Eddie Vanderdoes Jr. vividly remembers his first football game. He was 8, but two things rush back at him.
“I had seven tackles,” the UCLA freshman defensive end recalls, “and the guy I was going against had B.O.”
The memory inspires an impish grin that looked out of place on the face of a 6-foot-4, 305-pound football player. “He really smelled,” Vanderdoes added.
This is the happy-go-lucky Vanderdoes, the guy even his father calls a big lug.
“He likes to be a little goofy,” Eddie Vanderdoes Sr. said.
Yet, the winding road that led to UCLA’s door required serious decisions.
Vanderdoes was a baseball-first kid, blessed with a lively arm and a father who coached the sport at Auburn (Calif.) Placer High. But eventually it became apparent that football was the best path to a college scholarship.
The journey took him east before leading to Westwood. Vanderdoes signed with Notre Dame but decided South Bend, Ind., was not the place for him. He spent the summer struggling to gain immediate eligibility at UCLA and was finally approved Aug. 1.
Vanderdoes is the most prominent of three freshman defensive linemen who arrived at UCLA this year. He moved into the starting lineup in the fifth game. A week later, against rough-and-tumble Stanford, he had 11 tackles.
“He’s just blessed,” UCLA senior defensive end Cassius Marsh said. “There are certain guys who have that natural knack for play-making. Eddie has that.”
Vanderdoes and the UCLA defense will face another stiff test Saturday, facing Arizona and running back Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher.
The Bruins have leaned on Vanderdoes, as well as the other freshman defensive linemen, nose tackle Kenny Clark and defense end Kylie Fitts. UCLA lost three defensive linemen before the season began: Defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa had hip surgery; nose tackles Brandon Tuliaupupu and Eli Ankou had knee surgeries.
“We knew we were going to have to play those three guys,” defensive line coach Angus McClure said. “They showed they belonged on the field.”
There was little doubt about Vanderdoes. The question was, on what field did he really belong?
Vanderdoes was a left-handed pitcher with a 93-mph fastball. He struck out 83 batters in 43 2/3 innings during two high school seasons.
“The sight of this 300-pound kid on the mound was a little weird,” his father said.
He wasn’t just a big kid. As a junior, he was second on the team with five stolen bases. But by then, it was becoming clear that baseball wasn’t his future.
“He kept getting bigger and bigger,” Vanderdoes Sr. said. “He seemed much more passionate about football.”
Making the rounds at national football camps, Vanderdoes dominated.
Alex Redmond, a starting guard for UCLA as a freshman, went up against Vanderdoes at a camp in Oregon. “The first day, Eddie threw me over the bags,” said Redmond, who is 6-5, 305. “He launched me. I felt embarrassed. I thought, ‘OK, this guy is pretty strong.’
“He’s just a mean, tough dude,” Redmond added. “He can do some damage.”
College coaches liked a lot of characteristics about Vanderdoes. “He has great flexibility for his size,” said McClure, UCLA’s line coach. “It gives him great leverage to knock offensive linemen back.”
All the big-time schools wanted Vanderdoes. Notre Dame seemed right at first. But long before he ever attended a class there, he wanted out.
It was reported that Vanderdoes wanted to remain closer to home to be near his ailing grandmother, but Vanderdoes’ father said that situation had “zero impact on the appeal.”
Notre Dame fought to prevent Vanderdoes from being eligible this season, but after a months-long process he was cleared to compete.
The delay in determining his eligibility slowed Vanderdoes’ preparation. A back injury during summer training camp put him behind, but it was clear to Coach Jim Mora that UCLA had something special.
“You watch high school film and you saw an explosive guy who just barreled over people,” Mora said. “There was that question: ‘Can he do it at this level?’ We saw immediately that he could.”
During the Bruins’ season opener against Nevada, coaches called for “Young Okie,” the code for an all-freshman defensive front. Vanderdoes, Clark and Fitts gathered during a television timeout.
“We had butterflies,” Clark said. “It was crazy to think about the three of us going out there together. We were smiling the whole time.”
Vanderdoes tackled Nevada’s Nate McLaurin for a seven-yard loss on the first play.
“That was the best moment,” Vanderdoes said. “All of us out there as a unit. That was cool.”