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Challenges Await Young Defenders

Times Staff Writer

UCLA will open the season Saturday with a lineup on defense that includes three linebackers -- Christian Taylor, Aaron Whittington and Reggie Carter -- who have three college starts between them.

Ideally, that’s not the type of experience a team would want defending against Utah’s prolific spread offense, which led the Mountain West Conference last year with an average of 473 yards a game and still features most of former coach Urban Meyer’s schemes.

“They have a lot of different stuff that they like to run; we just don’t know how much of it they are going to end up using against us,” Taylor said. “But we have to prepare for all of it. Anything that they ran last year.”

Taylor, a transfer from Air Force Academy, was a backup most of last season and started his only game against USC. Whittington started two games last year but missed the final four because of a leg injury. Carter did not play at all.

Their main challenge will be shutting down Utah senior Brett Ratliff, who will start at quarterback after beating out Oklahoma-transfer Tommy Grady in training camp.

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Ratliff is not as mobile as Brian Johnson, who after starting last season is redshirting because of his surgically repaired knee, But Ratliff is a better-than-average passer. He started two games last year and won both, while completing 64.4% of his passes for 621 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception.

“He’s a great thrower and they like to air the ball out with him,” Taylor said of Ratliff, who passed for 381 yards and four touchdowns in Utah’s victory over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl.

But the Utes do more than just throw the ball. They can also run with it, which is something UCLA had a difficult time stopping last season.

“They like to spread you out and get a lot of one-on-ones in the passing game, but they can also run the ball and they do that effectively,” Taylor said. “We have to be extremely disciplined in our responsibilities.”

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Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham on UCLA’s defense under new coordinator DeWayne Walker: “We’ve collected all the tape where Coach Walker has been. Most recently, he was with the Washington Redskins. He’s been at USC and had several stops at some really good places.

“Again, that’s best-guess scenario because he has not been a coordinator yet. So what he’s going to put together and what he likes, personally, we’re going to have to wait until game time to find out.”

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Jeremy McGee and Alterraun Verner are true freshmen who will handle kickoff returns for UCLA on Saturday. Coach Karl Dorrell said he is not worried.

“No, not with those guys,” Dorrell said. " ... They secure the ball pretty well, and that is something that is really important to them.”

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Although junior Marcus Everett is listed on UCLA’s depth chart as the No. 2 split end behind Junior Taylor, he’s expected to play a variety of roles against Utah.

“We worked hard during the summer and I feel like I have my timing down well with Ben],” said Everett, referring to quarterback Ben Olson. Everett returned to practice this week after being sidelined because of a hamstring injury.

“I hope it’s a game like Oklahoma last year. They gave us a lot of space and we completed a bunch of short passes and then we hurt them over the top.”

lonnie.white@latimes.com


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