Last season showed UCLA football why depth is important.
In back-to-back games at the start of October, the Bruins lost then-redshirt sophomore starting right tackle Kolton Miller and then-sophomore starting quarterback Josh Rosen to season-ending surgeries.
That injury trend continued into the start of this season, with redshirt senior offensive lineman Kenny Lacy the victim.
“The other day that Kenny had an injection so he could get an MRI, and it showed some structural damage to his hips,” said coach Jim Mora. “He’s going to have surgery, which will end his season.”
In the last week of fall camp, Lacy was working with the second-team offensive line, and his role was likely to be the first lineman off the bench who could fill in at either right guard or right tackle.
But without Lacy, the offensive line depth gets thinner. The only backups with game experience are redshirt sophomore Josh Wariboko-Alali, redshirt senior Poasi Moala and graduate transfer Sunny Odogwu, who started the first five games at right tackle for Miami last season but missed the rest of the year with an injury.
Another area which the unranked Bruins lack depth is at middle linebacker, where sophomore Lokeni Toailoa earned the starting role the first week of fall practice, and redshirt freshman Mique Juarez is the backup. Neither has game experience at the position, but Toailoa said he worked on his body weight and athleticism to become a three-down player.
“The difference is mainly in coverage, that was my biggest red flag, the biggest thing (linebackers coach Scott White) wanted me to work on – my body composition, so I could perform better in coverage so when I’m in space,” Toailoa said. “When I got here, my weight was kind of on the plus side, but I lost a few pounds, gained a little bit of muscle.”
Even with a first-time starter in the middle of the defense, UCLA’s depth at other positions should be a source of strength.
UCLA’s defensive line sees a return of six players who saw action in at least eight games, led by seniors Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson, who are the front-runners to start at defensive end and three-technique, respectively. Those experienced players combined with newcomers such as freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa means the Bruins can comfortably go two-deep at each position.
“I’ve been saying since last year, Osa and (redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Chigozie Nnoruka) should have been playing,” said sophomore nose tackle Boss Tagaloa. “We have a lot of guys who didn’t get to play last year, but are really good players coming off the bench.”
The offensive backfield brings back a similar level of depth and experience, with the same group of running backs as last season. Junior Bolu Olorunfunmi took the majority of the first-team reps during fall camp, but junior Soso Jamabo, senior Nate Starks and sophomore Jalen Starks will also see game action.
UCLA’s receiver corps also returned proven talent in redshirt junior Jordan Lasley and redshirt seniors Darren Andrews and Eldridge Massington, but several other players rose up the depth chart over the offseason.
Sophomore wideout Theo Howard, who only caught 12 passes in eight games as a freshman, showed off his speed, jumping ability and crisp route running throughout fall camp and all but locked up a spot in the starting lineup.
But arguably the most impressive leap through the depth chart belongs to redshirt junior walk-on receiver Christian Pabico, who progressed from last year’s scout team to being on track to start week one against Texas A&M. Pabico was one of the most consistent performers during fall camp and one of the only wideouts who did well against freshman cornerback Darnay Holmes in one-on-one and team drills.
On the other side of the ball, the secondary will feature senior Jaleel Wadood and redshirt junior Adarius Pickett at the safety positions, with junior Nate Meadors receiving most of the first team reps at left cornerback during the latter half of fall camp. Junior Octavius Spencer will likely fill in at safety if Wadood transitions to cornerback in nickel packages, while Holmes and redshirt junior Denzel Fisher compete for the starting spot at right cornerback.
That combination of experience, depth and flexibility is the primary reason why Spencer believes UCLA’s defense won’t drop a beat despite losing six starters.
“We’re working well, we’re getting the chemistry together on the back end, trying to work our tails off and get ready for the first game,” Spencer said. “This defense could become one of the best defenses that has come from here.”