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UCLA's Atonio Mafi is finding out size and strength isn't everything in the college game

Moves that had once helped Atonio Mafi pester quarterbacks are now leaving only him frustrated.

“In high school, bull rush was easy, that was my go-to,” the UCLA true freshman defensive lineman said this week. “But in college everyone’s the same size, everyone’s been in the program and is more experienced, so bull rushing isn’t going to work as well.”

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The pass-rush problems aren’t confined to Mafi and the Bruins’ other freshmen.

UCLA’s 13 sacks rank next-to-last in the Pac-12 Conference, ahead of only Oregon State (nine) and fewer than half of league-leading Washington State (27). The Bruins have regressed in recent weeks, logging only one sack over their last three games.

“Coach Azz says that you have to be obsessed with improvement,” Mafi said, referring to defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. “We’re out here every day trying to work on our pass rush.”

It hasn’t helped that the Bruins have been without linebacker Jaelan Phillips, one of their top pass rushers, for more than a month after he was sidelined by season-ending concussions. Linebacker Keisean Lucier-South also missed part of UCLA’s 42-21 loss to Oregon last weekend because of an elbow injury. The Bruins did not record a sack, but coach Chip Kelly refused to use the absences as an excuse.

“We don’t worry about who’s out because there’s nothing you can do about it,” Kelly said earlier this week. “We can sit in a room and say, ‘He’s out’ and then [ask] ‘What are we going to do?’ We’ve got to do a better job generating a pass rush.”

UCLA’s defensive linemen have recorded only four sacks in nine games, including three by Osa Odighizuwa. Lucier-South leads the team with four.

Mafi, who’s slimmed down from 411 pounds before the season to around 370, said the Bruins linemen need to make a greater contribution to that tally. For him, that starts with developing some new moves to go with his new physique.

“I just need to work on my finesse moves, for sure,” Mafi said.

The rest of the story

The Bruins have used waves of defensive linemen this season, but it’s not the only reason they’ve stayed relatively fresh.

Odighizuwa said he was heavily utilizing the ice tub and focusing more on flexibility than in years past to stay loose, all part of a rest and recovery program that he said has made an appreciable difference.

“It’s honestly the best I’ve felt this far in the season ever,” Odighizuwa said last week. “Last year, I wasn’t feeling too good around this time. Even when I was a redshirt, I wasn’t feeling too good around this time. So I feel like the rest and recovery has been huge this year.”

Just drop it?

UCLA has had six drops in each of its last two games.

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“I think it’s definitely something that we’ve been struggling with all year, but also something that kind of just comes and goes,” receiver Christian Pabico said. “You’re gonna have drops, you’re gonna have mistakes.

“As you guys can see, we’re still kind of figuring ourselves out as an entire team, so it’s just something that we’ve been having a little bit of trouble with but definitely something we’ve been trying to focus on.”

Pabico was not among the culprits against Oregon after experiencing some drops earlier in the season. He had one catch for 15 yards, his first catch since late September.

“Just to get that confidence back I think is the main thing,” Pabico said, “so it definitely felt good.”

Making an adjustment

Center Boss Tagaloa had to change one aspect of his snaps last weekend to accommodate the height difference between quarterback Wilton Speight, who’s 6 feet 6, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who’s 6-1.

“Whenever Wilton came,” Tagaloa, “I had to get my butt up higher.”

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