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Utah Opponent Preview: UCLA Defense

UCLA looks to improve pass rush and create turnovers this Saturday against the Utes.

Myles Jack looks to cause problems for the Utes this Saturday.
Myles Jack looks to cause problems for the Utes this Saturday.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The first thing that stands out when you see UCLA's defense play is the athleticism. The defensive side is littered with former four and five star recruits, such as Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack. Before the season there was speculation that this year's UCLA's defense might be better than last year's, despite the losses of Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh and Jordan Zumwalt. Yet while the defense is loaded with talent, many say they have underperformed so far this year.

First year coordinator Jeff Ulbrich runs a base 3-4 scheme, however he also likes to mix in a lot of nickel packages. The defensive line almost always shows three down lineman, but the number of linebackers on the field often fluctuates between two and four. Eddie Vanderdoes and Owamagbe Odighizuwa bookend the D-line, while nose tackle Kenny Clark clogs up the middle. At linebacker Myles Jack and Erik Kendricks are UCLA's best and rarely leave the field. The secondary is full of playmakers with Ishmael Adams at corner and Randall Goforth at safety. Nobody in the secondary is very big (Adams is listed at a generous 5'8"), but they are fast and physical, often making their size seem irrelevant.

The pass rush this year has been widely criticized by pundits and fans alike. Through four games, UCLA has only recorded four sacks and has allowed average passers plenty of time to make plays, as evidenced by Arizona State's backup quarterback Mike Bercovici's 488 yard, three touchdown performance last week in Tempe. Coach Jim Mora expressed concern this week about the lack of pass rush saying "We need to improve," adding "We need to win more one-on-one battles. We need to do a better job of creating for those guys and putting them in positions to rush when we know it's a pass." The Bruins will have to figure a way to get pressure this week as Travis Wilson will be the best quarterback they will have faced this year.

One name that may improve the Bruins pass rush Saturday night is Takkarist McKinley. Originally a Cal commit, the highly touted defensive line recruit appeared to fail to qualify academically, winding up at junior college Contra Costa College. UCLA followed McKinley closely however, and after reviewing his transcripts they noticed McKinley had completed some summer classes that would make him eligible to play for UCLA. McKinley was just recently cleared and began practicing with UCLA last week. It will be interesting to see if the Bruins try to get him some limited action to spark the pass rush.

While the pass rush has been less than Bruins fans hoped for, and the secondary has given up a lot of passing yards, the saving grace for UCLA's defense has been big plays. Despite the fact that ASU's backup quarterback lit up the Bruin defense last week, the defense also caused him to throw two interceptions and cough up a fumble. One of those interceptions was a 95 yard pick-six by Ishmael Adams that completely changed the momentum of the game. It was Adams second pick-six of the year, and the Bruins third of the season. Both Adams and linebacker Erik Kendricks returned interceptions for touchdowns in the Bruins opener against Virginia.The Bruins defense has 4 touchdowns on takeaways this year, with Randall Goforth also returning a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown against Virginia. The UCLA coaches have indicated they are okay with the Bruins defense giving up yards as long as they continue to play aggressively and create turnovers, with Jim Mora being quoted this week as saying "It's the team at the end of the game with the most points that wins, not the team with the most yards. So that's how I feel about yards."

With the Bruins struggling to bring pressure on the quarterback combined with the amount of yards the UCLA defense has allowed, it seems Travis Wilson has the opportunity to have a big game. After last year's six interception fiasco ending with a Myles Jack interception to close out the game, you can bet Wilson will be fired up to get another shot at this UCLA defense. It can be argued Utah should have won last years game if not for all the turnovers. However, turnovers are part of the game and a big reason UCLA is undefeated currently. If the Utes take care of the ball and keep UCLA from forcing any turnovers, the Utes have a shot to leave Pasadena victorious. If the Utes are sloppy with the ball and turn it over, well, ask Arizona State what happens.