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UCLA’s New-Look Defense Searching for Some Leaders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brendon Ayanbadejo looks around, sees only himself and Larry Atkins as senior starters with the UCLA football team defense and senses the leadership void.

Stepping into it, though, is difficult. How can you lead anybody when you’re lost?

“I want to take a leadership role,” said Ayanbadejo, an outside linebacker in a new defense that has been force-fed to the Bruins by new coordinator Nick Aliotti this spring.

“I’m a senior, and I’m supposed to be a leader and I want to back up that with my play. But you have to know what you’re doing. The last two weeks, I’ve thought, ‘How can I lead anybody if I don’t know what I’m doing?’ Now I’m starting to know, and when I make a mistake, I make it at full speed.”

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Rocky Long, the former defensive coordinator, is gone to New Mexico, and seven starters last season were seniors, so newness abounds at Spaulding Field, where UCLA finishes spring drills with a scrimmage at 4 p.m. today.

In their places are Aliotti’s defense--which looks like a basic 3-4 alignment, but is anything but conventional--and many new faces.

“It’s harder to learn than Coach Long’s defense,” Ayanbadejo said, citing new blitzes and stunts and multiple pass coverages that replace Long’s fairly simple man-to-man and zone defenses.

The new coordinator has recognized the difficulty and charted the progress.

“We had a long way to go, but the last two or three days, it’s been like the light’s gone on,” Aliotti said. “We seem to have a better understanding now. We’re at ‘L,’ if you were going through the alphabet. We’re at 49, if you were counting to 100. They’re getting better, and that allows them to play faster and play harder because they are starting to have the confidence that they know what they’re doing.”

Some of that has been shown in spring practice sessions that began April 6. Most of the uncertainty has been with the defense, because most of the offense returns after a season in which the Bruins won their last 10 games and finished third in the nation in scoring, averaging 40.7 points.

Quarterback Cade McNown is back for a fourth season as a starter after leading the nation in passing efficiency, and rising sophomore Drew Bennett has solidified his spot as the backup.

Jermaine Lewis has moved ahead of Keith Brown at tailback, both charged with replacing Skip Hicks and his 25 touchdowns.

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They can look over their shoulders at incoming freshman DeShaun Foster, who has yet to take final exams at Tustin High but who will be given as much offense as he can mentally and physically handle when UCLA reports for fall practice in late August.

“It’s probably going to be a tailback by committee more than it is one guy,” Coach Bob Toledo said. “I hope we get a 1,000-yard rusher.”

The Bruins have had one in each of his four years on campus, the first two as offensive coordinator, the second two as head coach.

Cody Joyce and Freddie Mitchell, both of whom redshirted last season as freshmen, are waging a spirited fight at one receiver spot, their mission to replace Jim McElroy and his 10 touchdown catches as the Bruin deep threat.

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Sophomore Oscar Cabrera and Brian Polak have stepped in at guard and tackle, replacing the departed Chad Sauter and Chad Overhauser.

Cabrera and starting guard Andy Myers both face surgery after spring drills, though both are expected when the team reports for fall practice.

Leaders abound on offense, but the defense is another story.

“I’m disappointed in that sense,” Toledo said. “Nobody has taken the bull by the horns. I think they’re all so concerned about themselves, learning the defense, that they aren’t concerned about leading anybody else. They want to lead themselves.”

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Even the force-feeding project was derailed for a time.

“There have been a couple of days that we stopped, when we said, ‘That’s it, the jug’s full,’ ” Toledo said. “So we stopped, then went back at it again. They were making mistakes on things that they hadn’t been making mistakes on.”

The project will continue in the fall. For all of the spring work, some of the faces on the defense probably will be different when the the Bruins line up against Texas on Sept. 12 in the Rose Bowl in the season opener.

UCLA doesn’t yet have the players it needs to play the defense, but “We will in the fall,” Toledo said. “But they’ll be freshmen, so we’re a ways off. We need some of those guys to come in and contribute. A quarter of our football team is not here right now. You’re talking about 26 guys. And it shows.”

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Particularly when you’re looking for a defensive leader.


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