UCLA freshmen carry a lot of weight on defense — almost 1,000 pounds
Tyler Manoa sized up the 400-pound offensive lineman standing in front of him and didn’t see a friend so much as someone he wanted to pummel.
“On the field, we had a problem,” Manoa said this week of going against Atonio Mafi in high school.
Off the field, the Bay Area natives liked to hang out together. So it was no surprise that they went from rivals to roommates once they arrived at UCLA this summer.
The freshmen also joined forces after Mafi initiated a position switch from guard to nose tackle. That made him nearly inseparable from Manoa, a defensive end, in practices and meetings.
Said Manoa: “That’s my guy now.”
Said Mafi: “Now, you know, we’re brothers.”
The brotherhood has extended to include Otito Ogbonnia, another freshman and part of one of the youngest defensive lines in the Pac-12, if not the nation. All three freshmen have manned the line together this season, providing a glimpse of what could become a more dominant Bruins defense.
UCLA held Fresno State to 2.9 yards per carry and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in back-to-back games after letting one ball carrier and sometimes two reach that threshold in 16 consecutive games going back to 2016.
The freshman defensive linemen have combined for 15 tackles, with Mafi contributing to a tackle against Cincinnati that went for minus-two yards.
“They’re progressing and getting better each week,” coach Chip Kelly said. “They’re three kids who have size. They’ve got the physical attributes and now they’re just learning to make that adaption from the high school player to a college player.”
The trio’s sudden impact had been foreshadowed by their coaches.
“They told us to come in ready to play, not ready to [redshirt] or anything,” Manoa said. “They said, ‘The best man’s going to play’ and we’re here.”
Manoa could be going before long. He is deciding when to commence a two-year Mormon mission after putting it off so he could play this season and experience what it was like to be on his own, away from family.
Ogbonnia may miss some spring practices as a member of UCLA’s track and field team, participating in the shotput and discus.
UCLA’s offensive line became further depleted this week when redshirt freshman Zach Sweeney medically retired because of a shoulder injury.
Sweeney becomes the seventh offensive lineman to leave the team since Kelly’s arrival and the second to take a medical retirement, joining Jax Wacaser. Kanan Ray transferred to Colorado and Alex Akingbulu, Paco Perez, Stephan Zabie and Sean Seawards departed for unspecified reasons.
The Bruins get Boss Tagaloa back this week after he completed a three-game suspension for violating athletic department rules. Tagaloa has played both guard and center in practices, providing needed versatility for one of the thinnest positions on the roster.
“He really shored up a spot,” Kelly said, “because we had a lack of depth on the offensive line.”
UCLA is approaching the four-game cutoff that would allow players to redshirt and preserve a season of eligibility under a new NCAA rule, but Kelly said none of the true freshmen who have played is expected to start sitting out games.
“Those guys have earned playing time,” Kelly said, “so they’ll continue to play this year.”
Tackle Andre James returned to practice Tuesday after being absent this previous day. … Kelly, when asked if quarterback Wilton Speight was a full go in practice after being slowed in recent weeks by a back injury suffered in the season opener: “I don’t know. I mean, that’s a question you can ask him.” UCLA has not made Speight available to speak with reporters since Aug. 4, the second day of training camp.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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