UCLA lost two defensive lineman to the NFL in 2014, with Cassius Marsh being drafted in the 4th round by the Seattle Seahawks and nose tackle Seali'i Epenesa being scooped up by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent and making it through the mini-camp process (always a good sign). The Bruins also saw an extremely successful situational pass rusher in Keenan Graham and valuable depth in Brandon Willis graduate.
This would lead the average fan to assume that the Bruins will have a problem filling the gaps left by those talented player.
The average fan would be woefully wrong because the Bruins stable of talent up front is one of the best groups in all of college football.
|Left Defensive End
|RIght Defensive End
|Eddie Vanderdoes (SO)
|Kenny Clark (SO)
|Owamagbe Odighizuwa (RS SR)
|Ellis McCarthy (JR)
|Eli Ankou (RS SO)
|Kylie Fitts (SO)
|Ian Taubler (RS SO)
|Ainuu Taua (FR)
|Zach Vinci (RS JR)
|Matt Dickerson (FR)
|Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (FR)
There are not any other programs that I can think of (seriously, if there is another one, I'd like to know because it would be a fun defense to watch) that can boast 3 former 5* recruits on the defensive line, along with a high level player like Kenny Clark that played like a 5* recruit as a true freshman, taking a starting position away from an NFL defensive tackle.
The biggest factor is the return of the best name in UCLA football, Owamagbe Odighizuwa. He looked like an absolute force in the spring and made it look as though replacing Cassius Marsh's production shouldn't be an issue. If there is any Bruin besides Brett Hundley that could end up getting drafted in the first round in 2014, it'd be Owa after a breakout year that we've all been anticipating with his level of athleticism and raw talent.
Along with Owa, expect big jumps in performance from both Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy. Vanderdoes flashed as a freshman despite losing most of his fall camp to a back injury. As the strong-side defensive end, his responsibilities are seen more in the run game than as a pass rusher, but with his skill set I'd expect big improvements in both areas. McCarthy will likely bounce back and forth from playing inside and on the edges at end, but is only listed as a backup in name. He'll get as many snaps as Clark, Owa and Vanderdoes.
Kenny Clark looked like a future star at defensive tackle last season and might start garnering some award attention as a sophomore. With the depth of McCarthy and Spring Camp breakout Eli Ankou, the defensive tackle spot might be the strongest position on the entire roster. Ian Taubler and Zach Vinci are both a little undersized still for 3-4 defensive ends, but provide valuable and competent depth and Vinci's motor off the edge should garner him some reps in the rotation.
Ankou probably had the best spring out of any interior defensive lineman, causing a number of people to check the rosters to see who #96 was at the practices I attended. Kylie Fitts looked solid when healthy and should only improve moving into his sophomore year. There is a chance that incoming freshman Ainuu Taua, Matt Dickerson or Jacob Tuioti-Mariner show up like Clark and Vanderdoes did last season and are so talented that they require playing time. I would expect Dickerson and Tuioti-Mariner to redshirt and likely Taua as well, seeing that the 3-deep at defensive tackle looks solid barring any surprises.
Bottom line, the defense as a whole looks to be more talented than any I have seen at UCLA in at least the last 15 years and the defensive line is one of the biggest reasons for that. There is an embarrassment of talent up front and that is where new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich should lean on in game-plans. All four of the Clark, Owa, Vanderdoes and McCarthy are virtual locks to play on Sunday in the future and if they all play like that at once, the pass rush might not miss Anthony Barr much at all.
We will be previewing the rest of the roster over the next week leading up to Fall Camp opening up in August.
Until next time, Go Bruins!