UCLA freshman linemen are learning on the job

UCLA defensive lineman Kyle Fitts holds his ground against Nevada's Jacob Henry and Zach Brickell during the season-opening victory.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

There was no small amount of schoolboy giddiness during the fourth quarter against Nevada. UCLA was pounding on the Wolf Pack, and three Bruins defensive linemen saw the future as now.

Nose tackle Kenny Clark and defensive ends Kylie Fitts and Eddie Vanderdoes — all first-year freshmen — were ready to take the field at the same time for the first time in their college careers.

“We all started getting pumped,” Fitts said. “Before that game, we wanted to have one snap with all three of us in there. It was cool.”


Nevada went three and out, with Vanderdoes and Clark getting tackles.

This was more than a teaser of tomorrow. This was on-the-job training.

The Bruins’ high-tempo offense requires plenty of personnel … on defense. The three freshman amigos are being brought up to speed.

“The way we have to play on defense, because of the way the offense plays, we have to be able to rotate guys,” said Coach Jim Mora. “You need seven to eight guys on the defensive front playing at a consistently high level so you don’t have a drop-off.”

Vanderdoes, Fitts and Clark have spots in that rotation.

Vanderdoes performed the best of the group against Nevada. He had six tackles, all unassisted, including two for a loss.

“It was a good first game,” Fitts said. “We got to experience the fans, the anxiety, what the coaches wanted and how fast the game is.”

Defensive line coach Angus McClure was pleased with all three, saying, “They know the system. They know the calls. They’re good.”

Vanderdoes and Fitts were ranked among the top 10 nationally by recruiting websites last year. Clark, seemingly ticketed for a redshirt year, played so well in training camp that nose tackle Ellis McCarthy was shifted to defensive end.

Still, “the challenge is sometimes freshmen play like freshmen,” McClure said. So, “it’s nice to have a big brother out there,” he said.

A few big brothers will be moving on.

Defensive end Cassius Marsh and nose tackle Seali’i Epenesa — both starters — are seniors, as is reserve defensive end Keenan Graham.

“You have to continually feed that machine,” Mora said. “Having three freshmen, like we do, who can go in and play at a high level is a great thing.”

The first-game reviews were good.

“Kenny Clark was unbelievable getting separation of double teams to get penetration,” McClure said. “Kylie had some great pass rush moves. And Eddie overall, what sticks out are those two tackles for a loss.”

It was nothing that the three didn’t expect as they waited on the sidelines.

“It was kind of like, ‘let’s go, time to prove our point,’” Fitts said. “This is the future.”

Boot camp

Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn continues to battle with long field goals. He pushed a 48-yard field-goal attempt wide to the right against Nevada, then was dead-solid perfect on a 40-yard attempt.

It left him three for eight on field-goal attempts of 40 yards or more.

“He hit that 48-yarder really well. He just hit it off to the right,” Mora said. “I’m not afraid to put him out there for a 50-some-yarder. But I want to make sure it is the right situation.”

Fairbairn, a sophomore, is almost automatic from inside the 40, where he has made 14 of 16. That included a 33-yard game-winner against Arizona State last season.

Mora is not concerned that the hit-or-miss from beyond 40 will become a mental block for Fairbairn.

“I don’t know if Ka'imi has as delicate a psyche as some kickers I have been around,” Mora said. “He’s a pretty tough kid; not a lot affects him. I like that in him.”