UCLA preseason preview: Defensive line

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
2:30
PM PT
With UCLA training camp set to begin Saturday at Cal State San Bernardino, we're taking a preseason look at the roster and breaking down the Bruins position by position.

We went through the offense first, looking at the quarterbacks, offensive line, receivers and running backs. Special teams came next, and then we started on the defense with the defensive backs and then the linebackers. The final group to get the breakdown treatment in the defensive line.

DEPTH CHART AT THE END OF SPRING PRACTICE:
Left Defensive End
Datone Jones (6-4, 275, Sr.) OR
Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-3, 270, Jr.)
Sam Tai (6-2, 275, Fr.)

Nose Tackle
Brandon Willis (6-2, 280, So.)
Donovan Carter (6-1, 305, Sr.)
Seali’i Epenesa (6-1, 310, Jr.)
Kevin McReynolds (6-2, 300, Fr.)
Brandon Tuliaupupu (6-1, 315, Fr.)

Right Defensive End
Cassius Marsh (6-3, 275, Jr.) OR
Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-3, 270, Jr.)
Iuta Tepa (6-2, 255, Jr.)
Wesley Flowers (6-5, 254, So.)

PROJECTED OPENING-DAY DEPTH CHART:
Left Defensive End
Datone Jones (6-4, 275, Sr.)
Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-3, 270, Jr.)
Sam Tai (6-2, 275, Fr.)

Nose Tackle
Brandon Willis (6-2, 280, So.)
Donovan Carter (6-1, 305, Sr.)
Seali’i Epenesa (6-1, 310, Jr.)
Kevin McReynolds (6-2, 300, Fr.)
Brandon Tuliaupupu (6-1, 315, Fr.)

Right Defensive End
Cassius Marsh (6-3, 275, Jr.)
Ellis McCarthy (6-5, 330, Fr.)
Iuta Tepa (6-2, 255, Jr.)

KEY LOSSES:
Nate Chandler, started five games and appeared in 14; Graduated.
Justin Edison, started 12 games at tackle; Graduated.
Damien Holmes, 14-games starter at defensive end; switched to linebacker.
Keenean Graham, key reserve at defensive end; switched to linebacker.

THE SKINNY:

This unit is touted as UCLA's deepest and most talented, but that's the same old song and dance we heard last season when UCLA toiled near the bottom of the nation in run defense, sacks and tackles for a loss, so we'd like to see some results before we start handing out awards.

What the defensive line has going for it is a lot more experience than last year. It seems like just yesterday the knock on these guys was that they were young and inexperienced, but now all of a sudden Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odihigizuwa, Seali'i Epenesa and Iuta Tepa are all juniors and Datone Jones is a senior.

Marsh and Jones have the most experience and Jones led the team with three sacks last season while Marsh was second with two. Much of that success came as defensive tackles, however, and both are moving to end as a 3-4 base defense is installed.

Jones had high expectations last season and had a tremendous fall camp, but didn't deliver early in the season. Only when he moved to tackle did he start to shine, so he'll have to prove he can play on the edge. Marsh brought a new level of maturity to spring practice this year and if that carries over into the season, look for him to have a breakout year. He is on the pre-season watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award.

Pushing those two for starting roles will be Odighizuwa, a physically intimidating specimen who seems to have all the physical tools but has had difficulty adjusting to college schemes. The 3-4 seems to suit him better as he came alive during spring practice and began showing flashes of the dominant force he was projected to be coming in to UCLA.

Tepa also brings experience to the field after playing in 13 games off the bench last season. He's a bit undersized, but makes up for it with quickness, agility and a high motor that helps him outwork opponents. Sam Tai is also in the mix after redshirting last season and he will get playing time as the UCLA coaches plan on using a heavy rotation of linemen to keep guys fresh and match up better with opponents.

Those guys will also be competing with Ellis McCarthy, one of the top defensive line recruits in the country. He's recovering from a minor surgical procedure on his knee and will miss the first part of camp so don't expect him to challenge for a starting role right away, but he's a mammoth talent in a mammoth body and it's hard to see him staying on the sideline much.

McCarthy has no position on UCLA's official roster and Mora says he will be slotted at defensive end, but it's difficult to imagine he won't move to the nose tackle spot with his middle-clogging size and strength. In that case, Brandon Willis could move to his more natural defensive end spot.

Willis, the North Carolina transfer who bounced between UCLA and North Carolina a couple of times, hasn't played in two seasons and is eager to show what he can do. In spring, he displayed enough strength to hold down the middle and his speed inside will make him a good matchup against the guards and centers he'll have to take on.

The current crop of nose tackles is pretty deep with Carter and Epenesa bringing plenty of experience and youngsters Kevin McReynolds and Brandon Tuliaupupu proving they are talents on the rise after redshirting last season. Carter was a key reserve last season and finished with 36 tackles -- second most among defensive linemen. Epenesa has gotten valuable experience as a reserve in each of his first two seasons.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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