At this pace, the defense never rests

April, 14, 2012
4/14/12
5:45
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The big story out of the first two weeks of UCLA's spring practice has been the up-tempo offense the Bruins are running.

It's a fast-paced, no-huddle attack with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it flair that has brought a higher energy level, lots of exciting scoring plays and dozens of cheers from the Bruins' faithful who have come out to watch practice.

But the dizzying pace has also made the UCLA defense look a little shaky at times, because guess who is giving up all of those big plays and thrilling scores?

"It's definitely a tough pace to match," said linebacker Patrick Larimore. "It definitely blew our minds when we first saw it. We kind of knew it was coming, but we didn’t know how hard it was going to be with pads. We’re starting to get a feel for it, but we’re not doing good enough yet."

The defense has been getting better as time has gone on and the players have been exposed more and more to the up-tempo pace. One of the keys to solid defense is being able to react within the scheme without thinking too much. Forcing the players into action quickly has put a premium on knowing the schemes well enough that thinking is not required.

"At this pace, you really have to know your assignment," lineman Datone Jones said. "By them going so fast, you don’t want to slip up or get out of your gap because you’ll mess up the defense. You can’t be thinking about where you are supposed to be, you just have to know how to do it and just play."

But while the offense might be a step ahead of the defense thus far, the faster pace certainly has a fringe benefit for the defense in that many teams in the Pac-12 play an up-tempo style. Last year, the Bruins played a much slower tempo with an offense designed to control the ball and the clock. The UCLA defense suffered against high-tempo teams, however, and ended up giving up 38 points or more in six games.

The Bruins were No. 92 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 31.36 points per game.

"Houston tempoed us last year," safety Tevin McDonald said. "Arizona State tempoed us last year. Oregon. A lot of teams were just go-go-go and we weren’t preparing against that kind of pace so we were a little behind."

Jones was a little more blunt in his assessment.

"At times I feel like we were gassed last year and guys weren’t able to make plays," he said. "Guys were tired and not mentally strong."

The key to handling the pace is conditioning and communication, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said. Players have to talk to each other about down and distance, formations, coverages, substitutions and play calls.

If someone looks out of place, a teammate has to tell that player.

"We just have to get lined up and communicate," Spanos said. "It’s really about knowing your calls for the defense that we are in and communicating. If we have that, we can handle the pace."

Of course there is a little matter of conditioning. This defensive unit is used to practicing at the type of tempo that allowed for time to catch your breath in between plays, but that's no longer the case. Now, it's about getting into position, pursuing a play, making it, getting up off the ground and running back into position to start the process over.

"The hardest adjustment is to keep your technique when you are tired," Larimore said. "Your legs start to go and you start to rise up a little bit. And you make mistakes. Once we get in better shape we'll be able to handle it better."

So long as that happens before the season begins, coach Jim Mora is fine with the defense being a little behind at this point.

"I think it's really significant that our defense gets a chance to work against this tempo because so many offenses in this conference are up tempo," Mora said. "Our defense now is figuring out the rhythm. ... I think it's good for us. I think it'll help us when we get into the season."

SATURDAY PRACTICE NOTES: Coach Jim Mora did not address the media because he had a funeral to attend immediately following practice. ... Defensive back Andrew Abbott was on crutches after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He will be out for two to three weeks. ... Running back Malcolm Jones said he took a helmet to his knee and sat out the last few periods because it swelled up, but didn't think the injury was serious. ... Guard Wade Yandall, out since late last season because of a concussion, returned to action for the first time this spring. ... Bad snaps reared their ugly head again with centers Jake Brendel and Tre Hale both struggling so badly that guard Jeff Baca slid over for some time at center. Baca had his share of bad ones, too. Projected starting center Greg Capella is out for the spring because of a calf injury.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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