If there was any unit, as a whole, that needed a change in coaching staff, it was the UCLA Bruins defense. This unit was unwatchable for much of the year, and essentially sealed the fate of Jim Mora in 2017. As much fun as it will be to watch Chip Kelly implement his offense this spring, seeing how new Defensive Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and his staff remake the defense may be one of the most important storylines heading into Spring ball.
To that end, let’s start by taking a look at the defensive line.
The biggest loss in this group is going to be outgoing senior Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. JTM was the leader on the defensive line, tallying 52 tackles and 7.5 sacks in his senior year while manning the right defensive end position. The other loss is another senior, Matt Dickerson, who’s 2017 was cut short due to a broken collarbone. Beyond that, though, UCLA returns most of what was a very young defensive line in 2017.
Well, the biggest change is in coaching. Jerry Azzinaro takes over as Defensive Coordinator, and he brings with him a long, successful track record of strong defensive line coaching. In addition, Chip Kelly brought in Vince Oghobaase (which is going to be a very fun name to try and remember for spelling purposes) as defensive line coach. Oghobaase is light on experience compared to most of the other members of the defensive staff, but he has worked as a GA at Ohio State, and has experience working with Azzinaro, so the idea here seems to be that Oghobaase can grow into the position. We should also consider the fact that Roy Manning will split his duties between special teams and outside linebackers, and that this specifically will focus on the rush linebacker spot.
The other big new piece is: what formation with UCLA go with defensively? The common assumption is that Azzinaro will implement a switch to a 3-4 base defense, which changes how we approach this depth chart. Then again, with the new coaching staff, it should also be noted that this depth chart is completely up in the air as-is.
Finally, for anyone looking for an early glimpse of the 2018 class, you’ll have to look at another position group, as the defensive line features no early enrollees. But that might not be a huge problem considering the amount of talent that’s returning.
If it isn’t clear by now, the answer is pretty-much everyone.
The question with this depth chart may be less “Who’s back?” and more “Where does everyone go?” Consider, for example, that hyper-athletic hybrid ends like Jaelan Phillips and Keisean Lucier-South may end up as part of the linebacker group in this new 3-4 configuration, occupying a role similar to Anthony Barr. In addition, the 3-4 requires a nose tackle, and there isn’t anyone on the roster as-is who clearly has staked a claim to that spot.
This is not to say that there isn’t talent that is returning. Marcus Moore, Rick Wade, and Chigozie Nnoruka all return after showing glimpses of the future, while Boss Tagaloa could be in line for a breakout year after spending most of 2017 dealing with injuries. This should also be the start of seeing heralded prospects like Greg Rodgers and Martin Andrus making their mark on UCLA football.
All of this is to also leave out one of the bigger questions: what happens with Devin Asiasi. Asiasi sat out last year after transferring from Michigan, but there may be questions of whether Asiasi sticks it out at tight end. This is not to disparage Devin’s ability - he’s a fantastic tight end, but UCLA will be welcoming back Caleb Wilson from injury, who may have been the best tight end in college last year before going down with injury, and have a fairly-deep tight end position now. To throw more fuel on the fire, Asiasi was considered to be a fantastic defensive line prospect in high school, where he combined with former De La Salle and current UCLA teammate Boss Tagaloa to form a terrifying defensive line combination. So Asiasi’s position during the Spring will be something to look out for.
Honestly, this is so much of a toss-up, I’m inclined to say that this is a pure guess at this point.
2018 UCLA Football Spring Defensive Line
Again, this is mostly guess-work. I believe Devin Asiasi will be given a chance at tight end to start, while most of the other positions seem up in the air. I listed the Jack Linebackers here just so people won’t freak out by a lack of Phillips or KLS, but suffice to say the coaching staff will find a way to get them on the field.