The motivation came from within, and from all around him.
Osa Odighizuwa sized up UCLA’s young batch of defensive linemen and realized that, as a fourth-year junior, he was the oldest. That made him feel almost obliged to fulfill a coach’s challenge to run offseason workouts.
And so a new leader was born, at 6 feet 2 and 280 pounds.
“He’s kind of like that big brother,” sophomore defensive lineman Atonio Mafi said Monday of Odighizuwa, “but also like a coach type.”
Odighizuwa set up drills for his fellow linemen nearly every day after classes and on Saturdays. They worked on hand placement, footwork and other techniques to improve their pass rush.
The mentor shared in the growth.
“The best way to learn something is to teach it to other people,” Odighizuwa said, “so I like answering people’s questions and just like being someone that they can look to.”
Odighizuwa had long known the power of a role model, having watched older brother Owa star for the Bruins before going on to play for the NFL’s New York Giants.
UCLA’s current frontman for its 3-4 defensive alignment said he and fellow projected starters Mafi and Otito Ogbonnia were playing more instinctively as a result of having mastered the playbook during their second year under defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro.
“When you know the system,” Odighizuwa said, “you don’t have to think as much, you can just make presnap reads and things like that.”
The players’ increased knowledge has also allowed coaches to install additional schematic wrinkles, Mafi said.
Any improvement is welcome for one of the nation’s worst pass-rushing units. UCLA’s 15 sacks last season tied it with Oregon State for last place in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins’ defensive line generated only four sacks, led by Odighizuwa’s three.
Odighizuwa said sacks shouldn’t be the only measure of the linemen’s success. They also want to help shut down the opposing running game and force rushed throws to help the UCLA secondary.
The line figures to get ample help from sophomore Tyler Manoa, junior Martin Andrus Jr. and recently converted linebacker Elijah Wade, who manned the second team during a recent practice.
At 6-2 and 360 pounds, Mafi has adopted a less-is-more approach, having shed 51 pounds since his arrival on campus last summer. A body that’s as lean as it’s been since he was a freshman in high school isn’t the only weapon he’s packing.
“It’s all about intent,” Mafi said. “Last year, we didn’t really have that pass rush mind-set and that’s what we definitely have this year.”
The linemen also don’t seem to mind the grind of training camp, thanks to their new leader.
“The way he’s been working, man, it’s unmatched,” linebacker Krys Barnes said of Odighizuwa. “To see him transition into the role that he has now, it’s huge. I’m really excited for the season to see the breakout year he’s going to have.”
UCLA’s defense suffered its first injury casualty of training camp. Linebacker Tyree Thompson was spotted wearing a yellow jersey in the weight room alongside injured running back Joshua Kelley during the portion of practice open to the media. Receivers Theo Howard, Michael Ezeike and Dymond Lee practiced while wearing yellow jerseys to signal they, too, were recovering from injuries. … The Bruins are scheduled to take Tuesday off before resuming practice Wednesday morning.