Ken Norton Jr. and other new UCLA coaches make strong impression with players

Ken Norton Jr. talks to linebackers (from left) Adam Cohen, Kain Medrano and Darius Muasau at spring practice.
UCLA linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. talks to linebackers (from left) Adam Cohen, Kain Medrano and Darius Muasau at spring practice on Saturday.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Two weeks into spring football practice at UCLA, one voice has carried louder than any other at Spaulding Field, that of inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. His is one of several fresh faces — and certainly the most recognizable — on this season’s defensive staff, complementing new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern and fellow additions Chad Kauha’aha’a (defensive line) and Ikaika Malloe (outside linebackers).

Norton, a three-time Super Bowl champion who played for the Bruins in 1984-87 under Terry Donahue, implores his players during drills to “Go! Go! Go!” and the entire defensive unit is feeding off his energy.

“I feel good physically, I’m pretty much healed, trying to get my legs back under me and get better day by day,” said defensive lineman Martin Andrus Jr., who endured a long and intense rehab after suffering ACL injuries to both knees that caused him to sit out 26 games but was a team captain for the Bruins’ rivalry game against USC in November. “I’ve missed the last two or three spring balls, so it’s good to be back and get in football shape. [Duke transfer] Gary Smith Jr. has been solid just in the couple of weeks he’s been here — he’s picking up the defense real fast and so are the rest of us.”

Caleb Johnson’s departure from UCLA comes after spending a handful of spring practice alongside Darius Muasau, a transfer linebacker from Hawaii.


According to Andrus, the new staff is letting players know what is expected of them: “They’re just laying a foundation right now and the big thing our new DC is preaching is takeaways, so that’ll be a big part of our game in the fall.”

Fellow redshirt senior tackle Odua Isabor misses seeing Tyler Manoa line up on his side of the ball. Manoa, a four-year defensive lineman, has been moved to right tackle.

“We have smart, NFL coaches and I definitely felt a business-like mentality when they got here, like we have a job to do and let’s go to work,” Isabor said. “Everyone is younger than me — it’s just me and Martin in that room as the older guys, but it’s fun. I haven’t gotten a chance to physically go up against Tyler yet, but I definitely felt him gone today. He’s taking things in stride, he’s very smart and switching to offense is a good opportunity for him.”

UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu pounds the pads during UCLA spring football practice.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Two newcomers who have made an impact since arriving March 28 are twins: edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy. The redshirt junior transfers from North Texas combined for 26.5 tackles and 15.5 sacks last fall and at least one of them could earn a starting spot.

Redshirt senior defensive back Kenny Churchwell III is looking forward to the challenge of replacing safety Quentin Lake, who participated in the NFL scouting combine Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on March 6.

“Those are big shoes to fill, but I’m ready for this opportunity. … I bring energy, love and 100% effort,“ Churchwell said. “There are only 11 guys on the field and I try to be the best. I’m ready to go.”

McGovern, who has coached in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, has made a strong first impression with veterans such as fifth-year strong safety Stephan Blaylock: “I like him a lot and it seems like he likes us too. He’s always talking to us individually or even as a group. He always encourages us to speak up if you see things out there that I don’t see.”

With Lincoln Riley taking over at USC, all eyes and interest will be on the Trojans whether or not UCLA coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins can keep up.

On Thursday, senior linebacker Caleb Johnson announced on Twitter he was entering the transfer portal, leaving the Bruins with two returning defensive starters, Blaylock and linebacker Bo Calvert.

“It’s a little shock when someone enters the portal,” Blaylock said. “Once you build a bond you want to keep the family together, but things happen, people leave and separate and at the end of the day he’s still going to be our brother.”

Cornerback Devin Kirkwood, a true sophomore, echoes Blaylock’s opinion of McGovern, who is taking over for Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA’s defensive coordinator under coach Chip Kelly since 2017.

“I love him,” Kirkwood said after practice Saturday morning. “I talk to him every day, he comes up to me and we crack jokes all the time and he helps me see the game in a lot of different ways than I normally do. He helps me understand why I should to press this way or why I shouldn’t. He teaches me to forget and keep playing hard. Sometimes I’m going to get a ball caught on me, but I want to win more than I lose.”

Former Oaks Christian running back Zach Charbonnet showcases in UCLA practice how much work he has done to improve on his strong 2021 season.

Though UCLA’s rush defense was stingy in 2021 (giving up 124.3 yards per game, second fewest in the Pac-12 behind Utah), the Bruins gave up 260.2 yards per game through the air — the most in the conference.

Embracing the leadership role is Mo Osling III, who has alternated between safety and cornerback during his career in Westwood, prolonged by COVID-19, and he promised his sixth season will be his last: “I never thought about leaving the program. I grew up here in L.A., it’s my hometown and I couldn’t leave my family. I have a lot of faith in the younger guys too. They’re in good hands.”

Wyoming cornerback Azizi Hearn transferred to UCLA in mid-January and already the fifth-year player from Oceanside High, who began his college career at Arizona, is well-respected by his teammates: “He and I are two different people, but I love him — he’s like a big brother to me,” Kirkwood said of Hearn. “Whenever I’m exhausted he always comes over to check up on me and make sure I’m straight.”