UCLA linebacker Deon Hollins has heard the compliments, but wants more.
Yes, Hollins proved to be an exceptional pass rusher coming off the edge last season. He had a team-high nine sacks.
“He’s got an amazing first step,” Coach Jim Mora said. “Sometimes officials are getting ready to reach for their flag because he looks like he’s getting off before the snap, but he’s not.”
Hefty praise, but Hollins, a junior, knows UCLA needs more from him and the other players who patrol the edge of the Bruins’ defense.
UCLA gave up 30 or more points in seven of their last nine games last season. And now new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and first-year linebackers coach Scott White are on the scene.
Mora said UCLA players seem “excited about what we’re doing schematically and the aggressive nature that we’re going to play with in terms of trying to force our opponent to adjust to us.”
Key to that strategy will be whether the Bruins can control the perimeter.
UCLA returns eight starters on defense, and safety Randall Goforth, a redshirt junior who is back after two shoulder surgeries. But the Bruins gave up an average of 28.1 points per game last season.
Mobile quarterbacks were a particular problem. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota was a headache for everyone, but UCLA also was hurt by Utah backup Kendal Thompson, who had 82 yards rushing in the Utes’ 30-28 victory.
UCLA’s defense needs to shore up on the outside, especially with junior Myles Jack moving from outside linebacker to an inside spot this season.
Hollins could be the linchpin. A year ago, he developed into an effective pass rusher, but now hopes to move beyond being called a “sack specialist.”
“I have worked hard in the off-season to be equally versed in all parts of the game,” Hollins said. “I have been ironing out coverage concepts and working on the intricacies of the position. I have made a lot of strides.”
The Bruins need Hollins to be an effective every-down linebacker, and he has shown the raw abilities to get there.
“It’s important for him to be good,” Mora said. “He’s developed physically, and he’s become a player that we see reaching the potential that we recognized when we recruited him.”
A similar jump is needed from junior defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who was also a pass-rush specialist last season. The other outside linebacker spot is up for grabs. Redshirt junior Kene Orjioke is returning from knee surgery, redshirt senior Aaron Wallace has started two games in his college career, and junior Cameron Judge is making the shift from inside linebacker.
“The thing holding us back [last season] was focus,” Hollins said. “We have to stay focused on our own area, that three-yard world, and worry about our own job. We can’t try to compensate for anyone else. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
A lot was expected of the Bruins last season. There was even an ESPN prediction of a spot in the national playoff.
This season, they were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 Conference South by the media.
Still, the Bruins return 18 of 22 starters and the schedule appears less daunting than it was a year ago. An optimist might think another 10-win season will be a snap and the division title could easily be attained.
The Bruins are trying to stay away from such talk.
“I’ve never really been a guy to Google ‘UCLA football’ or who reads all that stuff,” center Jake Brendel said.
Expectations, the fifth-year senior added, “are something that can help us or break us. Outside pressure can get to your head or it can propel you to bigger, better things.”