UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos and senior inside linebacker Damien… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
A defense often adopts the personality of its coordinator. But what is going on at UCLA is body-snatcher-like eerie.
Go to Lou Spanos, the guy with the square-jaw look and haircut to match, and ask what he learned from the Bruins' 2011 game tapes. Go ahead, make his day.
"Our focus is on the 2012 Bruins' defense," the first-year defensive coordinator said with a smirk.
Walk over to newly minted inside linebacker Damien Holmes to inquire what lessons defensive players learned from 2011. "I'm just excited about this season," Holmes said.
Ask Spanos whether he even looked at the 2011 tapes: "We're working on 2012."
Back to Holmes to ask whether the defense even neared its potential in 2011: "I'm just excited about this season."
And then Spanos, to ask whether he took a teensy-weensy peek at just one tape.
"We're focused on 2012."
And then Holmes, to ask whether he at least remembers the 50-0 thrashing administered by USC.
"I'm just excited about …"
… this season. Yeah, we get it.
Now if only the Bruins give up as little on the field as they do in an interview.
But talking the talk isn't enough. There was plenty of chatter last season and things didn't work out so well.
In case Spanos lost the tapes and Holmes still has a dose of amnesia, here is the short version. UCLA was 89th out of 120 teams nationally in total defense, giving up 417 yards per game, and 92nd in scoring defense, allowing 31 points per game.
That do-tread-on-me motto was most evident in the debacle against the Trojans. It was the Bruins' third-worst loss in the series. The other two all but predated the forward pass.
After a 76-0 loss in 1929 and a 52-0 loss in 1930, the Bruins dropped the Trojans from their schedule for six years. This time UCLA dropped the coaching staff.
Jim Mora came in as head coach and he sought out Spanos, a 17-year NFL assistant, as his defensive coordinator.
Spanos tries to sell that speak-softly image, but lurking nearby is a big-stick personality. During UCLA's scrimmage, Spanos, certain the defense had made a tackle in the end zone, charged onto the field, arms signaling safety, encouraging Mora to call it.
That wired intensity is demanded from his players.
"We're going to have to do whatever he says," Holmes said.
Spanos has done major renovations, but linebacker remains the squeaky hinge in his 3-4 defense. The Bruins have three linebackers who weren't even linebackers eight months ago.
Holmes, a senior, moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, then was pushed inside when multiple concussions prompted team captain Patrick Larimore to leave the team.
Keenan Graham, a junior, was another defensive end moved to outside linebacker. Anthony Barr, a junior, went from Y-back on the offense to outside linebacker.
Holmes and Barr are starters, and Graham is a key component for the multiple looks Spanos employs.
So three of the top five linebackers are learning on the job. A problem?
"Linebacker is always a work in progress," Spanos said. "Even ones who have been playing it all their lives."
Meanwhile, higher up the food chain:
"If there was a concern, it's gone now," Mora said. "We can't afford to have those."
As for the boots — or rather cleats — on the ground view:
"The challenge is obvious; the experience isn't there," linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said. "The beauty is when you haven't done something, you're starting fresh. You don't have bad habits. They do what you tell them to do, which is cool."
Graham spent spring practice at linebacker, as did Holmes.
"The hardest part is dropping into pass coverage," Graham said. "I struggled with that in spring. But I feel I'm getting the hang of it."
Barr came to Mora before spring practice and asked to move to linebacker.
"We had the same idea on the same day," Mora said. "He just looks like you think an outside linebacker should look."
And played as one should play during training camp.
"Seems to me like Anthony has decided, 'I can be an impact player so I'm going to be an impact player,'" Mora said. "He's attacking things."
Someone needed to.
UCLA allowed 400 or more yards seven times and more than 500 three times in 2011. The Bruins ranked 112th nationally in sacks, averaging one per game. They were beaten by Arizona, 48-12, and Utah, 31-6. They gave up more than 40 points against Texas, Stanford and Oregon.
All you have to do is go to the tape. Spanos, on the sixth try, finally admitted he did, saying, "We did our research."