In the final four weeks leading up to the kickoff of UCLA football’s 2019 season, Sports editor Sam Connon and staff writer Jack Perez will be taking a look at the Bruins’ outlook at each position. From award favorites to comeback stories, Daily Bruin Sports will analyze each position’s depth chart and make predictions for how their seasons could unfold. Now it’s onto the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line.
The Bruins’ defensive line could not break into the backfield in 2018.
The team’s 15 sacks last season were tied for 118th out of 129 Division-I programs, and only five of those came from defensive linemen. UCLA ranked 122nd in stuff rate – the percentage of nonsack carries that are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage – and 126th in sack rate – the percentage of pass attempts that result in sacks.
Rick Wade graduated and Chigozie Nnoruka transferred to Miami, leaving coach Chip Kelly with his young core of lineman and their four combined sacks to work with this season.
Redshirt junior Osa Odighizuwa is the leading pass rusher returning to UCLA’s front lines this fall. He picked up three sacks in 11 games of action in 2018 and has tallied 11.5 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons.
Odighizuwa will line up on the edge beside sophomore nose tackle Atonio Mafi, who has cut nearly 50 pounds over the past year. Mafi and fellow sophomores Otito Ogbonnia and Tyler Manoa all project to get significant playing time in their second years in Westwood.
Redshirt sophomore Odua Isibor and junior Martin Andrus Jr. are set to make more of an impact in the rotation as well – with Isibor being the only freshman to record a sack for UCLA last season.
Freshman defensive tackle Siale Liku was UCLA’s top-ranked defensive line commit, a 337-pound, three-star prospect, who will likely be stuck behind Mafi and Andrus in the interior rotation. Three-star junior transfer Datona Jackson racked up 10 sacks for the College of the Desert in 2018, but with the Bruins bevy of young depth, he could follow a similar path to Steven Mason, who redshirted his junior season in 2018 after transferring from Southwestern College.
The Bruins have a history of producing talent at the linebacker position, but to put together a more disruptive defense in 2019, a fearsome defensive line is integral.
The bulk of the Bruins’ pass rush will come from the linebacker position, depending on defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s balance of 3-4, 4-3 and 5-2 defensive formations.
With five guys on the line, Odighizuwa, Mafi, Andrus, Manoa and redshirt senior linebacker Keisean Lucier-South – when he returns from his academic suspension – could be a go-to lineup later in the season.
Lucier-South, senior Lokeni Toailoa and his brother redshirt junior Leni Toailoa are all listed as linebackers on the roster, but they could spend solid time on the outside of the line, either as pass rushers or route-stuffers. Sophomore Elijah Wade was a defensive lineman last season but made the change to outside linebacker in the offseason, and he could still be lined up on the line of scrimmage in goal-line scenarios.
Azzinaro’s defense is more active and fluid than past Bruin signal-callers, and although he typically strays away from a static 4-3 set, he will often stack the line with linebackers and dual-threat Bruins.
Mafi’s trimmed-down physique should help him gain more lateral agility and athleticism, and balancing his playing time with Andrus up the middle could prove effective in clogging up the inside rushing lanes.
With the interior blocked up, the Bruins’ outside pass rush needs to flourish in order for the team to take a step forward in Kelly and Azzinaro’s second seasons.
With no new additions, don’t expect the Bruins to become world-breakers on the defensive line.
That isn’t to say there won’t be improvement – with so few major losses in the front seven, it will be difficult for the Bruins to drop below their spots in the 2018 rankings. A unit consisting of eight underclassmen could not get into the backfield in 2018, but with 12 months of additional training and time to get acclimated to Azzinaro’s coaching style, they will at least be more physically ready in 2019.
The Bruins won’t be as lackluster in the pass rush as they were in 2018, but it could still be one of the team’s weakest links. Odighizuwa, Isibor and Manoa will be Azzinaro’s most productive returners, and the unit’s ability to make a leap forward is dependent on their improvement on the field and on the sidelines.
Last season was the first time since 2011 that UCLA failed to have a defensive lineman with over five sacks, and that surely won’t happen again in 2019. As a team, their sack totals could easily double, placing them somewhere around the top 60 in the country.
Breaking into the backfield – whether it is the rushing or passing game – is a must for the Bruins this season, just as it is for any other team. Disrupting momentum on the ground, giving defensive backs time to get back in coverage and rushing the opponent into poorly thought out throws all falls on the shoulders of the defensive line.
UCLA will be better on those fronts than it was in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether that will translate to wins and sacks in Azzinaro’s second year.