As Joe previously discussed, the Bruins present a formidable challenge for the Hokies. UCLA only had three losses this season, and those three losses all came Pac-12 teams that finished in the BCS top 15. After watching the film, it is very easy to quickly draw the conclusion that the Bruins are the most talented team the Hokies have faced aside from Alabama. After confounding losses to Duke, Boston College, and Maryland, it is not surprising that most of the positive energy around the program is focused on recruiting rather than the Sun Bowl.
Most of the talk has focused on quarterback Brett Hundley, who is a bigger, stronger, and faster version of Maryland's C.J. Brown. Brown gave the Hokies fits in their worst loss of the season, but perhaps the most impressive component of UCLA's team is their fantastic defensive front seven. Using a 3-4 alignment, this group features a little bit of everything. The Bruins have tremendous size and speed, experienced leaders that also are playmakers, elaborate stunts, and a wealth of young talent. Stanford thought so much of the UCLA front that they spent most of the game playing a spread offense, which forced UCLA out of their base front.
Gap Penetration 3-4
UCLA uses a 3-4 defense. Their base look features a nose tackle (usually eagled on the strong side of the center), two defensive ends lined up on the inside eye of each tackle, two inside linebackers lined up over each guard, and two outside linebackers. In most 3-4 looks, those interior linemen are big bodies who draw double teams, freeing up the linebackers to make plays as demonstrated by Alabama this season.
UCLA uses a different approach on defensive line that mirrors Jon Tenuta's style at Virginia. Their front likes to get in the gaps and penetrate, especially at the nose tackle position and the weak-side defensive end. By being aggressive and shooting the gaps, the Bruins' front can either make plays in the backfield or mess up the blocking scheme enough that the offense can't block their linebackers. Also, like the Wahoos, it is a boom or bust approach. By shooting those gaps, the Bruins defensive line also tends to lose gap integrity, so while you don't see consistent five and six yard runs against them, opponents do make big plays.
As result of this attacking strategy, UCLA's linebackers not only must be terrific tacklers, but they have to often take on blocks and cover multiple gaps. The key positions are the two outside linebackers. Aligned on the edge of the defensive formation, UCLA's outside linebackers are not only effective pass rushers but also have contain responsibility. The expectation is that those linebackers can make plays on the edge, but also maintain outside leverage and force the play back to the inside. It takes a very special athlete to be successful playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, and even more so when the interior linemen are shooting gaps. The Bruins have two special players in Lott Award winning senior Anthony Barr and Pac-12 offensive and defensive Rookie of the Year Myles Jack.
Myles Jack (#30) aligns to the running strength of the formation, which means he is on the tight end side if the offense uses a tight end, or if there is not a tight end he aligns to the side where there are the most eligible receivers. Offenses tend to run heavily behind the strength of their formation, so Jack has the primary responsibility of taking on blockers and forcing the play back to the inside. Against the pass, he must also be adept at playing zone coverage in the flat or playing man coverage against tight ends and H-Backs. Jack doesn't put up as many highlight reel plays as Barr, but when he was removed from the defense to focus only on offense against Arizona State, the Sun Devils rushed 50 times for 223 yards, running almost exclusively to the strong side at Jack's backup, Kenny Orjioke.
Here's an example of why you don't see Jack making highlights, but how he is critical to UCLA's defensive success.
Jack is aligned at the bottom of the screen over the tight end. Stanford runs a power lead. Jack takes on the extra Stanford tackle aligned as a tight end. Jack contests the block with his inside shoulder and keeps his outside shoulder free, gradually giving ground at the same rate as the tailbacks forward progress. He doesn't get in on the tackle, and it appears that he was effectively blocked, but his assignment is to prevent that back from bouncing outside. Throughout the play, if the back comes to his side, he maintains the ability to force the back inside by keeping his outside shoulder free. He can go up field or scrape wide, depending on the situation. This is excellent technique.
In a nickel defense, Jack moves to the middle, while inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt is replaced by an extra defensive back. Here against Stanford, Jack is aligned to the boundary as an inside linebacker in the nickel.
Jack has to cover a circle route by the Stanford running back. He doesn't have outside safety help to the boundary, so he plays his assignment correctly and is in good position to make a play on the circle route. Fortunately for Stanford, Kevin Hogan's throw is perfect, low and away from Jack so he can't make a play. Meanwhile, Barr (#11) plays almost a stand up defensive end role aligned to the weak side. He serves as the primary pass rusher, but has the athleticism to seal the edge and prevent screens and bootlegs.
Anthony Barr is a terrific player. At 6-4, 248 pounds, Barr (a senior) is rated as the No. 2 prospect on Todd McShay's draft board. He has 10.0 sacks and 20.0 tackles for loss so far this season, but he is disruptive without being negligent in his contain responsibility. He is very difficult to reach block, and his size and strength (he is the same size as James Gayle playing the linebacker spot) allow him to squeeze offensive tackles back into cutback lanes when teams try to run inside him. When he makes a dynamic play, it almost surprises you because he looks like he is playing at full speed and then BOOM, he changes gears and flys by.
This is of particular concern given how often the Hokies have run waggle plays to the strength of their formation, leaving a tight end to pass block against a defensive end or outside linebacker. Kalvin Cline surprised all of us with his productivity has a freshman, but his struggles in pass protection lead to several game changing blindside sacks on Logan Thomas this season. Here, USC has their tight end matched up on Barr in a similar scenario.
Barr aligns inside the tight end, but beats him with a quick hand slap and outside leverage. Anticipate that whoever gets Trey Edmunds repetitions in pass protection, they will often be chipping on the outside shoulder of the tight end.
Cassius Marsh (#99) plays opposite of Barr. Marsh is a former Rivals Top 100 recruit who has started 37 games in his career for the Bruins. So far this season, Marsh has 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. He is a high energy player who is all about getting up field and creating chaos, almost to the point of recklessness. He has a very similar style to UVA's Brett Urban in that he has a similar frame, likes to shoot gaps, but he tends to get up field and take himself out of position. Marsh is the best UCLA down lineman at rushing the passer, but all of the defensive linemen in their two deep have a very solid grasp of leverage moves. Marsh is very quick, and as demonstrated here against USC. He pairs his quickness with terrific technique.
Marsh's reckless abandon meshes well with Barr's consistent adherence to his assignments. The penetration from Marsh will push the quarterback into Barr. Barr also acts as a safety net to protect against big plays when Marsh or one of the other linemen get out of position. Here is a terrific example from the USC game.
USC sets up a screen to Barr's side of the field. Barr gets the edge on the USC tackle, and most aggressive players would go for the sack. Barr recognizes the screen and drops back into the passing lane for the screen. The quarterback hesitates, and Marsh crushes him from the back side. This is a talented tandem that works together to produce big plays.
That being said, despite Barr's Lott trophy and Marsh's highlights, their level of play has not always been sustained at a superstar level. Marsh and Barr combined for 16 sacks on the season, but 9 of the 16 sacks came in the last three games. Early in the season, senior Keenham Graham was generating more pass rush than Marsh. With several weeks of banquets and exams, and both players being seniors, it will be interesting to see if both sustain their high level of play with the NFL looming on the horizon.
At the inside linebacker spots, UCLA has two solid veterans who are outstanding at scraping to the football tackling. Eric Kendricks (#6), a redshirt junior is a high volume tackler, with 150 in 2012 and 104 tackles this season. Jordan Zumwalt is a solid senior. Both play well off the line of scrimmage so they can read the play and jump into gaps. The extra space gives them an opportunity to dodge blocks by less athletic offensive linemen. At the same time, if linemen can get to the second level, both players are below average at shedding blocks.
The Dynamic Freshmen
The veterans in the front-seven are complemented by a trio of supremely talented freshmen. I have discussed Myles Jack, who despite being a freshman really is the glue that protects the edge while all the big kids wreak havoc on the inside. Up front, the smaller Marsh is joined by two freshmen that are giants in the traditional mold of a 3-4 defensive lineman. Not only do these young behemoths eat up blockers, but they have the athleticism to shoot the gaps and disrupt in the backfield as well.
Eddie Vanderdoes (#47) could really be a special college football player. In recruiting classes that don't include Robert Nkemdiche, he likely would have received some consideration for being the top high school recruit in the country. A 6-4, 305-pound freak athlete, Vanderdoes made waves after backing out of his LOI to Notre Dame, and he became a starter at UCLA immediately. Vanderdoes usually aligns at the left defensive end position (head up on the right tackle) although he will drop down as a defensive tackle when they go to a four-man front against the spread, and on occasion he will flip sides with Marsh.
With his normal alignment, Vanderdoes is usually on the strong side of the offensive formation. His primary assignment is to take on blockers and beat double teams in a similar fashion to Alabama's defensive line. This limits the number of highlight reel plays that you see on film from him, but by tying up those blockers, he frees up those inside linebackers to make tackles. Here is a typical, subtle Vanderdoes play from the Stanford game.
Vanderdoes is aligned on the inside eye of the Stanford right tackle. With a big lead, Stanford uses a jumbo set and runs a power lead play right at Vanderdoes. We know from the 2011 Orange Bowl that Stanford's offensive line is one of the best in the business, but Vanderdoes gets leverage under the right tackle and stands him up right in the hole. Then, he gets in on the tackle. This wasn't a rare occurrence against Stanford, as Vanderdoes was in on 11 tackles.
Vanderdoes is not only a huge defensive end who can stop you from running at him, but he is an excellent athlete that can shoot the gaps if the opponent tries to run east-west.
Here Stanford runs an old style power sweep with the fullback leading the halfback out of the shotgun. Stanford's tackle is supposed to deliver a down block on Vanderdoes and drive him inside, but Vanderdoes beats the block cleanly and blows the play up in the backfield. Like Jack, UCLA uses Vanderdoes on offense in short yardage and power formations. He isn't just a lead blocker though. Vanderdoes has both a rushing touchdown and an 18-yard reception during the season, and both times he didn't look like an oddity making the play.
On film I saw three different gigantic linemen line up at nose tackle. 6-1, 310-pound senior Seali'i Epenesa started out the season at nose tackle and played throughout most of the year. 6-4, 330-pound Ellis McCarthy also played nose (and defensive end). Both guys played a more traditional nose tackle role where they jam up the center and the play-side guard. But, on film, I was even more impressed by freshman Kenny Clark, who was getting regular snaps by the time the Bruins played USC.
Clark was a four-star recruit, who, as a 6-2, 305 pounder fits the bill of a prototypical nose tackle. But, unlike the two veterans, Clark is an exceptional athlete who is much more adept at getting into the backfield. Like Marsh, Clark loves using leverage moves, particularly a rip technique. The rip is a hard punch up and under a shoulder of the blocker to turn their torso, creating space to shoot through against the play.
Here, Clark destroys the USC center.
UCLA has a slant called, and each defensive lineman shoots the gap to their left. Clark throws a hard rip move up and under the center's right arm and then blows past him. The USC quarterback has to move to his left, right in to the arms of the blitzing Kendricks and Barr. Then, Clark has the athleticism to get back and help clean up the play. Given the matchup, with the Hokies featuring more spread, option, and zone blocking; coupled with UCLA clearly seeing Clark as the future at the position, don't be surprised to see Clark getting a majority of repetitions in the Sun Bowl.
Attacking the UCLA 3-4
This may be the most talented front the Hokies have faced this season, including Alabama. They are huge, athletic, and they are strong at positions where other less talented opponents exploited matchups against Virginia Tech. It is going to take an incredible effort from the Hokie offensive line to get a win in this game.
In order to have success, Virginia Tech must use a similar game plan that they used to attack Virginia. While UCLA uses a three man defensive line, they try to get straight-line penetration just like the Wahoos. They will get penetration. Scot Loeffler's offense needs to attack the edge and make those big defensive linemen run laterally. But, unlike UVA, UCLA has those two stud outside linebackers waiting on the edge to jam everything back into the middle. Jack and Barr are going to be a tough matchup for Kalvin Cline, Sam Rogers, and the Virginia Tech slot receivers.
I saw one primary weakness in that UCLA front. Arizona State used some freeze option and jet sweeps to cause Barr and Jack's backup to lose contain. Here is a terrific example of Barr getting out-quicked to the edge on the jet sweep.
Barr doesn't even get blocked, but doesn't even come close to getting a hand on the sweep. Once the receiver clears Barr, the weakness of the UCLA defense is exposed. Their secondary, to be kind, isn't very good. They are very slow to shed blocks, are poor tacklers, and are not particularly sharp in coverage. If you can penetrate the front seven, you can generate big chunk plays.
Without having Edmunds in the lineup, I would expect that any rushing attack that the Hokies will generate will be on outside running plays where the Hokies try to crack back on those outside linebackers. But, I don't see the Hokies running the ball much. If they want to win, expect the Hokies to come out throwing the ball aggressively like they did against Georgia Tech and Pitt. If they are treating this game like a kickoff of the 2014 season, including using "the real Loeffler offense" it will be a tremendous challenge to run the ball right at the UCLA defense given Tech's available personnel.