Maybe it’s the flowing brown hair or the familiar No. 43, maybe it’s because he’s thinned out as part of a switch from defensive end to hybrid end/linebacker or maybe it’s because he’s been so active on the field, but UCLA linebacker Damien Holmes is bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Pittsburgh Steelers safety these days.
The redshirt senior, who has started 20 games at defensive end the past two seasons, is leaner and meaner and the new coaching staff is tuning in.
“I didn’t know him last year, but I know him this year, and he just looks good,” UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. “A lot of these guys have done a lot of hard work to transform their bodies.”
Holmes credits new strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi for the change, as the former long-time NFL coach brought in a workmanlike attitude to the winter training program. Holmes only lost roughly 12 pounds from his playing weight, but he is less top-heavy and much leaner in the midsection.
That should serve him well in his new role, as much will be expected of him in pass coverage. Mora said Holmes will play the hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot that has become so productive in the NFL, with players switching back and forth from the line.
“It’s not necessarily a blind transition,” Holmes said. “I have a little bit to fall back on. But with the coaching staff we have, I have complete confidence in what I’m going to do Saturdays because of what I’ve been taught.”
Holmes efforts have been rewarded, as he’s played extensively with the first unit, which is not a surprise as he started all 14 games last season, finishing with 32 tackes and seven tackles-for-loss.
And they have not gone unnoticed.
“Damien is to me what we want this entire program to look like,” UCLA linebackers and special teams coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “Without a doubt. He knows one way, and every single guy on this team knows he knows one way, and that’s full speed. How physical he is, his effort, his attitude, the way he prepares is unbelievable. For a guy who has never played linebacker, he knows every run fit now, every pass drop.”