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In your face? That’s the way UCLA’s secondary hopes to attack offenses

UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock forces Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin to fumble.
UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock forces Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin to fumble on the first drive of their game on Oct. 26, 2019.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

UCLA had a tendency last season to give up large chunks of yardage even before the snap.

Sagging coverages from the defensive backs, even on third-and-short plays, often led to big gains. In a related development, the Bruins surrendered a school-record 3,729 passing yards and finished the season 4-8.

Enter a new defensive backs coach and a new mentality.

“Coach Norwood likes us to play aggressive,” safety Stephan Blaylock said Thursday via Zoom.

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That would be Brian Norwood, who brought with him the 4-2-5 defense that he helped install at Navy in 2019 as the co-defensive coordinator. The Midshipmen finished the season ranked No. 16 nationally in total defense, the major factor in winning a school-record 11 games after having won only three the season before Norwood’s arrival.

UCLA’s 11 offensive linemen returning from last season gained an average of 15 pounds, and that was after some shed pandemic weight.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly has downplayed the changes to his defense, saying the 4-2-5 is similar to the nickel package the Bruins used last season whenever they faced a spread offense, but players have indicated the team has adopted a more ferocious approach in its early training camp practices.

“Mainly attacking, attacking offense really, right off the jump,” nickelback Carl Jones said. “When we see a run, just going and getting it, so [Norwood is] just really bringing the juice.”

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Jones clapped his hands together midsentence to indicate the violence of a defender smashing into a running back.

Other small signs suggest that changes are afoot. In drills, Blaylock said, the defensive backs were taught about “playing through your hands” and “being more aggressive when playing the ball in the air.”

What about playing up closer to the line of scrimmage than last season?

“I think so,” Blaylock said. “ … That might be something that we’d like to be out there.”

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The Bruins’ secondary has undergone considerable turnover after the departure of cornerback Darnay Holmes to the NFL and the arrival of graduate transfers Qwuantrezz Knight and Obi Eboh. In another significant development, safety Quentin Lake has returned from the hand injury that limited him to four games last season.

UCLA will kick off its coronavirus-shortened 2020 Pac-12 football season on the road against former coach Karl Dorrell and Colorado on Nov. 7.

Cornerbacks Rayshad Williams and Jay Shaw are also expected to contend for starting roles as part of a defense that will feature several familiar names while intending to bear little resemblance to the 2019 version.

“I feel like when we get to Week 1 against Colorado,” Jones said, “you guys will see that we’ve come ready.”

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Etc.

Thousands of supporters have signed a petition asking that parents of Pac-12 Conference football players be allowed inside stadiums during games this season. Even though the Pac-12 has granted approval for a limited number of players’ family and friends to attend games, they still must receive clearance from local health officials. … UCLA opened as a six-point favorite over Colorado in its first game, per BetOnline.


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