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UCLA football looks to revamp pass defense with Bill McGovern at helm

UCLA football defensive coordinator Bill McGovern stands at a practice. McGovern will lead a new-look defensive coaching staff for the Bruins in 2022. (August Suchecki/Daily Bruin)

By Gavin Carlson

Aug. 18, 2022 12:41 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 21 at 9:29 p.m.

After his team ranked near the bottom of the country in passing defense last season, coach Chip Kelly has a clear message for 2022.

“We need to do a better job in pass defense,” Kelly said.

UCLA football’s defense, led by then-defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, ranked 107th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game in 2021, giving up 260.2 passing yards per contest.

Despite UCLA having a top-12 scoring offense in the country, the Bruins’ 74th-ranked scoring defense in the nation certainly played a role in the blue and gold’s absence from the final AP Top 25 poll of the season.

Azzinaro’s secondary famously let Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener – playing hurt – torch them for 455 yards and lead the Bulldogs on a 75-yard game-winning drive in 40 seconds.

Two games later, Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels totaled 331 yards as the Sun Devils dropped 42 points on the Bruins in a blowout win at the Rose Bowl.

Then, Oregon and Utah scored a combined 78 points in back-to-back games against Azzinaro’s unit to essentially end any hopes of a Pac-12 title game appearance for the Bruins.

Despite his friendship with Kelly, Azzinaro resigned in January after four seasons in Westwood.

Now there are new faces leading the defense in 2022, as recently hired defensive coordinator Bill McGovern and inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. possess a level of professional coaching experience that Kelly said he hoped to bring to his program.

“Just through our research, we wanted to get some NFL-style (coaching), bringing both him (McGovern) and Ken in here,” Kelly said. “Obviously, I think we’ve done a really good job against the run. … Some of the principles that Billy and Ken have and pass rush schemes is kind of what we were looking for.”

Statistically, the Bruins were better against the run last season, as the defensive unit ranked 23rd in opposing rush yards allowed per game. But this is partially because of their high-scoring offense resulting in the fourth-lowest opposing rushing play percentage in the country at 45.6%.

UCLA’s 3.8 opposing yards per rush – which ranked 34th nationally – could arguably be a more accurate measure of the overall strength of the blue and gold’s run defense.

Either way, the run defense was better than the pass defense, Kelly said, and it’s why the new staff was brought in.

When discussing how pass defense has evolved in the modern game, McGovern said having schematic versatility is key.

“In football today, you have to be multiple. You can’t live just in man. You can’t live just in a straight zone,” McGovern said. “You’re going to have to have what we call tools in different coverages to help with different routes, so we’re kind of putting those in, and the guys are getting a hang of that. We’re running a complete defensive package.”

While the primary focus may be the secondary, that promise of defensive versatility will exist in the front seven too, according to the players.

In fact, incoming transfer and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Grayson Murphy said it’s one of the reasons he and his twin brother – fellow redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Gabriel Murphy – decided to come to Westwood.

“They’re moving us across the whole defensive line, whether it be nose, three, five, nine, seven,” Grayson Murphy said. “That’s one of the reasons we came to UCLA is the versatility that they offered to us.”

The Murphy twins committed to UCLA after they each played three seasons for North Texas. The brothers entered the transfer portal Jan. 27 and committed to join the Bruins on March 7.

The Murphys are two of the seven defensive players UCLA added to its roster via the transfer portal.

With new additions to the roster and a new defensive coaching staff, there’s reason to expect a different defensive look in 2022 for the Bruins.

The unit’s new leader said he’s been satisfied thus far.

“All the guys have been dynamite,” McGovern said, “(We’re) just trying to pick each other’s brains, trying to get better and give our kids the best chance.”

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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