Jeff Ulbrich adjusts UCLA defense for Pac-12 offenses

Before Jim Mora’s staff arrived at UCLA, just two Pac-12 teams ranked top-30 nationally in total plays: Oregon and Arizona State. In 2012, the Bruins joined the list along with Arizona.

Last season, the conference pushed even faster. Though UCLA and the Ducks dropped to 38th and 32nd in the country, the Pac-12 still had six teams that ranked top-30 in total plays: Arizona State, Cal, Arizona, WAshington, Washington State and Oregon State.

Does that affect how the Bruins design their defense?

“Enormously,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “You know, I’d be a dumbass to kind of just do what we do. That’s the deal with defense. You’ve got to adapt. Offenses can force a defense to adapt in a lot of ways like our offense does to opposing teams. So we have to.

“You can’t do a lot of NFL concepts. Not only because of the offenses that you face, and with the hash marks — there’s just so many factors that make you adapt. But I feel like we’re getting closer.”

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Jeff Ulbrich says UCLA defense has ‘a little spiciness’

» A linebacker competition that defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called “wide open” last week might be near close. True freshman Kenny Young has nearly locked down the inside spot. Outside, redshirt junior Aaron Wallace has been used most in the base scheme, while sophomore Deon Hollins gets a lot of play in the nickel formation.

“There are some frontrunners, but it’s not done,” Ulbrich said. “It’s not over with.”

The odd man out is junior Kenny Orjioke, who at 19 years old still hasn’t fully put together his athletic gifts. Ulbrich talked up Orjioke’s versatility, but hinted that the 6-foot-4, 235-pound outside linebacker is a little behind the others.

“He’s a great guy that, if he doesn’t earn the starting spot, will get a ton of paying time,” Ulbrich said. “He’ll spell Deon. He’ll spell Wallace. He’ll be involved in both facets of the defense. That’s a guy we’ll take advantage of for sure.”

» Asked if UCLA’s defense looks tougher now than it did two years, Ulbrich agreed. Continue reading

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UCLA notes: Two linebacker spots still ‘wide open’ in Jeff Ulbrich’s defense

» UCLA doesn’t have a lot of question marks, but one position group that’s still unsettled are the linebackers.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called competition at outside linebacker (opposite Myles Jack) and inside linebacker (opposite Eric Kendricks) “wide open” — naming five candidates for the former and three for the latter.

Outside linebackers have shuffled up and down the depth chart this week, but on Friday, redshirt junior Aaron Wallace and sophomore Deon Hollins got more play than 19-year-old junior Kenny Orjioke. Wallace has gotten love from both Ulbrich and head coach Jim Mora this week, but he doesn’t look like he has the speed to be a great pass rusher. That’s an area that Hollins excels at, and he’s looked better than he did in spring.

The competition inside is crowded, but true freshman Kenny Young has been fun to watch. He’s not the same type of do-it-all stud that Myles Jack is, though his work ethic has sparked comparisons.

» After leaving Thursday’s practice following a hit to the head, linebacker Zach Whitley wore a neck brace on Friday. Not an encouraging sign, but it could have been precautionary. Continue reading

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UCLA post-spring position outlook: Special teams

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. This blog has covered the status of each position group moving forward. Last in the series is …

Special teams

Recently, special teams hasn’t been a major concern for UCLA. Over the last two seasons, the team blocked 12 kicks and punts — an FBS total matched only by Rutgers. Last year, it ranked top-20 in both opponent punt and kick returns; in four of the five years prior, the Bruins ranked outside the top 40 in the former and the top 100 in the latter.

A key difference looms heading into this fall: Jeff Ulbrich is no longer the UCLA special teams coordinator.

Promoted the defensive coordinator, Ulbrich will continue coaching inside linebackers but surrenders lead oversight of the unit that helped extend his own professional career. Outside linebackers will be charged to new assistant Mike Tuiasosopo, who also holds the title of special teams coach. Continue reading

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Spring notes: Owamagbe Odighizuwa looks dominant in UCLA spring game


– After a season spent rehabbing from multiple hip surgeries, Owamagbe Odighizuwa looks like the dominant force everyone expected him to be as a five-star recruit.

The rising senior was unofficially credited with two sacks in UCLA’s spring game, but appeared to have at least five by the press box consensus– as well as several near-misses. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound end moved to the right side of the defensive line as an edge rusher — a spot usually filled by linebacker Kenny Orjioke, who was absent — and had little trouble blowing past left tackle Caleb Benenoch.

He also dropped back into pass coverage one a few plays, something that defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said he’s experimenting with. Continue reading

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VIDEO: Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich talks about ‘losing’ UCLA spring game


Coaching UCLA’s white team in Saturday’s spring game, Jeff Ulbrich ended up on the wrong side of a 28-0 blowout.

Asked how he felt, he said afterward: “Bitter. Miserable. I hate losing ping pong. I hate when a guy pisses longer than I do. I don’t like to lose.”

Ulbrich also talked about the performances of defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, as well as linebackers Myles Jack and Deon Hollins.

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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. Continue reading

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Spring notes: Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich relishes breaking up scuffles


– Thursday’s practice featured a fight that started, as usual, when a few receivers and defensive backs got in each other’s faces. The main culprits: Jalen Ortiz and Tyler Scott on offense, and Ishmael Adams and Tahaan Goodman on defense.

Head coach Jim Mora stopped practice to admonish the team as a whole. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich talked a bit about managing player emotions, but actually sort of enjoyed jumping in and pulling players apart.

“It brings me back to my playing days,” he said. “I kind of like it. Maybe too much. The potential of someone hitting me … it was awesome.”

– Ulbrich also said that the experiment of putting Zach Whitley at outside linebacker is over. The four-star early enrollee looks far more comfortable inside, where he has returned since missing Monday’s practice due to a bruise.

“It was a thing where, we thought he could maybe compete outside and that might be the best situation for our defense,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true anymore.” Continue reading

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Spring notes: Jim Mora impressed by running back Craig Lee


– After redshirting this past season, Craig Lee looks like he might be the most talented runner on UCLA’s roster right now. The former four-star recruit still needs to improve his pass protection to ensure more reps, but he reeled off a number of nice runs on Saturday.

“He’s flashed the first two days without pads,” head coach Jim Mora said. “He didn’t look like anything different (in pads). He stood out to me.”

– Mora was similarly impressed by freshman Mossi Johnson, who still has a brace on his left knee after tearing three ligaments in January 2013 and grayshirting. The coaching staff didn’t decide to make him a full-time receiver until about three or weeks ago — partly based on his preference and partly on positional need. Continue reading

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