After offseason overhaul, UCLA defense set for opening test
LOS ANGELES - When Chip Kelly signed a four-year extension to remain as UCLA’s coach, making changes to his defensive staff was at the top of his to-do list.
It turned out the offseason changes weren’t just confined to the coaching staff.
When the Bruins open the season Saturday at the Rose Bowl against Bowling Green, the defense will have only two starters and one assistant returning from the unit that took the field nine months earlier in the regular-season finale against California.
“I think (the staff has) meshed well as a group in presenting the package and making sure the group has grasped it before going on to the next step,” Kelly said. “I’ve been impressed with how they played in the spring preseason game and now we get a chance to test it on Saturday against another team.”
Headlining the changes is Bill McGovern at defensive coordinator following the resignation of Jerry Azzinaro. McGovern was on Kelly’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-15 and was the inside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears last season.
McGovern, who is a coordinator for the first time in 10 years, when he was at Boston College, was pleased with the installation process and how players adapted to new schemes throughout preseason camp.
“The guys we have are sharp guys, they pick stuff up very quickly,” he said. “One of the biggest things is finding out what our guys do well and try to put them in those situations and let them excel in there.”
McGovern’s biggest task is fixing a pass defense that has struggled in recent years. The Bruins allowed 260.2 passing yards per game last season, the worst in the Pac-12 and 56th out of 64 Power Five schools.
UCLA allowed over 300 yards three times and at least 280 yards in half of its 12 games.
The Bruins ran a nickel as their base defense the past couple seasons, but McGovern has changed things up a little bit with a variation of a 4-3. North Texas transfer Gabriel Murphy and Bo Calvert, one of only two returning starters, will be expected to provide the pass rush as hybrid defensive linemen/outside linebackers.
Murphy had seven sacks at North Texas last season and is one of three transfers who will start Saturday, along with linebacker Darius Muasau (Hawaii) and Azizi Hearn (Wyoming) at cornerback.
“Everybody always wants to know, ‘Are you 3-4, 4-3?’ You gotta be everything,” McGovern said. “You can’t live just in man or in a straight zone. You’re gonna have to have what we call tools in different coverages to help with different routes. Guys are getting a hang of that, but we’re running a complete defensive package.”
Kelly also brought on former UCLA standout and three-time Super Bowl champion Ken Norton Jr. as inside linebackers coach. Norton had been coaching in the NFL since 2010 and had been a coordinator the past seven seasons with the Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.
Norton has been the most vocal coach during practices when it has come to instructing and motivating his players.
“Just through our research, we wanted to get some NFL-style coaching,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve done a really good job against the run, but we need to do a better job in pass defense, so some of the principles that Bill and Ken have and pass rush schemes is kind of what we were looking for.”
Chad Kauha’aha’a (defensive line) and Ikaika Malloe (outside linebackers/special teams), who have experience in the Pac-12, were also added to the staff.
Safety Stephan Blaylock, who has made 31 straight starts for the Bruins, said forcing turnovers has been an increased focus since spring drills.
“We want to be physical, run to the ball and get off the field,” he said. “We don’t want to keep our offense cold. We wanna get our playmakers out there and put points up on the board.”
With temperatures expected to reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 Celsius) Saturday, UCLA will be cycling through plenty of players. The first three nonconference games - which also include FCS foe Alabama State and South Alabama - should also give the Bruins a chance to get plenty of underclassmen some game experience.