Linebacker Myles Jack, addressing the media early during training camp, was shocked to learn that he was actually credited with a quarterback sack last season.
"I'm going to try to get two this year," he joked.
The biggest question facing the UCLA defense this season is its pass rush. The Bruins had 32 sacks last season, an average of 2.5 a game. That placed them a respectable 32nd nationally.
But players who contributed 23 of those sacks are no longer on the team. Linebacker Anthony Barr, who had 10, was a first-round NFL draft pick. Also gone are two key defensive ends, Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham, who each had six sacks. Gone, too, is defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, who took his attacking style to the Tennessee Titans. UCLA had 79 sacks in two seasons under Spanos.
One of the vacancies has been filled. Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. He matches Spanos in intensity.
Ulbrich, who has a Rasputin-like beard, gets fired up when talking about the potential of UCLA's pass rush this season.
"It's going to be a little bit by committee this year," gushed Ulbrich, who spent 10 seasons as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers. "Tackles have a hard time when they get a new guy. It's not just a fresh body but a different style."
Pac-12 teams pass so much you would think the play-callers get a bonus for every throw, so putting pressure on the quarterback is important.
UCLA has a record of 8-1 the last two seasons when it had four or more sacks in a game. The Bruins had six sacks in a 35-14 victory over USC last season, and none in a 24-10 loss to Stanford.
Ulbrich feels he has the pieces to turn up the heat on opposing lines, quarterbacks and receivers. "We want to throw multiple things at offenses," he said.
Jack figures prominently in that plan. He was frustrated by his low total last season, when he was a freshman driven by instinct who made plays because of his athletic ability.
Adding some savvy to his physical tools, Jack hopes to become a more effective pass rusher.
"I feel like things have slowed down," Jack said. "I kind of understand the angles and what I need to do in certain situations."
Ulbrich has other pieces to move around.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who missed last season because of hip surgery, is slotted to fill Marsh's old spot.
Ulbrich is anticipating a seamless transition. "Owa is maybe not quite as quick, but he has, like, animal strength," the coach said.
Kenny Orjioke, Aaron Wallace and Deon Hollins are competing for playing time at outside linebacker and are all expected to contribute.
Ulbrich anticipates that his schemes will have some effect, but that a lot of the Bruins' production will come from raw ability.
"The stuff I can't coach is that first step," Ulbrich said.
Hollins credits obsessive film study. "Any small key I see before the snap of the ball is the biggest thing in pass rushing," he said.
Orjioke agreed, adding, "There are different tendencies offensive players have. The experience you gain has a huge impact on how you play. There are things I see that I didn't see before. My vision has broadened."
Still, Ulbrich said, you either are a pass rusher or not. The key, usually, is beating an offensive tackle.
UCLA likes its chances.
"A guy like Deon Hollins, I'd like to take credit for that, but there is no way I could," Ulbrich said. "He's special. There are going to be a lot of offensive tackles who will be scared of him.
"Aaron Wallace can bend and turn to get around tackles. Kenny Orjioke is erratic, spastical almost, which can also freak out tackles. We got a guy in Owa who can really take advantage of a tackle who doesn't have a whole lot of butt."
Bottom line for the Bruins' pass rush: Beat a tackle, make a tackle.
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