Spring notes: UCLA trending away from 3-4 base defense


– UCLA has run its nickel defense almost exclusively through the last couple of weeks of spring camp, something due partly to injuries but also to a bit of a schematic move away from the team’s 3-4 base.

The Bruins are deep in the secondary after returning all four starters from last season and getting a breakout performance from safety Tahaan Goodman. They are less so at outside linebacker, where the rotation currently consists of Myles Jack, Kenny Orjioke and Deon Hollins. Going into nickel alleviates that problem a bit, and also allows Jack to move behind the ball and flash his excellent pass coverage skills.

“I’m not going to put myself into this 4-2-5 world, or if I’m going to be a 3-4 guy,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “I’m going to let the players dictate where we go.”

At least one player likes the change.

“I hope we stay that way,” Hollins said. “We initially moved more nickel because we had a lot of injuries, but our nickel’s looking really salty.”

– Outside linebacker Kenny Orjioke looked good during one-on-one drills against running backs this morning. The rising junior defended three straight passes before giving up back-to-back catches to fullback Nate Iese — the latter of which was made over strong coverage by Orjioke.

A lot of UCLA’s defensive progression this year will depend on how he does in replacing All-American Anthony Barr, and so far, the spring returns have been promising.

Inside linebacker Jayon Brown also performed well during one-on-one drills, breaking up at least two passes. It’s not surprising he’s been good in coverage given that the Bruins briefly moved him to safety early last year.

Early enrollee Zach Whitley struggled a bit through the session. The four-star recruit failed to get his hands up at the end of several plays, and got beat by running back Steve Manfro on the same play twice. Ulbrich told Whitley to make sure to “finish” every time.

– UCLA had its shortest practice yet this spring, with Wednesday’s morning practice ending after about 90 minutes. The Bruins seem to be in full injury-prevention mode in hopes of holding a real spring game at the StubHub Center on Saturday, and that resulted in a lot of mixing and matching on the offensive line.

Starting left tackle Caleb Benenoch, who hyperextended his knee early last week, was held out of most of the session after practicing in full his last few outings. Redshirt freshman Kenny Lacy got a lot of the first-string reps there, while John Lopez — who seems to be over his recent illness — got backup action.

Graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche played both right guard and right tackle depending on what combination the Bruins used. Head coach Jim Mora said earlier this week said the team is still trying to find the right fit for him, adding that the former Miami starter looked more natural at guard.

– One fun play this morning: Running back Ahmaad Harris took a swing pass in the backfield and tossed a 25-yard touchdown to Devin Lucien. The throw wobbled in the air on a high arc, but no one was near Lucien to contest it.

– A note for anyone hoping to attend the last spring practice at Spaulding Field: Thursday’s session will start at 7 a.m., not 4:30 p.m. as originally scheduled.

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