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Takkarist McKinley sparks UCLA's defense with pure grit

UCLA’s defense, if not every player on the team, has found its mandate for moments when limbs ache or things aren’t going the way they were intended, which seems to be often lately for the Bruins.

Look at Takk.

That would be Takkarist McKinley, the senior defensive end who has repeatedly hobbled off the field … only to hobble back on and make plays that seem improbable even among those who aren’t dinged up.

“We acknowledged it last week,” said linebacker Jayon Brown, one of several players who recognized McKinley’s grit in front of the entire team. “When you all get tired or get down on yourself, look at Takk. Takk’s out here giving it his all with a hurt shoulder, groin, whatever he has, he’s going to go out there and give it his all.”

McKinley has been tottering since straining his groin early in training camp, though you would never know it based on his impact. He leads the Bruins with seven sacks and 14 tackles for losses even though he played sparingly against Texas A&M and sat out against Nevada Las Vegas.

McKinley was especially fearsome against Utah on Saturday, ripping the ball away from quarterback Troy Williams on a play that reminded UCLA Coach Jim Mora of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller’s strip sack of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50. McKinley finished the game with five tackles for losses, including three sacks, and forced two fumbles.

“I don’t know where that performance would rank,” Mora said, “but I can’t remember a whole lot that were better.”

Mora said McKinley projects well as an NFL prospect, comparing the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder to a smaller but more explosive version of former UCLA linebacker Datone Jones. The Green Bay Packers drafted Jones late in the first round in 2013.

McKinley vowed to lead the nation in sacks before the season, a pledge that looked like it would go unfulfilled as he barely played the first few games. Now he’s only two sacks behind Pittsburgh’s Ejuan Price, who has nine, for the most among Football Bowl Subdivision players.

It might not be long before everyone in college football is saying it.

Look at Takk.

“He’s kind of a war daddy,” Mora said. “It’ll hurt, he’ll go out, then he’ll say, ‘I gotta get back in there’ and he just sucks it up.”

Westwood ho?

Mora said his message to high school recruits did not change with the Bruins stuck in the worst funk of his five seasons with the team. He said he continued to tout the school’s academics, athletic facilities, campus, location and the opportunity to play for UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

Suffering five close losses might not be as much of a drawback as it appears, Mora said.

“We’re right there and I think sometimes that appeals to a recruit — you know, you can be the difference maker,” Mora said. “You can help us get over the hump.

“Plus, when you bring kids in during the game weeks, they get to come sit in meetings and they get to be around the team in the locker room and they feel the atmosphere and I’m not sure that the result is always what is always the decision maker for them. It’s more the feeling they get when they’re on campus, and so it was a successful weekend in terms of that.”

Getting picky

Mike Fafaul’s record-breaking stint as a fill-in quarterback for the injured Josh Rosen has been accompanied by one annoying constant: interceptions.

Fafaul had two passes intercepted by Arizona State, two by Washington State and four by Utah. Mora said there was no common theme among the turnovers, though he did acknowledge that Fafaul threw a few passes into coverage Saturday against the Utes.

“The more he plays, the better he’s going to get at taking care of the football,” Mora said. “They’re obviously a concern because any time you turn over the football it’s something you’re not looking to do. He’ll do what he can to correct it as we will as a staff.”

Said Fafaul: “I’ve just got to make sure they don’t happen.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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