There was some comforting familiarity when UCLA Coach Jim Mora reviewed footage of his defense from the Bruins’ season opener.
He liked what he saw from No. 11.
“He looked fast, explosive, exciting, dynamic,” Mora said of a player making his college debut against Texas A&M.
Keisean Lucier-South gladly accepted the accolades that had long applied to Anthony Barr, his numerical predecessor. He hadn’t always wanted to share that number.
Lucier-South wore No. 16 at Orange Lutheran High but couldn’t keep it at UCLA because it was retired, having once belonged to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gary Beban.
So he texted Barr before he even signed his letter of intent, asking for permission to wear the same number the linebacker had made famous as a Bruin on the way to the NFL.
“He said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” Lucier-South recalled.
The redshirt freshman no longer plays linebacker, having switched to defensive end, but he intends to mimic the ferociousness that made Barr one of the top defenders in UCLA history. First, he’ll probably have to add some weight.
Lucier-South made one tackle against Texas A&M and was neutralized at times by significantly larger and stronger tackles. Standing 6 feet 4, he weighs about 229 pounds and hopes to reach 250 by the end of his college career.
“We all want him to be Anthony Barr right now,” Mora said, “but Anthony Barr wasn’t Anthony Barr until he was really a junior or a senior and Keisean’s a redshirt freshman, but he’s working hard to get stronger and get bigger.”
Lucier-South got to play in part because of injuries to defensive ends Takkarist McKinley (groin) and Deon Hollins (concussion). Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said both players participated in practice Tuesday, though Hollins wore a red no-contact jersey. Mora has indicated he would be cautious with both players before allowing them to return.
Running onto the field for his first play Saturday, Lucier-South said he felt goosebumps because he was so nervous. Going from playing Mater Dei High to Texas A&M was a bit different.
“It was new to me,” Lucier-South said, “but after my first play I just got comfortable with the fast tempo, the pace of the game.”
The next step will be following Barr’s advice to work on his technique and make a few extra trips to the refrigerator.
“He told me to work on your craft every single day, before practice, after practice,” Lucier-South said, “and eat a lot of food.”
Making the call
Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu wasn’t looking to Mora for help on the final play of overtime. The call was entirely his to make.
“I think the best thing to do as a head coach is just stay out of the play-caller’s way except to tell him what you’re thinking in terms of, ‘Hey, we go for it here, we have two downs, manage the clock,’ things like that,” Mora said. “That was Kennedy [on the last play] and he did a tremendous job.”
Quarterback Josh Rosen’s pass to tight end Austin Roberts fell incomplete, but like much of the game, the Bruins’ shortcomings appeared to be a matter of execution. Polamalu’s offense thrived in comeback mode, especially when it was operating out of the spread formation. He said he had no regrets about his play calling.
“He called a great game,” Mora said. “I mean, there were some plays wide open. He did a tremendous job. I was so impressed with his demeanor on the sidelines, with his communication, with the way he handled substitutions — we didn’t have any substitution errors.”
Polamalu said he preferred to operate on the sideline instead of in the press box because it gave him a better feel for his players.
“When you look them in the eye, they want to give you their best and they don’t want to let you down and you don’t want to let them down,” Polamalu said. “But you can’t see that when you’re up in the box.”
UCLA fell out of the rankings in the Associated Press media and Amway coaches polls after its 31-24 overtime loss to the Aggies.