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Football is Back: Spring Practice and Breaking Down the Defensive Line

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After a disappointing, bitter end to Howland's basketball season (in an otherwise mediocre season, by UCLA's standards, in a mediocre Pac-10), fortunately, Bruins everywhere will be able to mentally shift gear and focus in on the return of Neuheisel's football squad.  That's right folks: spring football gets underway in exactly one week.

We've already discussed that this upcoming season is Neuheisel's "make-or-break" season and that expectations in Westwood have been laid out in no uncertain terms, both by Dan Guerrero, and here at Bruins Nation following the debacle against U$C.

If you've been watching, you already know that Neuheisel has completely revamped this year's coaching staff, with both Chuck "Base D" Bullough and Norm Chow leaving Westwood, and Joe Tresey and Mike Johnson taking their respective positions.

Let's kick this spring football camp break-down with the defensive side of the ball and begin where every defense begins: the defensive line, now being led by former Montana Grizzlies' defensive line coach, Inoke Breckterfield.  Although UCLA hasn't released an official spring camp depth chart, let's not let that keep us from projecting how our front four (or three) will shape up this upcoming 2011 season. Hopefully, Tresey will be more fluid than his predecessor and mix in a variety of looks, out of both the 4-3 and 3-4 sets, to disrupt and confuse opposing offenses. But, for the purpose of this depth chart analysis, we'll go ahead and assume Tresey will stick with a 4-3 base set, based on his comments following his hiring.





Datone Jones (6-4, 269, RS JR)

Nate Chandler (6-5,290, RS SR)

Cassius Marsh (6-4, 285, SO)

Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 240, SO)

Keenan Graham (6-2, 245, RS SO) (INJ)

Seali'i Epenesa (6-2, 320, SO)

Donovan Carter (6-1, 280, RS JR)

Iuta Tepa (6-1, 248, SO)

Wesley Flowers (6-4, 257, RS FR)

Damien Holmes (6-3, 265, RS JR)

Kevin McReynolds (6-3, 280, FR)

Derrick Bryant (6-4, 236 RS FR)

Brandon Tuliaupupu (6-2, 290, FR)

Justin Edison (6-4, 290, RS SR)

Sam Tai (6-4, 234, FR)

(INJ): injured
Italics: incoming freshmen

Now, this depth chart features two major changes: one a significant boost to this unit's effectiveness; the other a major blow to a rather thin depth chart.  Unlike last year, this squad does return an impressive amount of experience, returning multiple key contributors with prior starting experience. Let's turn to those two major shifts after the jump.

Let's start with the good news: talented starting defensive end Datone Jones returns to the Bruins' defensive front after being lost for the entire 2010 season with a broken foot. Prior to being lost for the season, Jones was displaying all the physical tools necessary to putting himself in the top-tier of Pac-12 defensive ends.  Obviously, it remains to be seen if he still retains his explosiveness following his season off with a foot injury.  If Datone does return to the form seen during 2009, it will be a major addition to this unit.  Think of it as getting an experienced, elite level recruit ready to play from day one.

Now, let's talk about the glaring hole in that depth chart: super-talented transfer DT Brandon Willis has decided, after sitting out last season after leaving UNC for family reasons, to return to Chapel Hill and suit up for the Tar Heels:

UCLA released Willis from his scholarship a week ago, and another personal situation has him returning to Chapel Hill.

"Brandon lost his mother in high school and is very close with his grandmother, who lives in Burlington and is battling health issues," Tar Heels coach Butch Davis said. "He and his father wanted to move back to the East coast to be with her. There were no hard feelings when Brandon originally left and when he inquired about the possibility of returning, we welcomed him back."

The short version is that Brandon came to Westwood after his mother passed away and his father took a new job in Southern California.  Now that his grandmother is suffering some health issues, he's decided to go back to North Carolina to be close to her.  All-in-all, he sounds like a really great kid and your heart goes out to a young man who has had to deal with so much personal diversity in such a short amount of time.  Hopefully, UNC gets its NCAA waiver so he can play immediately and I think every Bruin should be pulling for him (unless the Bruins match up with the Tar Heels in a bowl game the next few seasons).  All of the front-pagers at BN wish Brandon nothing but luck.


The downside, for UCLA fans, is that Willis was projected to start at DT alongside super-stud sophomore Cassius Marsh.  Moreover, this leaves UCLA with only five returning defensive tackles (six if you count Damien Holmes, who has the size to slide over from DE to DT).  Fortunately, the Bruins brought in #24-ranked Kevin McReynolds, who may need to contribute immediately, and #101-ranked Brandon Tuliaupupu, who appears to be a project-type guy.

Now, with Willis out of the picture, expect the Bruins to turn to super fill-in Nate Chandler (who has played pretty much every position you can imagine during his Bruin career) to fill the starting spot along Marsh, unless/until big-bodied Seali'i Epenesa steps up.  Donovan Carter and Justin Edison are simply reserve depth guys: if UCLA calls on either to start, it'll be a blow to this unit's ability to get pressure up the middle or hold the line against the run (as we saw last year with Edison, despite his best efforts, being constantly blown up).

With Chandler and Edison entering their final seasons at the Rose Bowl, Neuheisel will need to hit the recruiting trail particularly hard this season in bringing in some reinforcements for a unit that has some talent, but is woefully thin in the middle.  So far, per Scout, the Bruins have only offered Quay Evans from Mississippi and Aziz Shittu from Atwater, California.  Currently, Miss. State leads for Evans and Stanford has the inside track of Shittu.  I'd be shocked if Evans ended up leaving the South and Shittu will likely end up in Palo Alto.  There's plenty of time for Rick to bring in the talent here, but it's something that fans should keep an eye on as the season progresses.


Things look much promising on the ends of the line.  In fact, this might be the strongest part of the Bruins' defense, with experienced junior starter Datone Jones at one end and returning sophomore/athletic super-freak Owamagbe Odighizuwa returning on the other end.  Moreover, there are high-quality reserve players behind both starters, giving the Bruins depth at DE. 

Iuta Tepa, who has shown flashes of high-motor, intense play, returns after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury: he has the potential to be a significant contributor.  Also, he'll be entering the season again as a sophomore, having been granted a medical redshirt after seeing action in only three games during 2010.  Right now, Keenan Graham projects to be a key reserve behind either Jones or Owa, but will miss spring camp due to hip surgery.  If he can avoid injury and improve his form and technique, he should be a regular contributor next season. After Tepa and Graham, the Bruins also have redshirt freshmen Derrick Bryant (returning from a shoulder injury) and Wesley Flowers, as well as true freshman Sam Tai (ranked #65 by Scout), who enrolled early and will participate in this spring camp.

Finally, although Neuheisel has some talent and depth at DE, he is already offering a handful of prospects: highly-regarded Troy Hinds from Utah, Jeremy Castro from Murrieta, Canadian Eli Ankou, and Damion Turpin from Compton.

Although UCLA suffered last year following the lose of Brian Price to the NFL and Datone Jones to injury, returning Jones, Owa, and Marsh will be a major boost to the defense as a whole.  If Chandler or Epenesa can do an adequate job lining up next to Marsh (who has a ton of potential), this unit could be a real strength for the 2011 Bruins. Hopefully, without Chuck "Base D" Bullough around to call up vanilla schemes, this unit will get an opportunity to shine under the Tresey and Breckterfield regime.