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Defense Takes a Hard Line Against Past Efforts

Times Staff Writer

The last time UCLA had a big, physical defensive line was 2003 when the Bruins controlled the line of scrimmage behind a group led by Dave Ball and Rodney Leisle.

Since then, however, it has been a different story for the Bruins, as opponents have roughed up their front-line defenders.

This year, UCLA’s defensive front has more depth and quality with the return of injured regulars Kevin Brown and Nikola Dragovic, but the Bruins are still relatively small.

“We know that we’re not as tall and big as some other lines, so we have to get it done with technique,” said junior Brigham Harwell, who has switched from defensive end to tackle this season and now weighs closer to 300 pounds after playing under 270 as a freshman. “We know that everything we do counts.”

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UCLA has had only two defensive linemen earn All-Pacific 10 Conference honors since 1988 (Kenyon Coleman in 2001 and Ball in 2003). Harwell said after being on the wrong end of jokes the last two years, the Bruins are ready to turn things around.

“This is our time now,” said Harwell, who has started 15 games in his career and finished second on the team in tackles for losses last season with 11.5. “We’re a much older group and more experienced. We’re also a lot stronger and a lot bigger. People are always talking about us, but that’s OK. We’re ready to make a difference.”

That would be a good place to start for the Bruins, who had the nation’s second-worst defense against the run last season. With a rebuilt defensive coaching staff -- directed by new coordinator DeWayne Walker -- UCLA’s linemen understand that the spotlight will be on them.

“We’re getting used to everyone being back out together again,” said Brown, who sat out last season and spring drills because of an ankle injury. “We’re pretty even across the board because everyone has gotten a chance to play so much. But it’s not just that. You can see how they’ve gotten bigger and stronger, which makes us a better group.”

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Brown, a 300-pound junior tackle who redshirted last season, led UCLA in sacks in 2004 and is regarded as an All-Pac-10 candidate. Dragovic, a junior end, started the first four games last year before being sidelined because of knee surgery. Their return has allowed first-year defensive line coach Todd Howard to experiment with different line combinations.

Brown and Dragovic have been working with the second unit along with Harwell, while sophomore tackles Chase Moline -- who made nine starts last year -- and Kenneth Lombard -- who has started five games in his career -- have been with the first team with ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis.

“Coach Walker really imposed himself on us right from the start,” Brown said. “Every day, we talk about being the best defense in the Pac-10 and in order to do that, we have to make plays.”

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With senior Joe Cowan sidelined at least two weeks because of a knee injury and junior Marcus Everett not with the team because of the death of his grandfather, junior Brandon Breazell had another strong practice Thursday. Breazell caught 24 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Everett is expected to return to the team Sunday.

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The Bruins will be in full pads for the first time today and will have their first two-a-day workout Saturday.... Coach Karl Dorrell said freshman offensive lineman Sean Sheller suffered ligament damage to his right knee and will be sidelined at least a month.

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