Through seven games this season, the UCLA special teams unit has been anything but special. There have been three muffed punts, three blocked point after attempts and no made field goal beyond 35 yards this season.
Despite the rocky start, coach Jim Mora is confident that his special teams unit will get back on track.
“We’ve had those mishaps, but it’s something we’ve got to get cleaned up as we go forward,” Mora said.
“I think it’s good experiences for these kids to go through as long as you win and learn from it and the (mistakes) don’t happen again.”
The miscues on punt returns have been the most devastating failures for the Bruins, with all three fumbles leading to touchdowns for the opposing team.
Redshirt freshman receiver Steven Manfro was the return man on every fumbled punt, with two of them caused by return blockers interfering with the reception.
Mora pointed out the importance of the returner calling out the word “Peter” on punts that are being fair caught as a way to notify blockers to steer clear.
“We didn’t do a good enough job as coaches emphasizing it, and then we didn’t do a good enough job executing it on the field,” Mora said.
“We’ve got some guys back there returning punts who have a lot of talent who haven’t done it a lot and they get locked in on the ball and forget to say “˜Peter.’”
Junior linebacker Jordan Zumwalt has had an eventful season thus far, starting it by moving to outside linebacker from the middle linebacker position he played in Rick Neuheisel’s 4-3 base defense.
Zumwalt was then in a scooter accident that took around 150 stitches to repair. He missed one game due to the accident, and when he returned to practice, the coaches moved him back to inside linebacker.
“I’ve been out of the middle for a while so I’m just getting re-acclimated,” Zumwalt said. “I’m happy to do it, though. Whatever is best for the team.”
Two seasons ago, as a true freshman, Zumwalt received four starts at inside linebacker where he totaled 20 tackles and three sacks.
Zumwalt was moved to outside linebacker due in part to his promise shown as a pass rusher his freshman year, but he believes he can still get to opposing quarterbacks from the inside linebacker position.
“I think it will translate,” Zumwalt said. “I can move in space and get pressure on the quarterback if asked.”
In the Bruins’ current 3-4 defensive scheme, they start two inside linebackers, which means that Zumwalt is joining redshirt sophomore Eric Kendricks as the other primary inside linebacker.
Zumwalt and Kendricks came into UCLA in the same recruiting class and were both recruited as middle linebackers; both are looking forward to the opportunity to play next to one another.
“It’s awesome to be back playing with him,” Zumwalt said. “The first day, I told him, “˜Hey man, we’re finally back in the middle again.’ We’re excited about it.”
The UCLA defensive line came into the season with high expectations due to a strong camp performance and several returning veterans.
These expectations soared even higher following their first game of the season, when the unit tallied four sacks against Rice.
Since that game, production has dropped off with the line only registering one sack over the next four games.
Part of the credit for that decline goes to the UCLA linebackers getting more sacks and tackles for loss, which is exactly what defensive line coach Angus McClure wants to see out of his players.
“When the linebackers are making plays, that means that the defensive line is doing their job,” McClure said.
The focus on overall defensive success rather than statistics is a culture that the entire defensive coaching staff has preached since taking charge in January.
“We talk about it quite a bit,” McClure said. “There are only certain ways people can attack us in this defense, so some weeks, certain positions are going to have big weeks and visa versa.”
Over the past two games, the defensive line has tallied four sacks and the Bruins now have 24 total sacks on the season. That total is 10 more than the entire 2011 campaign.