Revamped UCLA defense will factor heavily in team's turnaround bid

PASADENA,, CALIF. - OCT. 5, 2019. UCL:A defenders Tyler Manoa, left, and Winston Polite.
UCLA's Tyler Manoa, left, and Winston Polite bring down Oregon State running back Nahshon Wright during a game at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 5, 2019. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Amid the one-liners and John Wooden references he unleashed as part of his opening remarks as UCLA’s coach, Chip Kelly quietly slipped in a sentence about what might decide his fate.

“I know for this team to be successful,” Kelly said on that joyous day in November 2017, “we have to be good on defense and that’s gotta be the foundation when you build your football team.”

No better explanation might exist for how Kelly’s teams have gone 7-17 over the last two seasons.

While UCLA’s offense hasn’t reminded anyone of the Oregon blur, producing only pockets of productivity, its defense has been historically bad.

UCLA ranked No. 102 out of 130 major college teams in total defense in 2018 before falling to No. 113 last season, when the Bruins gave up 456.2 yards per game and a school-record 3,729 passing yards for the season.

Kelly retained defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro but imported two new assistants who could help overhaul the team’s weaker half. Defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Brian Norwood has brought with him the 4-2-5 defense that helped Navy generate a school-record 11 wins in 2019, and defensive line coach Johnny Nansen has brought … the juice?

“His biggest line is, ‘Without your juice, you’re useless,’ ” defensive lineman Tyler Manoa said Saturday via Zoom after the Bruins completed their second day of training camp. “Juice, really, man, that’s just the main thing I’ve taken from him so far and him just pushing us to our limit and just encouraging us to get better every day.”

Manoa and his fellow defensive linemen have a lot more to squeeze out of themselves after generating only seven of the team’s 26 sacks last season. Among the linemen, Osa Odighizuwa led the way with 3½ sacks, followed by Odua Isibor’s 2½ and Otito Ogbonnia’s one.

Defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa participates in an agility drill during a team practice session in October 2019.
Defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa participates in an agility drill during a team practice session in October 2019. (Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Odighizuwa, a redshirt senior, could have skipped his final college season to prepare for the NFL draft but returned to improve his standing and his team’s fortunes. He watched as much game footage as he could while stuck at home during the early months of COVID-19 pandemic and tried to run informal practices, with little success.

“It was hard to organize workouts with guys when we are all back at home — well, impossible,” Odighizuwa said. “We were just making sure we are keeping each other accountable, sending videos of good technique, breaking it down, just trying to encourage people to stay working and the rest, when you’re back home, you know, it’s up to you.”

Manoa said he stayed in shape by finding whatever workout facilities were open near his home in the Bay Area, and with a little help from his canine friends.

“Taking my dogs on runs and walks,” Manoa said with a laugh.

The Bruins’ new defensive alignment is designed to confuse opposing quarterbacks while relying more on instinct than play recognition. Defensive fronts and coverages vary, with different defenders rushing the quarterback or dropping into pass coverage on each play.

“If we can displace the line of scrimmage, that’s going to help us out up front and just get pressure on the QB,” Manoa said, noting that sacks weren’t always necessary if the defense could generate batted balls and quarterback hurries.

Helping the Bruins in their pursuit will be Martin Andrus Jr., a redshirt junior defensive lineman who has returned from torn knee ligaments he suffered last season in warmups before UCLA’s game against Oregon State. Manoa mentioned freshman linebackers Damian Sellers, Myles Jackson and Choe Bryant-Strother as newcomers who could enhance the team’s pass rush.

Any assistance will be much appreciated given what’s happened with the defense the last two years.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.