The unlikely rise of UCLA’s defense

UCLA defensive lineman Keanu Williams (99) triumphantly celebrates after successfully recovering a fumble by Washington State quarterback Cam Williams at the magnificent Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena this past Saturday. Basking in this victorious moment is just one aspect of the peculiar demands made by D’Anton Lynn, UCLA’s recently appointed defensive coordinator. Lynn insists on constant communication from his players – on the field, after each play, and on the sidelines, during drives that may not have been particularly fruitful. The purpose of this incessant chatter is to enable the players to discuss any nuances, such as formations, shifts, movements, and tendencies that might grant their teammates a minuscule advantage in ensuring another defensive stop.

Lynn’s players have willingly embraced this “obnoxious communication” approach. The team is a diverse mix of individuals with comeback stories, late bloomers, and unexpected contributors, which has now culminated in the formation of possibly the best defense in the Pac-12 conference. They not only have a lot to say but want to ensure that their words resonate with everyone, not just themselves. “When I say that we come in with a chip on our shoulder every day,” said redshirt senior linebacker Darius Muasau, “we want to prove that we are the best.”

The team is comprised of 13 transfers from various institutions who now occupy prominent positions on the team’s depth chart. Additionally, edge rusher Laiatu Latu, whose career was thought to be over due to a severe neck injury, has made an astounding comeback and has become a valuable asset to the team. With five sacks in five games, he has garnered attention from NFL teams and has become a thorn in the side of opposing teams from his new home with the Bruins.

What makes this defensive success story even more extraordinary is that these are the same players who have endured the derogatory reputation of having the worst defense in the conference under Chip Kelly’s leadership. However, now they find themselves envisioning an exceptional season. The Bruins, currently ranked No. 18 in the nation, with a 4-1 overall record and a 1-1 record in the Pac-12, have returned to the national rankings. They now face a significant challenge as they prepare for a Saturday face-off against No. 15 Oregon State, who boast a record of 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference. UCLA’s defense managed to limit Washington State to just one offensive touchdown, maintaining their season-long streak of not allowing opponents to score multiple touchdowns without help from their own defense.

Impressed by UCLA’s defenders, Washington State coach Jake Dickert referred to them as “creatures,” a testament to their imposing size and their ability to effectively shut down the opposing team. This coined nickname perfectly encapsulates the Bruins’ prowess on the field.

This transformation from being perceived as the worst defense to reaching their current level of success is truly astounding. UCLA’s defense is currently ranked No. 5 in the nation, conceding a mere 254.2 yards per game. If you discount the two interception returns for touchdowns that UCLA has allowed, they are only giving up an average of 9.4 points per game. This is a significant improvement compared to previous seasons.

The man responsible for this remarkable turnaround is defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn. Not only is he the first defensive coordinator for the Bruins to earn a million-dollar salary, but he also commands universal admiration from those who have witnessed UCLA’s defense struggle in the past. Over the past five seasons, the Bruins’ defense ranked poorly in total defense, finishing as low as No. 113 and No. 102 nationally. However, Lynn has already made his mark, earning high praise for his work. What Lynn finds most exhilarating is watching his players have fun on the field as they execute their newfound strategies.

Lynn’s choice to work from the sidelines instead of the press box has allowed him to be more intimately involved in the game. Other defensive coordinators typically prefer the distance of the press box for a better view, but Lynn believes being on the field is the best way to connect with his players. He can make eye contact with them, provide immediate adjustments, and be present alongside them during the game. This decision showcases Lynn’s dedication to his players and their success.

Lynn has been privileged to work with a remarkable group of players who have defied expectations. In addition to the transfers, there are two former walk-ons, three players who have switched positions, and four players who have patiently waited through six seasons to contribute significantly. Players like Alex Johnson and Kain Medrano have proven themselves as standout performers despite being overlooked by many. They relish the underdog status and have embraced their roles on the team.

The unique success of this defense is also attributed to changes made by head coach Chip Kelly before Lynn’s arrival. Ikaika Malloe’s role as both the defensive line and outside linebackers coach has allowed for better versatility among the players. The coaching staff has implemented an “amoeba” defense that bewilders opponents with its unpredictable positioning and tactics. Furthermore, the addition of Kodi Whitfield as the cornerbacks coach has provided specialized training for the players and has greatly contributed to the defense’s improvement.

Despite facing adversity, this team draws inspiration from the late Bill McGovern, their former grandfatherly defensive coordinator who tragically passed away just before last season’s midpoint. His favorite saying, “We can do hard things,” serves as a constant reminder of his lasting impact on the team. Lynn also emphasizes two additional mantras – “shocking effort” and “attack the football” – which have propelled the team’s success and their ability to generate turnovers.

As the season progresses, UCLA’s defense is determined to maintain their high level of play and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Against all odds, they have transformed into a formidable unit that poses a significant challenge to their opponents. With Lynn’s guidance and the passion of the players, the Bruins are on track for an outstanding season.


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