SAN BERNARDINO — In figuring out how UCLA will replace its top three sack leaders from a year ago – Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham – it helps to start up front.
The strength of this year’s Bruins defense – both literally and figuratively – may be found in the trenches. There, the team has three starters – redshirt senior defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, sophomore nose tackle Kenny Clark and sophomore defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes – whom coach Jim Mora believes to be integral to what UCLA plans to do defensively.
“When you get Kenny in there and you get Eddie in there and you get Owa in there and (junior nose tackle) Ellis (McCarthy), you’ve got some big strong … guys that can do some things,” Mora said.
It starts with Odighizuwa, who the team expects to help make up for the pass rushing void left by Barr and company, by rushing the quarterback off of the edge in both the team’s base 3-4 and nickel packages. Though the defensive lineman hasn’t played since the 2012 Holiday Bowl, he has drawn praise from just about anyone wearing blue and gold, including the man who lines up opposite him on the defense.
“There’s people and then there’s Owa, you got humans and then there’s Owa. You look at him and he’s just like a physical specimen. … He’s just a monster,” Vanderdoes said. “He looks like he should be in NFL right now, so I’m really exicted to play next to Owa. That’s going to help a bunch, playing next to him.”
The trouble for UCLA however, has been getting them all on the field. Odighizuwa missed the entirety of last season after sustaining a hip injury and Vanderdoes missed spring camp with a foot injury – making this week the first time the trio of Clark, Vanderdoes and Odighizuwa has taken the field together.
So far, Mora has come away pleased with the results, as he praised the versatility the group offers, calling them an “ideal” fit for the defense.
Another reason the Bruins are optimistic about their defensive line – other than the so far clean bill of health – is the scheme being implemented by first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Under Ulbrich, Vanderdoes has moved from playing as a 4-I defensive end, which lines up facing the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle, to a 3-technique, which lines up facing the outside shoulder of the opposing offense’s guard. Vanderdoes welcomed the change, saying that it is a more natural fit for him.
“It was a big adjustment for me (playing the 4-I last year), ’cause my whole life I’ve been a 3-technique, I’m used to exploding off the ball, and attacking,” he said. “With the new defense this year that (Ulbrich) has put in for us, it’s a lot more natural. I can be a lot more violent, I can be a lot more explosive, I can use my strength to my full power.”
A startling thought for opposing offenses, as Vanderdoes was already a first-team Freshman All-American and an honorable mention All-Conference defensive lineman last year. To add to Vanderdoes’ increased comfortability in Ulbrich’s new system, he also said that he is now 100 percent healthy and added that the flow of the game has slowed down for him.
Clark too, is looking to build off a strong freshman campaign. The sophomore nose tackle, who redshirt junior center Jake Brendel called the “toughst player” he’s ever faced, also drew praise from Mora as a dependable and consistent player who has improved his pass rushing technique from a year ago.
With a fit and talented group up front, Clark believes that the defensive line can have a far-reaching impact for the Bruins
“We’re going to let it loose. Our whole defensive line is athletic, we’re just going to let it loose, and go as hard as we can every day,” Clark said. “Produce sacks, produce tackles for loss, and just try and put our team on our back and put ourselves in the right position for our linebackers to make plays and our DBs to make plays.”