Last week Bellerophon gave us a quick look at the Bruin defense. With the questions at quarterback and offensive line, that defense is going to be as important as ever this season and as we've learned the hard way this decade, whether it be offense or defense, a unit can only be as good as its big guys. That means the UCLA defensive line is going to have to step up this season and get the job done.
The defensive front doesn't do the pretty work or get a lot of attention, but they're going to be vital to making Joe Tresey's scheme work. The new defensive coordinator wants his linebackers and defensive backs to fly around, but that's only possible if the defensive line can occupy offensive linemen in the running game and be quick in the passing game to get after the quarterback and create lanes for blitzers to exploit. if the defensive line can't get the job done then Tresey's scheme won't matter much.
The good news is that the Bruins have experience along the defensive front. Three of their four starters have been in the program for at least four years and the other got plenty of playing time a year ago. There isn't anyone along the front that will be depended upon and doesn't have some experience so there is no growing and adjusting. Having experience only goes so far though and while the front four have experience and talent, there isn't a lot of proven excellence there so that question mark remains.
Datone Jones (6-5, 275, RS Jr.)
|Cassius Marsh (6-3, 289 So.)||Justin Edison (6-4, 285, RS Sr.)||Damien Holmes (6-3, 270, RS Jr.)|
|Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 266, So.)||Nate Chandler (6-4, 292, RS Sr.)||Donovan Carter (6-2, 295, RS JR)||Keenan Graham (6-3, 255, RS So.)|
|Iuta Tepa (6-3, 260, RS So.)||Sam Tai (6-4, 251, FR)||Seali'i Epenesa (6-3, 308, So.)||Wesley Flowers (6-5, 254, RS Fr)|
|Uche Amajoyi (6-0, 270, RS Fr.)||Tre Hale (6-1, 315, RS Fr.)||Derrick Bryant (6-3, 251, RS Fr.)|
Left Defensive End
The star of the Bruins' defensive front is Datone Jones and if UCLA is to have success this year they are going to need a big year from the redshirt junior. He lost last season after suffering a training camp injury, but he's healthy, bigger and stronger now with every bit the same speed and explosion he had before. That's a scary thought for opponents who will have to double-team him regularly just to keep their quarterbacks safe. If Datone can have his huge season then he can slant the entire offense, which just gives Tresey a lot more options to play with a cause havoc for the entire offense with every part of his defense. It's rare to see a defensive scheme revolve around a defensive end, but Datone is talented enough to allow the Bruins to do that.
Jones isn't the Bruins' only freakish talent at the position either. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is as much of a freak athlete as Jones and maybe even more of a freak athlete. He got some run as a freshman last year and flashed his great talent, but also showed the inexperienced of a true freshman as offensive tackles baited him and played with him at times. Nobody is going to question Owa's talent, but the test of how good he is going to be this year and the next two years is how he is able to adjust and improve with his experience. This season will be step one of that as we see what he learned from his freshman year and added to his game.
Behind Owa is Iuta Tepa, who has talent and certainly more talented than most third string players. Like Owa, he has just a year of experience under his belt so he's another guy who needs to show what he's learned from year one.
If the Bruins need one players along the defensive front to take a step forward it's Cassius Marsh. He's big and strong and quick and tough. He's pretty much everything you would like from a defensive tackle except for proven, although that's more about youth than anything else. As a true sophomore Cassius hasn't had many chances to run through, by or over people at the collegiate level, but he'll get that shot this season. He's coming off of a big spring too so expectations are high. He's not the build a wall and make guys run around him tackle. He's a get into the backfield and disrupt tackle and thats just fine because he's very much capable of doing that regularly.
If only Nate Chandler had gotten put at a position from the start and stayed there. He's physically gifted, but spent so much time moving from position position that he never got a chance to learn a position. Now he's in his last year in Westwood and is just getting the hang of the tackle position, which is a shame, but he can still make an impact because he is so gifted.
If Sam Tai is depended upon then that's not a good sign for the defensive front. He's well-regarded, but he's a true freshman and is several steps behind the more experienced options in front of him. That means if he's playing there are injuries or guys who are severely underperforming so you don't want to see a ton of Tai this season. The same is true for Uche Amajoyi, except he's less talented. You don't want to see him much this season.
If Cassius is going to be the disruptive defensive tackle then UCLA needs Justin Edison to be the steady one. He's been in the program for five years and has the technique down. He's not huge, but he's deceptively strong and doesn't get pushed around. Hold your ground and make the middle a tough place to run. If he can do that then he's done his job. It won't get any attention and his stats won't show him as having made a big impact, but he's the guy who can make running backs go east and west as opposed to north and south. You cannot overstate the impact of the player who can do that.
Donovan Carter showed last year that he can be an impact player. He had some fantastic games, but he also had games where he was thrown around like a rag doll. As a redshirt junior now he has to figure out how to level out his play and show some consistency. If he can't then he will quickly be passed by Seali'i Epenesa, who is another sophomore who got time a year ago. He's huge and has surprisingly quick feet. If you want the classic space eater, it's Epenesa and the Bruins can use one of those. With guys like Cassius, Carter and Seali'i at the position, we don't want to see much of Tre Hale this season.
Right Defensive End
Lots of players get talked about as having made a huge step forward in the spring, but it doesn't look like anyone took a bigger step forward than Damien Holmes. He drew rave reviews in the spring and that's continued to the summer as everyone talks about all the work he's put in to getting better. With Datone being the guy who flies upfield on the other side, Damien will be asked to be the more dependable one. He'll have to be good against the run, which is something he appears to be capable of doing. He won't be the flashy end, but he can be the good motor, highly productive end.
Keenan Graham is a guy that a lot of people have had high hopes for. During his redshirt season he was reported to have played great in practice and he's an athletic, quick end so people had high expectations. He played in all 12 games last year, six of which were starts, and while capable, he didn't show that big play ability that many hoped to see from him. Being a freshman, that could be chalked up to inexperience, but that means it's time to take the next step this season.
It's a lot of inexperience behind Damien and Keenan with Wesley Flowers and Derrick Bryant. They are redshirt freshmen who could both use some more growth and muscle. They are both quick though so they're hardly helpless out there. They aren't ready to take a ton of snaps though so keeping Damien and Keenan healthy is going to be huge.