been making quite a bit of noise).
You may also chalk it up to the benefits of experience that UCLA defensive back Fabian Moreau is reaping. After a surprisingly successful year in 2013, Moreau’s been getting his fair share of hype, too, and through fall camp, he’s lived up to it. (And this revelation might be more crucial than you might initially believe—with UCLA’s secondary lagging behind its front seven for two years running, it’s finally caught up.)
You can also chalk it up to a defensive line that Mora implied was a perfect fit for his scheme, despite the loss of Cassius Marsh. With Eddie Vanderdoes stepping into a bigger role on the line, and with Owamagbe Odighizuwa (you can call him Owa, don’t worry) staying healthy, and with human tank Kenny Clark at nose tackle (perhaps the toughest spot to fill in a 3-4 defense), the unit’s a daunting one. This is without considering who’ll be subbing in for the line (including oft-injured but incredibly talented Ellis McCarthy).
And you may also want to point the finger at new UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who took over after Lou Spanos left for a gig in the NFL. Ulbrich, if you’ll recall, was the Bruins’ linebackers and special teams coach, two units that reached national prominence under his tutelage. (To these eyes, Ulbrich is the most talented and important coach on the staff; he’ll run his own program soon.)
Whatever your theory, the defense looks promising and hasn’t looked this good in awhile. Perhaps this is more offseason, wishful thinking-level hype. Maybe the local media has bought into the national hype.
Or maybe the Bruins’ defensive unit is that damn good.