UCLA's uncommon tandem triggers defense

LOS ANGELES -- Eddie Vanderdoes jokes that his friendship with fellow UCLA defensive lineman Kenny Clark spawned from "love at first sight."

UCLA's opponents aren't sharing the love. They shudder at the sight of Vanderdoes and Clark across the line of scrimmage from them every Saturday. They see 612 pounds of destruction, true juniors with 36 starts and 19.5 tackles for loss between them. Inside linebacker Myles Jack is easily the biggest star on UCLA's defense, but Vanderdoes and Clark trigger a unit that could be the Pac-12's best this season.

"They're very uncommon," Bruins linebacker Kenny Young said. "You're not going to find too many guys like those two."

Defensive line coach Angus McClure rarely sees Clark without Vanderdoes, describing the two as "best friends." Their connection should serve UCLA well in a conference filled with innovative offensive coaches and scoring threats all over the field.

"They cause a lot of issues, especially with so many teams running spread or the zone game," McClure said. "I feel like we don’t have any weaknesses inside, so it's not like they’re going to attack one guy or the other."

Both defensive linemen arrived in the summer of 2013, although Vanderdoes took a serpentine and well-publicized path to Westwood. Rated as the top defensive lineman and top California prospect (10th overall) in the 2013 class by ESPN RecruitingNation, Vanderdoes signed with Notre Dame over UCLA and other suitors, but four months later changed his mind, picking UCLA. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly tried not to release Vanderdoes from his signed letter of intent, which would have cost Vanderdoes a year of eligibility.

Shortly before UCLA opened preseason practice in 2013, the NCAA cleared Vanderdoes to play immediately. He made his first career start in Week 5 that fall. Two weeks later against Oregon, Vanderdoes and Clark started their first game together. Vanderdoes earned freshman All-America honors in 2013, while Clark was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2014.

"We just both knew the grind," Clark said. "We both wanted to start as freshmen, ended up doing that, and from that point on, what really took care of it was a lot of experience, just trusting each other."

Added Vanderdoes: "We've got that bond, that camaraderie together. We've been through certain situations, so we're battle-tested. There's no real curveballs."

That familiarity with each other and with game atmosphere gives McClure confidence that Clark and Vanderdoes can seamlessly adjust to anything. New defensive coordinator Tom Bradley isn't overhauling what the Bruins do, but his pressure schemes require more movement from the 308-pound Clark and the 305-pound Vanderdoes.

The goal is to create more one-on-one situations that, in most cases, will go in favor of the guys wearing hero blue. Their inside presence should free up UCLA's linebackers, namely Jack, to make plays in space, and speedy edge rushers such as Takkarist McKinley to chase quarterbacks all day.

"Those two guys will end up being [Bradley's] best friends," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Bradley spent all but one year (2014) of his coaching career at Penn State, known as Linebacker U for producing All-Americans such as Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington and Paul Posluszny. But Penn State became Big Defensive Lineman U for the latter part of Bradley's run as defensive coordinator, as players with similar frames and skills to Vanderdoes and Clark -- Jared Odrick, Devon Still, Jay Alford, Jordan Hill, Scott Paxson -- became standouts.

Aware of Bradley's success at Penn State, Vanderdoes and Clark hope to be the next in line.

"He tells us what it takes to be a champion," Clark said. "Me and Eddie try to install that in our teammates’ heads every day."

"They're big-time guys," Bradley said.

After a recent practice, Vanderdoes and Clark provided scouting reports on one another. They agree power is at the core of both of their approaches. Vanderdoes admits Clark has more awareness of opponents' tendencies.

Clark then claims he's the better pass-rusher, cracking a smile.

"Nah, just playing," he said. "He's better."

It's a classic Clark move.

"He likes reactions out of people, so he likes to get under your skin," Vanderdoes said. "He's gotten me a bunch of times, just simple stuff. He'll wink at somebody and I wouldn't see it, and they'd be in on it."

Last season, Clark often would rally support from his teammates and then proclaim to be faster than Vanderdoes.

"They were behind me like, 'He is faster than Eddie,'" Clark said. "Everybody knew I was playing."

Everybody except Vanderdoes, of course.

"I was so mad," he said.

Kenny Young notes that Vanderdoes can be sarcastic and dishes it out too. The frequent needling between the two linemen is part of what makes them so tight.

Not surprisingly, they're aligned on goals for the coming season. Individually, they have none.

"No matter what our stats are, we just want to win," Vanderdoes said.

"Win a championship," Clark specifies.

"That's," Vanderdoes said, "all that matters."