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UCLA looks dynamic on defense while offense suffers growing pains

UCLA looks dynamic on defense while offense suffers growing pains
Randall Goforth, returning a fumble for a touchdown against Virginia in last season's opening game, played in only two games because of injury but returns to a Bruins defense with nine starters back. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA's defensive players have definite plans for this season.

"We like our swag," safety Randall Goforth said.

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Translation from safety Jaleel Wadood: "We want other teams to feel our presence."

There was little doubt that the defense put a drag on UCLA's season a year ago. There were some big moments, like scoring three defensive touchdowns in the opener against Virginia or holding Arizona to 255 yards and seven points.

But too often, it was the offense that had to cover for the defense. The Bruins averaged 33.5 points per game, but allowed 28.1, ranking them 75th among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

This season, the roles may be reversed.

The Bruins have plenty of tools they can use to build an offense, but they lack an experienced mechanic. No matter who the quarterback is, either freshman Josh Rosen or junior Jerry Neuheisel, there will be growing pains.

The defense, meanwhile, returns nine starters and gets Goforth back. Goforth, a starter in 2013, played only two games last year before needing surgery on both shoulders.

There appears to be a wealth of talent in reserve. So much so that reserve Marcus Rios has edged out Ishmael Adams at one cornerback spot. Adams, who has started 26 games, will see plenty of time as a nickelback.

Coach Jim Mora treads cautiously, saying, "if we're able to play to the level of our potential, and if we remain injury free, we can be a really dynamic defense."

Players, though, are ready to go further.

"We have so much talent and we have become a really close group," linebacker Deon Hollins said. "I think you'll see a big difference this year."

One big difference is already apparent.

Tom Bradley, hired during the winter as defensive coordinator, brings a long resume of success from his years at Penn State.

The Bruins were more aggressive during two weeks of training camp than they were during the 2014 season. They use a variety of looks and appear capable of creating pressure with their linebackers.

That was one reason that the quarterbacks, particularly Rosen, labored at times during camp.

Bradley, though, sprints from taking any credit. It's a shared strategy, he said, involving defensive line coach Angus McClure, linebacker coach Scott White and defensive back coach Demetrice Martin.

"Everybody is involved in what we're trying to do here," Bradley said. "It's not my ideas, it's our ideas. We've gotten together and talked about what we can do well. What pushes the envelope? What's too much? What can't we do? We kind of stirred the whole pot together."

Two things the Bruins seem capable of doing is pressuring the quarterback and covering downfield with the type of speed needed to counter the up-tempo offenses barnstorming around the Pac-12.

"I believe we have a good defense, and I believe we can run the ball," Mora said. "I believe those two things will help whoever the quarterback is adjust."

The defense part requires ongoing tinkering.

"We have cut things out, we have added things," Bradley said. "We have tried to figure out what's the right mix for the guys we have. You have to have enough things to keep people off-balance. Sometimes, as coach, you tend to have that one more thing in your pocket, 'Ah we need this,' but then you never use it. You have to discipline yourself to say, 'OK, this is what we're doing, that's it.'"

Numbers game

UCLA receiver coach Eric Yarber said that he will probably rotate eight receivers, not counting Y-backs Thomas Duarte, Nate Iese and Chris Clark, this season.

The Bruins have 13 receivers on scholarship. Friday night's scrimmage offered a window into how the competition is going.

Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, Eldridge Massington, Kenneth Walker III, Darren Andrews, Mossi Johnson and Tyler Scott ran with the first team.

Payton enters the season with 123 career receptions and Fuller with 122. Craig Bragg holds the UCLA career record with 193 receptions.

Quick hits

UCLA goes back to work Monday, but will not be able to use Spaulding Field because of construction on the new football facility. The Bruins will practice on the intramural fields. Workouts are closed to the public. ... Tackle Conor McDermott (knee) and center Jake Brendel (calf) are expected to resume work on the first-team offensive line Monday.

twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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