Before the start of UCLA's first full-pad scrimmage last week, the Bruins' defense was fired up.
Senior end Justin Hickman and junior safety Chris Horton were among several on defense who claimed that they would make the first big play of training camp.
But that honor went to junior middle linebacker Christian Taylor, who made a simple play look special. With UCLA's offense seeking a first down on a short-yardage play, Taylor stepped into an open hole and slammed the Bruins' runner to the grass short of the yardstick.
Just like that, a tackle made and a punt forced, the type of play that did not happen frequently enough last season for the Bruins, who had the nation's second-worst defense against the run.
"That's what we want our mentality to be, down on contact," first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker said about Taylor, UCLA's unheralded leader on defense.
"If the first guy misses, you step up and make the tackle. That's why we do all of our hustle drills. That's really important for this defense."
With the departure of veteran starting linebackers Justin London, Spencer Havner and Wesley Walker, DeWayne Walker is counting on Taylor to provide leadership and tackles for a reshaped defensive unit.
"He knows the defense just as good as the coaches and that's what you want out of your middle linebacker," Walker said about Taylor, generously listed in the Bruins' media guide at 6 feet and 220 pounds.
"You want your middle linebacker to know that if I make a call and our personnel does not match, he won't even call it. Instead, he makes the proper call and we make a play. That's the type of guy you want and that's the type of player Christian is."
Taylor took the long route to get to this point. After a solid prep career at Salinas High, where he was an all-league and all-county performer in football, basketball and volleyball, Taylor ended up at the Air Force Academy in 2003.
But he knew something wasn't right. Taylor wanted to go to UCLA, which his brother, Kyle, and sister, Meghan, attended. And he wanted to play football for the Bruins.
In 2004, Taylor transferred to UCLA and walked on to the football squad. He spent his entire first season working with the practice team and was so impressive he was given the Charles Pike Award for scout team player of the year.
That's when Taylor's leadership skills were first noticed.
"He's a real vocal leader and guys listen to him," Horton said. "You can definitely see his military background come out. He was never afraid to speak up and be that leader. A lot of times, guys at this level don't do that until they have been around or they try and lead by example, but not him."
Taylor's efforts led him to a scholarship and a second-team spot behind Havner before the start of last season. His never-quit motor and aggressive style steadily earned him more playing time, and by the end of the year he was a regular in the lineup against USC and Northwestern in the Sun Bowl.
Taylor's stock climbed higher when Larry Kerr was fired as defensive coordinator and replaced by Walker. The Bruins named him a starter before spring drills and have not looked back.
"He's a pretty savvy, smart kid," Coach Karl Dorrell said, "in terms of making calls and getting everybody lined up, he's really taken over that responsibility. He's feeling even more comfortable now that guys are understanding their responsibilities better, so he can just go and play."
To prepare for his new job, Taylor spent hours studying film during the summer. He watched every Bruins play during spring practice and film of last season's top defenses, including Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk, a player Taylor follows closely.
"Hawk was a great player on a great defense that played well together," Taylor said. "We have to work as a unit in order to be the best defense in the Pac-10, which is our goal this year.
"The coaches have been great. They have really given me the reins and let me lead this defense. I take this job seriously."
Taylor also did a great deal of reading about leadership.
"I've had to step up in that area and it's been difficult in some ways," Taylor said. "I've been a leader on teams before, but obviously this is a little different at the Division I level.
"We have a team of talented athletes with strong personalities. I know that a lot of them are more talented players than me, so I had to learn how to get everyone together. I'm still learning, but I'm excited for that challenge."
By initiating conversations with each defensive player and leading off-season workouts in unison with the offense, Taylor has developed individual relationships with nearly all of his teammates.
It's already paying dividends in camp.
"The No. 1 thing for this defense is being all about team," Taylor said. "It's not about any individual player.... We started changing the attitude of the defense during spring and built on it during the summer. We became a very close group, and that's a big difference. We've made a lot of strides since spring, and we have to keep working hard to keep getting better....
"And, I'm going to make sure that we do."
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Some of the highlights of Christian Taylor's 2005 season:
* Finished the year with 43 tackles, tied for sixth on the team.
* Against Rice, he made four tackles and returned an Owl fumble in the fourth quarter for a touchdown.
* At Stanford, he contributed six tackles, including four solo tackles.
* Recorded six tackles against USC.
* In the Sun Bowl against Northwestern, he led the Bruins with 12 tackles.