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UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes hopes to bolster Bruins' secondary with returning veterans

UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes hopes to bolster Bruins' secondary with returning veterans
UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes watches a replay as he is ejected from the game for targeting against Colorado in the first quarter at the Rose Bowl last season. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He’s going to get beat at times, Darnay Holmes knows. It’s OK. It happens. One bad play isn’t going to define him.

As a freshman, the UCLA cornerback wasn’t always so forgiving of his own mistakes. It took a gruff voice to spark a softer approach.

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It belonged to new Bruins defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, who likened each series in a game to a round in a fight. You’ll win some and lose some. The important thing is to keep slugging, no matter what’s happening around you.

“Last year,” said Holmes, now a sophomore, “I got beat, I’m just looking at the crowd like, what are they thinking? But now this year, it’s time to get to it. I don’t care what anybody’s thinking, I’m going to do me and make sure I’m holding my ground.”

Holmes is among a group of defensive backs who could nudge a once-faltering defense back toward dominance.

The Bruins’ secondary was a strength last season, helping the team finish ranked No. 31 nationally in passing yards allowed (196.3 per game) and No. 72 in pass efficiency defense.

Cornerback Nate Meadors and safety Adarius Pickett opted for one more college season instead of the NFL draft, bolstering the Bruins’ chances to solidify their defense. Holmes said he knew Meadors was coming back for his senior season but was initially unsure of whether Pickett would return.

“When he came back,” Holmes said of Pickett, “I’m like, yeah, it’s on.”

Sophomore Quentin Lake appears to have won the other starting safety spot vacated by the departure of Jaleel Wadood, giving the Bruins what looks like a formidable foursome.

Orchestrating it all is new defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads, whom Holmes likened to a scientist because of his continual teaching and mixing of coverages. Holmes is among the eager pupils absorbing every lesson.

“I’m playing the best DB game I’ve been playing since I started this DB stuff,” said Holmes, who made a team-high three interceptions last season. “Each day I’m learning something new.”

What the cornerbacks are discovering is that UCLA’s new aggressive, attacking defense won’t just put pressure on the other team’s quarterbacks; Holmes and Meadors could find themselves in more situations where they won’t have as much safety help, forcing them to either lock down receivers or get beat for big yardage.

Said Holmes: “The defense we’re running is a defense that I’ve never run, but I’m definitely loving it.”

Said Meadors: “We love it. If we’re going to blitz a lot, we’re going to be in a lot of man [coverage] situations.”

Even if they don’t go as planned, Holmes won’t let it ruin his mood for the next play.

“This year, there’s been a few times I got beat,” Holmes said, “but I’m lining back up with a smile on my face.”

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Special emphasis

UCLA appears to have rededicated itself to special teams under coach Chip Kelly.

While kicker J.J. Molson and punter Stefan Flintoft were already among the best in the Pac-12 Conference at their respective positions, the Bruins’ return game could use some improvement. UCLA ranked 10th in the conference in kickoff returns (19.2 yards per return) and 11th in punt returns (5.2 yards per return).

Holmes, who averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return last season, said players and coaches were working on special teams “probably four times a day.” The repetitions have led to some meaningful takeaways.

“The main thing is just reading my blocks and being more in control,” Holmes said, “because last year I was just taking off, running full tilt and I would see somebody and I couldn’t make the cut. So just making sure that I read my blocks and know where I’m going.”

Etc.

Linebacker Josh Woods, on his favorite saying from Kelly: “It’s probably ‘Our normal, your abnormal.’ He’s just saying what we think is normal, the pace we go at, might be abnormal and crazy to you. It’s regular to us.” … Defensive lineman Marcus Moore, linebacker Bo Calvert and defensive back Octavius Spencer were full participants in practice Friday after being limited by unspecified injuries the previous day.

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