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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Defensive line

Redshirt junior Grayson Murphy readies for a drill during practice. (Jon Christon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Gavin Carlson

Aug. 19, 2023 8:41 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 27 at 9:56 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before game day. Sports staff writer Gavin Carlson wraps up the defense by breaking down the defensive line.

Personnel

Arguably no UCLA football position group is bringing back more experience and production than the defensive line.

Thus, new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn can build his defense off a strong pass rush.

The Bruins recorded 28 sacks last season, and the players responsible for 22 of those are returning. The most notable departure is former outside linebacker Bo Calvert, but even he recorded just two sacks and ranked 17th in total tackles in 2022.

Now, senior Laiatu Latu headlines the position group after his reclassification from linebacker to defensive lineman.

Latu earned First Team All-Pac-12 honors and was one of three players named College Football Comeback Player of the Year after leading UCLA with 10.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in his first season back after medically retiring at Washington. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound rusher was named to the Bednarik Award Watch List for most outstanding defensive player in college football and will be expected to lead the team in sacks once again.

Redshirt senior Carl Jones Jr. joins Latu in shifting to the defensive line. At just 230 pounds, Jones’ position change is more intriguing.

The fifth-year Bruin has proven to be versatile – he recorded two sacks and an interception while playing all over the field last season. Jones can operate further away from the line of scrimmage because of his smaller frame and superior agility compared to the other names in this position group, making his final role undefined.

Returning to more conventional defensive linemen in the group, the twin redshirt junior duo of Gabriel and Grayson Murphy figure to have even greater roles than last season.

Grayson Murphy ranked second on UCLA in 2022 in both tackles for loss and sacks, with nine and five, respectively. Gabriel Murphy was more of an all-around defensive lineman than his twin – he had just 1.5 sacks, but his 38 tackles are more than any other returning defensive lineman.

Latu, Jones and the Murphy twins will play the lion’s share of the defensive end snaps, with redshirt senior Jake Heimlicher – who transferred from Pennsylvania – likely fifth in line on the depth chart.

On the inside of the defensive line, there’s a bit more uncertainty.

Former interior lineman Jacob Sykes and his 29 tackles in 2022 are gone, but junior Jay Toia and senior Gary Smith III bring their 48 combined tackles back to the Bruins for the upcoming season. At 325 pounds, Toia is the heaviest player on UCLA and figures to be the main man clogging up the middle when only one defensive tackle is on the field.

The most notable addition to the Bruins’ defensive line group is redshirt sophomore Keanu Williams. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound lineman transferred from Oregon after playing 113 snaps in six games for the Ducks.

Williams is a former four-star prospect who returns to California after attending Clovis High School. If he reaches the potential suggested by his high school ranking, Williams could push Smith for playing time inside.

Predictions

The defensive line should push to be the most productive position group on UCLA’s entire roster.

Many see Latu as a top-60 prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft and a leading candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. With that level of talent, the edge will either take games over himself or create opportunities for other linemen depending on the opposing offense’s blocking strategy.

Given all the attention placed on Latu, there’s no reason why both Murphy twins can’t increase their sack and tackle-for-loss numbers with their first season of Power Five football behind them. And with the stability those three linemen provide, Lynn can get creative with how he deploys the versatile and experienced Jones.

A solid linebacker core behind them means the Bruins’ pass-rushing talent should have significant freedom to focus on generating pressure. Expect UCLA’s 28 sacks in 2022 – which tied for 64th in the nation – to be bested this season.

The bigger question is how the Bruins will fare against the run.

UCLA ranked 35th in the nation last season by allowing 130.3 rushing yards per game. That figure was the fifth-best in the Pac-12 and significantly better than the Bruins’ pass defense, which ranked 117th in the country.

Stopping the run and generating pressure must continue to be the strength of UCLA’s defense in 2023. If Toia, Smith and Williams can hold things down inside, the Bruins’ defensive line can become the strength of an improved defense.

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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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