With UCLA football’s offseason winding down, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2022 campaign and what lies ahead for the Bruins on the gridiron. Before scouting opponents and projecting the Pac-12 pecking order, it’s best to look within by picking apart how UCLA will shape up on its own sidelines.
All Bruins will be breaking down every position group over the next week, and the defensive line is up next. To catch up on the positions already covered, take a look below:
DE 1: Gabriel Murphy, redshirt sophomore
DE 2: Grayson Murphy, redshirt sophomore
DE 3: Laiatu Latu, redshirt junior
DE 4: Hayden Nelson, redshirt freshman
DL 1: Jacob Sykes, redshirt senior
DL 2: Martin Andrus Jr., super senior
DL 3: Quintin Somerville, redshirt freshman
DL 4: Hayden Harris, redshirt junior
NT 1: Jay Toia, sophomore
NT 2: Gary Smith III, junior
NT 3: Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi, redshirt sophomore
NT 4: Dovid Magna, redshirt junior
DE 1: Bo Calvert, super senior
DE 2: Carl Jones, senior
DE 3: Devin Aupiu, redshirt freshman
DE 4: Joquarri Price, redshirt sophomore
DE 5: James Dinneen, redshirt junior
The Bruins have a brand new staff for their front seven, with Chad Kauha’aha’a taking over as defensive line coach and Ikaika Malloe taking over as outside linebackers coach. Based on what was on display in spring and fall camps, the outside linebackers are essentially defensive ends, so they will be treated as such in this breakdown.
Calvert and Jones are the top returners among the edge rushers, with Calvert standing in as the sturdy, reliable veteran and Jones still carving out a role as a dynamic, athletic playmaker. Calvert recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks in 2021, while Jones added 3.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.
Gabriel and Grayson Murphy are the twin transfers coming in from North Texas, where they racked up the stats and awards with the Mean Green. Both brothers started all 13 games for the Mean Green in 2021, combining for 90 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumbles recoveries.
Latu is the wildcard of the bunch, coming in from Washington after being forced into medical retirement. Now that he is cleared to play as a full participant, he will certainly figure into the rotation as well.
The three transfers will have to replace Mitchell Agude and Myles Jackson, who transferred to Miami (FL) and Indiana, respectively. Agude was one of the top edge rushers in the Pac-12 through September, but played the rest of the year hobbled and did not contribute much from then on out.
The interior line had even more outgoing talent, considering Otito Ogbonnia went to the NFL Draft, Datona Jackson ran out of eligibility and Odua Isibor transferred to Cal.
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Toia is in line to take one of their starting jobs after an impressive freshman campaign, and Andrus is an experienced veteran who is back to full health and ready to contribute in his own right.
Sykes coming in from Harvard and Smith coming in from Duke will provide more bodies up front, and they will both rotate heavily with Andrus and Toia at the 3-technique and nose tackle spots.
Havili-Kaufusi and Magna bring experience to the table as well and will at least play on special teams, while Somerville look like they are on the scout team for the time being.
Bringing the heat without bringing extra blitzers is going to be key to the Bruins’ success this season.
UCLA’s defense improved in 2020 when assistant head coach Brian Norwood arrived and introduced a new wrinkle to defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s system. The Bruins transitioned to a 4-2-5 base and brought constant pressure from the striker and inside linebacker positions. Those changes resulted in more sacks and tackles for loss, but left the secondary even more vulnerable.
Norwood is still coaching the defensive backs, but Bill McGovern has taken over for Azzinaro and implemented a more traditional, pro-style, multiple defensive set.
As a result, the defensive ends should start picking up more of the sacks and tackles for loss that were previously going to the Qwuantrezz Knights and Caleb Johnsons of the world. That should allow the Murphy twins to succeed on the field and the box score, with the combo possibly adding 15 sacks between them this season.
Jones should be more involved against the passing game, and he should see his sack numbers spike as well. Due to his athleticism and experience as a safety, Jones could also be used in disguised coverages, giving him a chance to pick off quick passes to running backs and jar the ball loose in the backfield.
Calvert, Sykes and Smith all have low floors and should be solid contributors given they remain healthy. Toia, meanwhile, could have a breakout season if he gets a decent share of the playing time.
Latu is another potential breakout candidate, but he is more of a dark horse given his medical history.
Overall, the defense should take a decent step forward in 2022. While a lot of that may rest of the defensive backs, the defensive line appears ready to do its part and settle into the new system nicely.