Sunday, January 26

Football focuses on developing defense entering Pac-12 play after Oklahoma loss

UCLA redshirt senior linebacker Josh Woods will be returning to Pullman, Washington, for the first time since he last saw late Washington State quarterback – and his high school teammate – Tyler Hilinski. (Liz Ketcham/Photo editor)

The Bruins faced one of the best offenses in the country last week.

UCLA’s defense gave up 611 total yards, including 302 through the air in its 48-14 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma. Through its first three games, Oklahoma ranks first in yards per game, first in yards per play and second in points per game.

And the Bruin defense hasn’t put up much resistance to opponents’ offenses, ranking outside the top 100 in the FBS in yards against per game, yards against per play and points against per game.

However, redshirt senior linebacker Josh Woods said playing a team like Oklahoma will help the Bruin defense for this week’s opponent – Washington State – and the rest of their schedule going forward.

“I think that prepared us for the whole year,” Woods said. “Seeing such a powerful offense with an O-line like that, running backs, a quarterback that could potentially win the Heisman and great receivers, I think that prepared us for the rest of the year.”

After losing all three nonconference games for the second-straight season, sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said the team was looking to start over with a new record going into conference play.

“We’re playing for a conference title and a Pac-12 championship,” Thompson-Robinson said. “That’s how we’re pretty much looking at it, we’re going into conference play now, so our mindset going in, the record’s 0-0.”

Last season, the Bruins found some of their stride in Pac-12 play. After losing its three nonconference games to teams with an eventual combined record of 35-6 in 2018, UCLA went 3-6 in conference play, including wins over rivals USC and California.

Coach Chip Kelly said progress comes slowly for young players like the 87 underclassmen on UCLA, but conference play gives them time to grow over the course of a long season.

“The problem with a young team is that people want it to (grow) from one day to the next day and that’s not very feasible,” Kelly said. “I think that’s the unfortunate part when you’re playing sports, it’s not going to be from one game to the next, it may be over the course of a season. I watched our team last year and we were better at the end of the year than we were at the beginning of the year.”

And a key player for the Bruin defense could return in time for the start of Pac-12 play.

Linebacker Keisean Lucier-South has returned to practice this week after missing the first three games due to academic suspension.

The redshirt senior led the Bruin defense last season with 4 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, as well as a 38-yard scoop-and-score in UCLA’s 37-7 defeat of California.

Woods didn’t give any indication of Lucier-South’s chances of playing – instead deferring to Kelly – but said Lucier-South looked fit to play this week.

“(Lucier-South looks) really good – explosive, hungry,” Woods said. “You could tell he missed the game and he’s wanted to be out here since day one. Even when he couldn’t practice with us, he was helping younger guys on the side, giving them tips and stuff like that throughout the week.”

Remembering Hilinski

Near the end of July, the parents of the late Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski visited the UCLA football team.

They spoke on behalf of Hilinski’s Hope, a foundation dedicated to ending the stigma of talking about mental health among student-athletes. One member of the audience had a special connection to the talk.

Woods was a high school teammate and close friend of Hilinski’s and, after Hilinski died by suicide, Woods worked to promote the mental health and wellness of athletes.

At practice Wednesday, Woods said going to Washington State without Hilinski there will be a special experience for him.

“Pullman will always have a special place in my heart because of (Hilinski),” Woods said. “This is my first time being there in a few years since I saw Tyler there, but Pullman will always have a special place in my heart because of (Hilinski).”

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Assistant Sports editor

Maikis is currently the assistant Sports editor for the women's tennis, men's volleyball, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the men's tennis beat.

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