Saturday, March 28

UCLA football’s season-ending injuries hinder defensive flexibility

The loss of junior linebacker Myles Jack could reduce the complexity and versatility of UCLA's 3-4 defense. (Max Himmelrich/Daily Bruin staff)

The UCLA defense will look a lot different this weekend; maybe not in formation or style, but certainly in personnel.

Gone are two key starters – junior linebacker Myles Jack and senior cornerback Fabian Moreau – to season-ending injuries. Both allowed the Bruins to do certain things defensively that they can’t do now.

First, Jack was the most versatile player on the UCLA defense. He can play inside or outside linebacker and look like a veteran at either position. He attacks the ball as well as anyone on the team.

But what is perhaps Jack’s most valuable trait as a linebacker is his strength in man-to-man pass coverage.

Against a pass-happy BYU team last week, Jack was asked to guard tall, physical slot receivers on multiple plays. He did about as well as any linebacker could do in that role.

By game’s end, Jack was targeted eight times in one-on-one man coverage. Only three of those targets resulted in receptions by BYU receivers, and those three catches added up to just eight yards for the Cougars.

With Jack gone, UCLA may need to bring redshirt junior safety Randall Goforth into man coverage on slot receivers a little bit more. Goforth got some experience in that role against BYU, after Moreau went out of the game with a foot injury. He did well – allowing just one catch on five targets.

But Goforth – standing at 5 feet 10 inches and 190 pounds – can’t replace Jack’s physicality in press coverage situations. And none of the other UCLA linebackers can replicate Jack’s speed and agility against the pass.

Overall, Jack was a key asset in defensive coordinator Tom Bradley’s defense because he allowed Bradley to do exactly what he wanted: mix things up.

“Depending on who we play, I feel like we need to be ready to have a lot of tools in our package – we just have to have it.” Bradley said during fall camp. “We can’t just be a one-trick pony.”

With Jack, Bradley was able to have that versatility. Now, he will have to play with some more limitations because of the personnel losses he’s recently sustained.

The limitations were evident even in the BYU game. Once Moreau checked out with his foot injury, the Bruins basically abandoned press coverage for the rest of the game at the left cornerback position. Redshirt freshman Denzel Fisher, Moreau’s replacement at left corner, stood about seven yards off the line of scrimmage on almost every play he was in.

In all likelihood, the Bruins will be even more loose in coverage now that Jack is gone for the year. Jack’s most viable replacement, junior linebacker Jayon Brown, used to play safety in his freshman year, but now his strength appears to be in run coverage. Against BYU, Brown excelled with tackling running backs and closing gaps, but he was beat a couple times in pass coverage. Brown was targeted three times and allowed two catches for a total of 24 yards against BYU.

In addition to Brown, junior linebackers Isaako Savaiinaea and Cameron Judge could start to see increased reps as well. Savaiinaea is technically the backup to sophomore inside linebacker Kenny Young at “Mike” linebacker, but the Bruins could potentially switch Savaiinaea to Jack’s position as a way of maximizing the talent on the field. Against BYU, Savaiinaea stepped in for an ejected Young and led the UCLA defense with 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Compiled by Matthew Joye, Bruin Sports senior staff.

Sports senior staff

Joye is a senior staff Sports writer, currently covering UCLA football, men's basketball and baseball. Previously, Joye served as an assistant Sports editor in the 2014-2015 school year, and as the UCLA softball beat writer for the 2014 season.

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