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