Chip Kelly brings a level of excitement to a program — his offensive system has proven to work in college, after all — but a big reason for UCLA Football‘s 6-7 record last season was the defense. A common theme from the Jim Mora era was talent that didn’t quite get it done at UCLA. Some under-performed, some couldn’t get comfortable in their role and some just got injured, but many went on to the NFL still. Last year the disappointment came to a head and led to his dismissal — they ranked 118th in the FBS by allowing over 36 points per game (Editor’s note: *uncontrollable laughing at UCLA’s expense*). The 476 points they gave up all year (Editor’s note: *continued uncontrollable laughter* Hoo man sorry, I just — oh baby that’s bad — sorry, continue) was only better than the 1-11 Oregon State Beavers in the conference, a far cry from this time last year when they were expected to contend for a league title. Do they have the playmakers to improve their defense to contend for a Pac-12 Championship? Let’s look at each position group.
The defensive line is a group that Mora recruited especially well — ironic, given the Bruins’ horrific struggles up front especially against the run game. Kelly inherits multiple highly-touted lineman, including five-star edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, despite his current wrist injury. There are also multiple other top-300 prospects across this line returning to compliment a solid top-20 recruiting class. Look for all of the incoming freshman to challenge for playing time early along the line, including DE Elijah Wade and, flanking as a potential pass-rushing OLB, Bo Calvert. While it’s not usually a great sign to have true freshmen playing a lot on either line, the Bruins at least can know that they don’t lack talent, even if it’s raw.
Also unfortunately for the trenches, returning DT Boss Tagaloa — who as a recruit had a .948 composite ranking and, in his first two seasons at UCLA, looked every bit the cannonball gap-stuffer that could anchor the line — has been moved to center due to Mora’s neglect of the offensive line and a lack of depth that makes “rebuilding” look like the understatement of the afternoon, although an analysis of that side of the ball is for another article.
Besides the aforementioned OLB Calvert, the Bruins have only one incoming LB in this class, but Tyree Thompson is a Juco transfer who can potentially contribute right away. They also only lost one major contributor, albeit their biggest contributor in Kenny Young, but another year of progression could help this group. Many freshman came in last year and were forced into playing time by injury which can only be beneficial moving forward. Keisean Lucier-South was a five-star defensive end coming into college, but last year he started to transition to outside linebacker. In his first full season there after a proper offseason to prepare, he should showcase his athleticism and be a real force for the Bruins.
This group is littered with players returning from injury who will be vital to UCLAs success. Mique Juarez was a key part of this linebacking corps who missed the end of last season – his return could stabilize the rotation and provide quality depth. Josh Woods is in that group as well, as a borderline starter who missed time last year. If he returns healthy, it would be another capable body that could steady the ship, adding experience and talent.
For a second straight year, the Bruins lose their biggest secondary piece as Jaleel Wadood was drafted this past April but they do return a very strong group. Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors return for their final seasons, as well as Octavius Spencer. Darnay Holmes was a lauded prospect and led the team as a true freshman with three interceptions. He should start every game this year and continue to improve into a real headache for opponents. Four-star athlete Bryan Addison could play some in the defensive backfield as well. He has the speed to cover while also being unafraid to come downhill and make a tackle. His versatility could turn him into a big weapon for this UCLA defense.
As the Bruins prepare for the 2018 season, they know that it will take improvements defensively to challenge for that elusive Pac-12 Championship. While a coaching transition always seems to mess with the upcoming season no matter the lopsided talent that’s left behind, at least UCLA and Kelly have the comfort of actually having talent to utilize (unlike, say, the new coaches at Oregon State). It’s up to the new coaching staff to finally get the most out of the available talent on the roster. If they can stay healthy, the talent is there with playmakers on every level.