UCLA spring camp position review: Defensive line

Enjoy watching Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes while you can. Both could be signing NFL contracts by this time next year.

UCLA will enter this fall with arguably the best defensive line duo in the conference, a pair that last season combined for 108 tackles, including 11 for loss. All-Pac-12 nods aren’t the most accurate measures of talent and/or performance, but of the eight defensive linemen that made first or second team last fall, Clark is one of two that return. (The other is Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, who like Clark is making NFL mock drafts as a potential first-round pick.) Vanderdoes followed right behind as an honorable mention.

Clark in particular was vital to the Bruins’ run defense, and is about as stout a nose tackle as you can find in college football. Looking back at his impact the last two seasons, it’s incredible that UCLA was considering redshirting him back in August 2013, during his first camp in San Bernardino. There were several times last fall when opposing offenses noticeably directed the ball away from the middle, where he and Vanderdoes stood as imposing obstacles.

Vanderdoes was more highly touted as a five-star recruit who originally signed with Notre Dame, then won an appeal to play immediately at UCLA. He’s lived up to that hype for the most part, with health being perhaps the biggest knock on his resume. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman has usually played his way into peak condition rather than entering the fall in top shape; that he sat out spring camp in 2013 following foot surgery likely set back that schedule. This year, he was a full participant through April, and the extra reps should help prepare him for an excellent junior campaign. His versatility also allows the Bruins to shift between different formations, sliding him from end to three-technique tackle.

There are more questions elsewhere on the depth chart. Takkarist McKinley enrolled as a midseason JUCO transfer last season and was effective as a pass-rushing specialist, but needs to develop into a more well-rounded player. A full offseason with the playbook could be transformative for him. Former four-star recruits Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner performed well in spring camp after limited roles as true freshmen. Keep an eye on whether that trend continues; both will be key to replacing Clark and Vanderdoes, whenever they do leave UCLA.

Most concerning is the Bruins’ lack of interior linemen. An injury to Clark would be devastating to the defense, especially given the paucity of reliable backups. Ainuu Taua looked relatively pedestrian last month, and isn’t ready to fill in as a starter for any significant stretch of time. NaJee Toran converted from a failed stint at offensive guard; his mean streak should translate well down the line, but he’s still playing on the defensive line for the first time. Carl Hulick and Eli Ankou — limited all spring with a hand injury — could also figure into the defensive line rotation.

Projected two-deep
Defensive end: Eddie Vanderdoes, Matt Dickerson
Nose tackle: Kenny Clark, Ainuu Taua
Defensive end: Takkarist McKinley, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

Previous position reviews:
Offensive line
Running backs

  • TYtrueBRUIN300

    well need to recruit some key d lineman this season. But well be ok!
    4’s up

  • Danny

    It is nice to see that UCLA’s biggest concern is the depth of the backups. Was not too long ago that the biggest challenge was if the starters could play.

  • Tommy B Low Us

    I am really interested to see how Najee does on the d line. From what I have seen he might be a beast on defense.

    • MPPBruin

      I love to see the words “mean streak” here.

      • Tommy B Low Us

        Yeah and I saw an interview with him saying his o line experience will give him an advantage over opposing blockers. Meaning he can read their signals and react quicker because of his o line experience.

        • ProbationU

          Clark does a great job manning the middle. It takes more than just a mean streak, IMO. Taua was highly regarded and needs to improve. It isn’t often you find even one DL capable of playing as a true freshman, let alone two. Alosi needs to get these guys ready in the weight room or an injury could be a big problem, let alone 2016.

          • Laker Rod

            UCLA has been playing many true frosh on the D line and O line and it’s too bad they had to because some were not really ready.

            You focus on Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark but what about the following guys:

            1. Matt Dickerson 2014
            2. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner 2014
            3. Najee Toran 2014
            4. Kylie Fitts 2013
            5. Alex Redmond 2013
            6. Caleb Benenoch 2013
            7. Scott Quessenberry 2013
            8. Simon Goines 2012
            9. Ellis McCarthy 2012
            10. Owa Odighizuwa 2010
            11. Cassius Marsh 2010
            12. Seali Epenesa 2010
            13. Chris Ward 2010

            We had too many guys who didn’t pan out for one reason or another from earlier classes with guys like Kevin McReynolds, Brandon Tuliaupupu, Derrick Bryant, Wesley Flowers, Ben Wysocki, Brandon Willis, Will Oliver, Kody Innes, Nick Abele, Casey Griffiths, Greg Capella, Wade Yandall, Stan Hasiak, etc.

            Because these guys didn’t plan out Mora had to play more frosh than I’m sure he would have liked.

            The good news is that out of all the linemen we recruited for 2015…it doesn’t appear any need to play as true frosh.

            Toran got his year back also.

  • Laker Rod

    Sorry Mr. Wang but neither has lived up to any hype. Please take a look as to where UCLA finished overall defensively as a team. Where were EV and Clark against Oregon and Stanford. When the game mattered and UCLA still had a chance to win the Div title…they were not able to come through and it’s difficult to expect them to since they are only true sophomores.

    Putting up bigger numbers of tackles and tackles for losses against lesser opponents can be misleading. EV needs to make more of a leap than Clark. Most of the tackles and tackles for losses are from Clark not EV. EV is in the spot also where bigger plays are expected. He’s been a huge disappointment to me. People were calling him a once in a decade type player out of HS.

    The defensive production dropped off in 2014 vs 2013. Cassius Marsh, Seali Epenesa, and the combo of Ellis McCarthy and Keenan Graham seemed to produce better and get more key stops. Certainly helped to have Anthony Barr also.

    Most Bruin fans didn’t expect the drop off in production in 2014. Didn’t help that Spanos left and we went with Ulbrich who had no previous DC experience.

    Many guys need to step up for 2015. I expect a huge year from Eddie Vanderdoes. Dude better come through.

  • Laker Rod

    I’m not so sure McKinley will be starting at RDE. He’s still undersized at his list 6’4 230. I think the official website has not be updated though. He’s probably more like 245 now or at least will be by fall.

    UCLA will line up in a 4 DL alignment at times. I see it as follows:

    LDE – McKinley
    LDT – Vanderdoes
    RDT – Clark
    RDE – Hollins

    or it could be this way when EV and or Clark need to be subbed out:

    LDE – Jacob Tuioti Mariner or even Aaron Wallace
    LDT – Vanderdoes
    RDT – Eli Ankou
    RDE – McKinley

    If UCLA lines up in a 3 DL set it could be as follows for the starters:

    LDE – Vanderdoes
    NT – Clark
    RDE – Dickerson 6’4 275 or 280 by Fall

    McKinley will come in during more pass rush situations.

  • Sandy Underpants

    I think this is finally gonna be the year we beat Stanford or Oregon. I mean we can’t lose 15 in a row right? Right?!

    • ProbationU

      I don’t know Sandy….your boys managed to lose 8 in a row to UCLA and are on a 3 game losing streak at the moment. And you have the great Sarkisian in charge…so you may want to focus on your own House of Condoms!

  • ProbationU

    Looking forward to seeing how things go with a real Defensive Coordinator. The D may need to keep us in some games as the offense may lack consistency (at least early on) with an inexperienced QB.