UCLA post-spring position outlook: Defensive line

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. Over the next week, this blog will cover each of the Bruins’ position groups. Next up …

Defensive line

The star power is there. Just look at Owamagbe Odighizuwa, the former five-star recruit who doesn’t look like he’s missed a step after hip surgeries. Or Eddie Vanderdoes, another five-star defensive end who more than lived up to the billing as a Freshman All-American. Or Kenny Clark, the mammoth nose tackle whom defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich already called one of the team’s best players.

The unit’s only significant loss was defensive end Cassius Marsh, who finished second on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and even chipped in a two-yard touchdown catch. Tackle Seali’i Epenesa and sack specialist Keenan Graham also graduated, but both saw their roles dwindle to varying degrees toward the end of the season.

What’s less clear is how all these pieces might be deployed. Former defensive coordinator Lou Spanks was stuck more or less to a 3-4 base over two seasons, though mixed in an increasing amount of nickel last fall. Through most of spring, however, the Bruins trended toward a 4-2-5 look that it used exclusively at the April 26 spring game.

Usually, that front featured outside linebacker Kenny Orjioke sliding closer to the line as a pass rusher. But when Orjioke missed the spring game for a minor rules violation, Odighizuwa slid over to his spot and shined — registering around five “sacks” (quarterbacks were in red non-contact jerseys). Ulbrich said afterward that he wants to experiment with how he uses Odighizuwa, which could even mean dropping the 6-foot-3, 270-pound lineman back into coverage from time to time.

Former five-star recruit Ellis McCarthy also had a strong spring. As a sophomore, he was one of the team’s most improved defensive players late in the season. Position coach Angus McClure pointed out that McCarthy has learned to better use his hands. However, he’s probably still behind Vanderdoes — who missed all of spring with a broken foot — on the unit’s totem pole.

The defensive line does lack depth, which could keep McClure from cycling through his rotation as quickly as he prefers. While the talent here makes that less of a concern, redshirt freshman tackle Eli Ankou or incoming freshman ends Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson could each emerge and fill some of those reps. Kylie Fitts, who was limited with a hand injury as a freshman, is also in the mix.

One player to watch out for is walk-on defensive end Zach Vinci, who was a scout team MVP who had some good moments this spring. He made a surprise move into the starting lineup for the spring game, and could earn himself a healthy reserve role.

Level of concern: 3.5/10

*With 10 being the highest cause for concern this upcoming season, the scale is based mainly on the unit’s top talent as well as its depth. The latter might be weighed more or less depending on the position group; it would be more important to have multiple running backs than multiple quarterbacks, for example.

Previously …
May 1 — Quarterbacks
May 2 — Running backs
May 3 — Receivers
May 4 — Offensive line