UCLA gets back to basics in an effort to improve its faltering defense

Stanford running back Bryce Love runs for a touchdown against UCLA on Sept. 23. The Bruins are giving up 307.5 rushing yards per game.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Practice had ended Tuesday, and some UCLA players lingered to talk while others retreated to the cushy confines of their new $75-million football facility.

Cornerback Darnay Holmes stood alone in the midday sun. He sprinted a few yards before flinging his body toward a tackling sled, wrapping his muscled arms around the thick padding. He grunted as he pushed the contraption up the field.

It was a post-practice drill that would have been routine for training camp, but not nearly a month into the season.


Strange times for the Bruins defense have sparked unusual responses as the calendar creeps toward October.

“You gotta get back to fundamentals, get back to the basics,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “Sometimes you try to play everything, you play nothing.”

UCLA’s defense has essentially been a nonentity through four games, ranking among the worst in the nation. The Bruins are ranked No. 129 out of 129 major college teams in run defense (giving up 307.5 yards a game), No. 124 in total defense (524.8 yards) and No. 124 in scoring defense (43.3 points a game).

These are the numbers generated by a defense that was expected to be a team strength. Before training camp started, UCLA coach Jim Mora identified his defensive line and secondary as the two deepest units on the team.

The defensive line has three sacks in its last three games and the secondary was scorched for eight touchdowns in the last two. The Bruins have given up 14 running plays of at least 12 yards.

The failures have sparked something of an existential crisis among coaches.

“We’ve all been through stretches where something that we’ve in the past been very, very good at and has helped us elevate to the spot that we’re at isn’t going very well, and so you just start questioning everything,” Mora said. “The important thing is that we all pull together and we all search endlessly for answers to the issues that we’re having and we emphasize them and we work on them and we overcome them.”


The problems are not rooted in one area. Linemen have been pushed off the line of scrimmage, linebackers have struggled to shed blocks and backs have missed tackles in the open field. Players at all three positions have looked tentative on blitzes, though line coach Angus McClure said that the Bruins have had success pressuring the quarterback even if it wasn’t reflected in traditional statistics.

One of the biggest causes of the defense’s struggles, McClure said, was players trying to overexert themselves instead of sticking to their assignments.

“What happens is guys get anxious, they want to make plays and they want to do extra effort things and they forget what their job is,” McClure said. “That’s where we’re having trouble as a defense.”

Bradley said he faced a similar predicament during a coaching career that has spanned nearly four decades, though he couldn’t remember the year. It wasn’t recently.

Bradley’s defense gave up 4.9 yards per play last season, tied for second best in the Pac-12 Conference, and his defenses at Penn State, where he was the defensive coordinator for 11 years, were regularly among the best in the country. During one eight-season span, the Nittany Lions ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed seven times and in the top 20 in total defense seven times.

Fighting through an epic downturn like the Bruins are experiencing, Bradley said, requires focusing on basic concepts until they become ingrained. Tackling drills were brought back this week and linebackers and defensive backs worked on bringing down ballcarriers in the open field.


Receiver Damian Alloway was used as a second tailback on running plays, trailing the primary tailback before bursting ahead whenever his predecessor was stopped by the defensive linemen so that the other defenders could converge on him.

Spirits seemed high among the players considering that UCLA, 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Pac-12, has given up 106 points in its last two games, with Holmes saying there were no “energy vampires” on the team.

“Each and every day, we’re out here smiling and working,” Holmes said. “I feel like another team would be on a downfall because they lost two games in a row, but it’s a different vibe out here and I love it.”

There has been no finger-pointing between an offense that’s ranked among the best in the nation and a defense that’s ranked among the worst, in part because the offense has pointed a finger at itself. Quarterback Josh Rosen noted that the Bruins have also struggled with turnovers. They’ve committed seven in the last two games, four on UCLA’s side of the field.

Holmes predicted a “big shift” in the defense for the Bruins on Saturday night against Colorado (3-1, 0-1) at the Rose Bowl. Defensive end Jaelan Phillips, who is trying to return from an ankle injury, pledged on Twitter to come back “with a vengeance that no one has seen before. We’re not losing another game, I put that on everything I love.”

Whatever issues UCLA must overcome, Bradley said a lack of talent was not among them.

“I love our personnel,” he said. “I love our kids, I love our players, I think they’re really going to be a great defense and it’s our job to make sure that we really put them in the proper position to do that.”


Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch