LOS ANGELES — Angus McClure gesticulates wildly while yelling from the sideline. Players in white practice jerseys sprint off the field while others sprint off the sideline to trade places. During a three-hour practice, the defensive line coach rolls through nine different combinations at his position.
All in a day’s work for the UCLA defense.
The greatest strength of the UCLA defense is its versatility at all three levels. Personnel packages are vast. A single player might line up in three different positions over the course of one practice. Each position coach emphasizes position flexibility, giving the Bruins depth in the event of injury and the ability to adjust their formations against any offense.
“You need to look at it as a scheme instead of just a position, which helps a lot, knowing where the other players are going to be,” defensive lineman Rick Wade said.
McClure is “very strict” in making sure his group learns multiple positions, Wade said. The redshirt sophomore can play on the strong-side defensive end or shift to the weak side in a running situation to give the Bruins a bigger body. Senior Jacob Tuioti-Mariner will likely start inside for the Bruins, but has played three of UCLA’s four defensive line positions during his career.
“It comes down to the whole group, not individuals,” McClure said. “A guy’s a starter, that’s important to me because that’s their goal, to start, but also the guys that are backing those guys up, they’re just as important, they’re going to get just as many reps. I coached the second-string guys, the third-string guys, the fourth-string guys just like I coach the first-string guys.”
Developing versatility starts in the meeting room with film study and mental reps. On the field, players are expected to listen to the coach, even if he’s giving instruction to another player. They preach concepts, not just positions. The opportunity to take physical reps at various positions is limited during the season, which makes training camp especially important.
Four days into camp, the linebackers went through a major alignment change, but it didn’t faze the group. Kenny Young and Josh Woods were pushed from the middle and weak-side linebacker roles, respectively, to make room for Lokeni Toailoa, but when the Bruins bring in an extra defensive back in their nickel package, Young and Woods slide back to the positions they practiced all spring.
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