Monday, January 27

Arizona State’s wide receivers provide latest challenge for UCLA secondary

Sophomore defensive back Quentin Lake is the only member of UCLA football's starting secondary that measures in at over six feet tall. The Bruins will be tasked with guarding 6-foot-4-inch receiver N'keal Harry against Arizona State on Saturday. (Michael Zshornack/Daily Bruin senior staff)


Arizona State
Saturday, 11 a.m.

Tempe, Arizona
Pac-12 Networks

CeeDee Lamb lit up UCLA’s defense for seven catches, 146 yards and a touchdown. Laviska Shenault tore up the Bruins for 12 catches, 126 yards, and two combined touchdowns. Dillon Mitchell burned defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s scheme for eight catches, 156 yards and two scores.

N’Keal Harry might be better than all of them.

Coming off a 161-yard, three-touchdown performance against Utah, the 6-foot-4 wide receiver will be the next challenge for UCLA’s secondary, as the Bruins (2-7, 2-4 Pac-12) take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday in Tempe, Arizona.

“He’s a really difficult matchup because not only is he athletic, he’s the biggest guy we’re going to play,” said coach Chip Kelly. “He can dominate in one-on-one coverage because even if he’s covered, he can still go make a play. He’s got really good speed for a guy that size and he’s got tremendous ball skills.”

UCLA’s tallest starter in the secondary is sophomore safety Quentin Lake, who’s still 4 inches shorter than Harry. Neither starting cornerback breaks the 6-foot barrier.

But the Bruins also can’t sleep on Eno Benjamin, Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded Pac-12 running back so far this season.

Benjamin leads the conference with an average of 123.7 rushing yards per game and is tied for second with 11 rushing touchdowns.

“They’re a good offensive line, typical Pac-12 offensive line,” said freshman nose tackle Atonio Mafi. “(Benjamin’s) pretty good, he’s really shifty, keeps his balance and he spins a lot.”

Mafi is one of three freshman in the defensive line rotation, but none of them have registered a sack yet. UCLA’s entire defense has only recorded one sack in its past three games, and the lack of penetration has coincided with its previous three opponents averaging 271 yards on the ground.

“In high school, bull rush was easy, that was my go-to,” Mafi said. “But in college, everyone’s the same size, everyone’s been in the program and is more experienced, so bull rushing isn’t going to work as well. I just need to work on my finesse moves.”

The Bruins’ offense may be forced to keep up in a high-scoring affair, but Kelly hasn’t announced his starting quarterback after graduate transfer Wilton Speight replaced injured freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson on Saturday.

Speight led the offense down the field on his first three drives – UCLA scored two touchdowns and botched a field goal attempt after a high snap.

Thompson-Robinson returned to practice this week but was ineffective against Oregon on Saturday, completing only 9-of-23 passes for 135 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Whoever starts at quarterback will likely continue relying on running back Joshua Kelley. The redshirt junior racked up a career-high 161 yards against the Ducks and has scored a touchdown in five straight games.

Adding in his 23 receptions for 162 yards, Kelley has accounted for 30 percent of UCLA’s total yards.

“He’s not really like a shake-you kind of guy, he’s just straight, one-cut downhill – he’s aggressive,” said junior center Boss Tagaloa. “he’s breaking the first tackle all the time. So it makes our (offensive line) look better, too.”

Arizona State’s defense has allowed an average of 158.7 rushing yards per game but has recorded 24 sacks under a blitz-heavy scheme.

It will be up to Tagaloa to identify the Sun Devils’ various looks.

“They’re a 3-3 stack team with linebackers that are coming from all different angles, defensive backs that are coming from all different angles, they’re bringing pressure I think almost 75 percent of the time,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be a tall task for us to make sure we know where everybody is.”

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Senior staff

Wang is a Daily Bruin senior staffer on the football and men's basketball beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor for the men's tennis, women's tennis and women's soccer beats. Wang was previously a reporter for the men's tennis beat.

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