SNOW FLURRIES

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's becoming dangerously close to tradition.

UCLA, enthralled by its ability to score with stunning ease, is blindsided by a fusillade of opposing points, and the man in charge of the defense is chased away.

And the man in charge of the man in charge of the defense puts another man in charge of the defense.

This year Coach Bob Toledo turned to veteran Pacific 10 Conference defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who brings an aggressive scheme and fresh hope that instead of being proficient only at synchronized slipping, Bruin defenders will swarm like a SWAT team.

"We will get better as the year goes on and we'll be fun to watch," Snow said. "We are going to be a lot better in the seventh game than in the first game."

Such honesty might not be the best way to ratchet the Bruins higher in preseason rankings. But it is refreshing.

Snow's job is not to pull a snow job, it's to jump-start a pass rush that produced a Pac-10 low 19 sacks last season. To improve woeful performance on third down. To camouflage holes in the secondary. To stem the flow of fourth-quarter points, 90 last season.

"Here's the deal," Snow said. "We were terrible on third down last year; we need to get off the field. We need to shut people out in the fourth quarter. We need to tackle well."

Snow has a habit of beginning comments with "Here's the deal." It's the first clue that his approach is straightforward.

Toledo doesn't mind.

"We've been too complicated in the past, too many nickel packages, too much confusion," he said. "Phil says we will leave our best football players on the field and adjust from there."

Toledo wants a low-maintenance defense so he can focus on offense. Snow is familiar with having free rein. He spent the last 14 years under offense-minded Bruce Snyder, five at California and the last nine at Arizona State.

Snow began as a secondary coach and became coordinator in 1994. Arizona State soon earned a reputation for an attacking defensive style that created turnovers. Last season the Sun Devils led the nation in fumbles recovered and were third in turnovers created. In 1996 and '97 they led the Pac-10 in several defensive categories.

The Bruins' introduction to Snow came last spring in the classroom. He gave the players written tests on everything from field dimensions to offensive and defensive sets.

"I learned the width and length of the field, where the hash marks are, stuff we take for granted," linebacker Ryan Nece said. "Guys who didn't score at least 90% had to run."

Snow, 45, is active during practice, his voice carrying across Spaulding Field. He may believe the defense won't reach its potential until midseason, but he approaches each day with urgency.

"We have to tackle and we have to play fast," he said. "Those are the two areas of emphasis and the players are picking that up.

"I've learned to appreciate the kind of student that goes to UCLA. These are great athletes and intelligent kids."

Experienced too. There are eight returning starters on defense plus end Kenyon Coleman, a Lombardi Award candidate who was sidelined most of last season because of injury. About the only missing ingredient is a speed rusher, somebody who can get to the quarterback by exploding around an offensive tackle.

"We won't go around people, we'll go through them," Snow said. "Last year the defensive linemen moved sideways a lot. They are big strong guys and they have to move forward."

Snow values speed and plans to recruit with that quality in mind. At every position.

"People say Florida State is really fast," he said. "They aren't saying the defensive backs are fast, because defensive backs are fast on every team. They are talking about the front seven."

Snow's uncluttered philosophy doesn't mean he's shallow. In fact, he is a student of the game and often cites examples of rival defenses to underscore a point.

"Here's the deal. Everybody thinks Mississippi blitzes a lot, but actually they only blitz 30% of the time," he said. "It's the threat of pressure that creates problems. We may not be [blitzing], but we'll create the illusion of blitzing."

No amount of smoke and mirrors can obscure the final score. UCLA gave up a school-record 30.7 points and 403 yards a game last year. Those numbers--plus the 18 missed tackles and 557 yards surrendered in a 38-35 loss to USC--ultimately cost Bob Field his job after two years as coordinator and two decades with the program.

Preceding Field at coordinator was Nick Aliotti, who lasted one season. His undoing was a 49-45 loss to Miami that cost UCLA a shot at the national championship in 1998 and resulted in locker-room finger pointing. The Bruins had 10 players on the field more than once and in Toledo's words, "looked like chickens with their heads cut off."

Another defensive debacle and Toledo will be rubbing his own neck.

"I'm ultimately responsible," Toledo said. "The reason I got this job is because I'm an offensive coach. But we'd better play good defense if we want to win championships."

Snow is a willing accomplice, even backing out of the coordinator job at Illinois to come to UCLA. The Illini announced he was hired while Arizona State was at the Aloha Bowl, but Toledo called and the lure of staying in the West was too strong.

Snow grew up in Winters, Calif., a small town outside Davis. He began coaching as a high school student, holding practices for a seventh-grade basketball team at 6:30 a.m. While attending Sacramento City College he coached his 15-year-old brother's baseball team, turning it around from 0-15 to 15-0.

Snow, a quarterback at Sacramento City, attended Cal State Hayward, but a sore arm kept him from playing as a senior. He took a high school coaching job and has been at it since.

UCLA is his biggest challenge. Snow could cement his reputation as a defensive wizard and pave the way to the head coaching position he admits he wants. Or this could be the pothole that derails his career.

And he knows that's the real deal.

Either way, the defense will bear Snow's stamp--aggressive and uncomplicated.

"We have some real good players," he said. "We just have to play well."

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