2020 UCLA Football Season Preview: Defensive line will likely get boost from coach Brian Norwood
UCLA football will have a new defensive system in 2020, thanks to incoming coach Brian Norwood. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Sam Connon
Oct. 22, 2020 5:28 p.m.
UCLA football finally has a schedule for its 2020 season, so Sports editor Jack Perez and senior staff writer Sam Connon 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. Next up – the defensive line.
The Bruins lost a big body on the interior, but the defensive line returns most of the same faces in 2020.
Junior Atonio Mafi made the switch from defensive tackle to offensive lineman early in the offseason, meaning his 355-pound frame won’t be around to plug up holes in the running game anymore.
Still, redshirt senior Osa Odighizuwa is back with NFL Draft aspirations, while junior Tyler Manoa, redshirt junior Odua Isibor and junior Otito Ogbonnia are set to rotate for the remaining snaps as the second defensive tackle. Redshirt junior Martin Andrus Jr. is still fighting back from a torn ACL that cost him all but three games in 2019, but his breakout 2018 season with 2.5 tackles for loss proves that he still has a spot in the rotation when healthy.
Things are a little thinner on the outside, as senior Datona Jackson and redshirt senior Steven Mason are the only two returning defensive ends with any kind of in-game experience. The pair of transfers combined for 12 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and zero sacks in 2019, but their age makes them viable options early on in the season.
A lack of depth at defensive end could mean younger players and a handful of pass-rushing linebackers get a shot to make plays up front, such as redshirt freshman Hayden Harris, freshman Jay Max Jacobsen and freshman Myles Jackson. The latter two were primarily weakside defensive ends coming out of high school, so their skillsets should give them decent upside as part of the Bruins’ depth chart.
Brian Norwood may be the defensive backs coach, but his fingerprints will be all over the entire defense.
Norwood consistently ran a 4-2-5 defense while he was the defensive coordinator at Navy in 2019. Instead of running with four down-linemen as is the case in a standard 4-3, Norwood’s 4-2-5 has a Raider come in as one of the ends.
That Raider position is an outside linebacker-defensive end hybrid role with the dual-responsibility of setting the edge and covering the flat. The position is key in slowing down spread offenses, which is exactly what Norwood did when he turned Kansas State’s defense from the worst in the Big 12 against the pass in 2017 to fourth in the conference in 2018.
While redshirt junior Mitchell Agude is officially listed as a linebacker, he is poised to be the Bruins’ starting Raider and spend a good amount of time on the line. Agude was the No. 2-ranked weakside defensive end to make the leap from junior college to Division I last offseason, and he has the combination of pass rush instincts and athleticism to be a prototypical Raider for Norwood from day one.
Odighizuwa started the 2019 season as a defensive end but played more on the inside as the year went along. Expect more of the same in 2020, as Odighizuwa saw his tackles, tackles for loss and sacks all increase compared to 2018.
Creating pressure on the interior wasn’t enough for UCLA in 2019, however, as most of the sacks came from the linebackers for the second year in a row. The result was 310.8 passing yards against per game on the season – good for 129th out of 130 teams in the country – and 43 points allowed per game in the final three weeks of conference play.
With the change in scheme, Odighizuwa and Manoa may get better matchups and create a little more disruption in the pocket and on the ground. Opposing quarterbacks won’t be able to get rid of the ball as quickly as they did a year ago, since the Bruins have been practicing with their defensive backs pressed up on the line so far in fall camp, according to several players.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro drew a lot of criticism over the past two years for giving too much of a cushion to receivers on the outside, and that seems to have changed in 2020.
Add in the Raider’s role in the pass rush and coverage, and the Bruins’ defensive line has the potential to make a lot more plays, despite a very similar pool of talent.
Just as a result of the nature of the new defensive formation and newfound aggression outside the numbers, UCLA’s defensive line is set to see a statistical boost in 2020.
Odighizuwa has improved his stats in each of his three seasons in Westwood, and while a shortened season makes it unlikely he will do it again, he should do enough to warrant going in the middle rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. Odighizuwa has racked up 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in his last 23 games for the Bruins, and he could easily approach seven tackles for loss and four sacks in seven games this time around.
Projecting snap counts for Manoa, Isibor, Jackson, Andrus and Mason – who is currently quarantined because of COVID-19 contact tracing – is a difficult task, since their ability to rotate and fill in for each other makes it more of a group effort than an individual one.
Defensive linemen not named Odighizuwa combined for 4.5 of UCLA’s 27 sacks in 2019, but that number will likely go up in 2020.
Part of that can be attributed to the fact that the Pac-12 has fewer experienced quarterbacks with less refined pocket presences this year, with Steven Montez, Justin Herbert, Tyler Huntley, Jacob Eason, Jake Luton and Anthony Gordon all gone.
Azzinaro won’t be able to rely on a stable of five veteran linebackers to break into the pocket this season, meaning the defensive line and Raider will play a much larger role in both getting to the quarterback and plugging up running lanes.
Norwood and his signature formation have a lot to do with that, and it will shine a light on just how effective the Bruins’ defensive linemen can be in a vacuum.