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UCLA wants to put the finishing touches on an improved pass rush

UCLA wants to put the finishing touches on an improved pass rush
Oregon quarterback Braxton Burmeister is sandwiched by UCLA defenders Osa Odighizuwa, left, and Nate Meadows during a 2017 game at the Rose Bowl. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As one of the veterans of UCLA’s defense, Osa Odighizuwa tries to uphold what he called a standard of effort.

“Always running to the ball,” the defensive lineman said, “always finishing everything we do.”

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Closing the deal has been a problem for the Bruins’ pass rushers. They logged only 15 sacks last season, tied with Oregon State for the fewest in the Pac-12 Conference.

Though they routinely reached the backfield, UCLA’s defenders rarely brought down the quarterback. They were like fruit flies hovering over an apple covered by plastic wrap, unable to reach their target.

“I think for a lot of people,” linebacker Odua Isibor said, “it’s just the finishing aspect, working the move and finishing off it and getting to the quarterback. It’s that final level of strain that you kind of fail to do subconsciously.”

The defenders have fully exerted themselves this spring, breaking down every stance and step that can help them get to the quarterback. Isibor has studied footage of Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, hoping to mimic one move that helped Donald notch an NFL-leading 20½ sacks last season.

That’s the sort of individual improvement that coach Chip Kelly said his team would need to create a more ferocious pass rush.

“It can’t always be scheme,” Kelly said. “At certain times you’re playing against really well-coached teams that know exactly what you’re bringing and then you’ve got to win one-on-one battles.”

The Bruins have toiled in recent weeks without linebacker Keisean Lucier-South, whose four sacks last season led the team. Lucier-South has missed spring practices to focus on his schoolwork but is expected to return for fall camp.

His absence has led to more repetitions for others seeking to make an impression. The linebackers who have participated in recent spring practices accounted for just five sacks last season, led by Lokeni Toailoa’s three sacks.

UCLAs’ defensive linemen notched only four sacks last season, including three by Odighizuwa, who will be a redshirt junior in 2018. It’s a number that needs to rise appreciably for the good of a defense that last season gave up 34.1 points and 444.9 yards per game, both second-worst in the conference.

“It’s going to take a lot of pressure off of our [defensive backs],” Isibor said of getting more sacks. “If we can get our pass rush going, I think we’ll have a more complete defense.”

Plugging holes

Offensive lineman Zach Cochrun joined the group of injured players wearing yellow jerseys, further thinning the Bruins’ depth at the position.

Kelly said the shortage of bodies has led to linemen practicing at multiple positions, particularly among the second-stringers. Jon Gaines has shifted from center to guard to tackle and Alec Anderson has rotated between left and right tackle while working with the first team.

“We’re just trying to bounce all those guys around to find out what is the best position for them,” Kelly said, “and then when we get back to the fall, we’ll start to dial in on exactly, hey where are we going to practice this guy full-time?”

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Spring fling

UCLA will stage a spring game on Saturday at Drake Stadium on campus. That was about the only thing Kelly would commit to when he met with reporters before practice Thursday.

Kelly said he wouldn’t know the format for the game or who would be available to participate until after the team’s final practice session.

The Bruins’ 2018 spring game lasted one half, Kelly said last week, because the Pac-12 Networks allotted just one hour for its broadcast.

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