Defense has driven UCLA
If the Bruins are to take down Kansas State, the unit will need to step up again
LOS ANGELES -- Most of the talk surrounding UCLA during fall camp has centered on the offense, which ignores an important fact: UCLA is all about defense.
Questions about the new pistol scheme, the health status of quarterback Kevin Prince and the state of the makeshift offensive line have dominated the conversation about the Bruins and for good reason, but the Bruins' defense has provided some of the team's most memorable moments over the past few years.
The defense kept UCLA in games last season, giving up more than 24 points only four times as the Bruins went 7-6. The defense spurred that memorable 13-9 upset of a high-octane USC in 2006; the defense shut out Jonathan Stewart and No. 9 Oregon in 2007.
And if UCLA is to start this season with a win Saturday at Kansas State, the defense will have to come up big against running back Daniel Thomas, a 1,265-yard rusher last year who is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.
"We've always taken a lot of pride in what we do and that stays the same going into this year," defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said. "You can't expect anything less."
The defense enters this season with some question marks of its own. Linebacker Akeem Ayers is the only one of the starting front seven from last season who returns, which is not exactly the type of inexperience you want heading into a game against an established running game.
But the Bruins have had success on defense because of their team-first style.So, just because players such as Brian Price, Alterraun Verner, Reggie Carter, Kyle Bosworth and Korey Bosworth are gone, it doesn't mean the UCLA defense will become a sieve.
"That happens every year," defensive tackle David Carter said. "Yeah, we lost BP and he's a great player, but he's gone now so it's somebody else's turn. It's my turn. It's Justin Edison's turn. It's Nate Chandler's turn. It's all these other guys."
Rahim Moore, the All-American safety who led the nation with 10 interceptions last year, acknowledged the Bruins lost some good defensive players, but said that the talent level of individual players means little in the grand scheme of the defense.
"It's not about how many great players we have, it's about how we're going to blend well and how we're going to be disciplined," he said. "You could have the best defensive player in the world on your team and have the worst defense. We have a great defense, not a great player. What matters is how prepared you are."
Bullough is confident his team is prepared. Carter, while not a starter last season, got plenty of experience as a backup. Chandler is a freakish athlete who takes over at end, replacing the injured Datone Jones.
And with Moore and Ayers, an all-Pac-10 linebacker last year, the defense indeed has stars. The key, Bullough said, is how well the team handles the first-game jitters.
"It's going to be who can handle the atmosphere," Bullough said. "Whoever can come in and play with minimal mistakes will win. That's a big, big thing in a first game."
The Bruins can ill afford to make mistakes against Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 228-pound load who is quick and elusive in the open field. UCLA held him to 54 yards in the Bruins' 24-9 victory over Kansas State last year and it will take a similar effort to come away with the victory Saturday.
"We have to really contain him and make sure we don't let him get big yards," Moore said. "If we don't, he'll be running up and down the field."
To keep that from happening, the Bruins will employ a style they describe as "flying around" and "flying to the ball." It means relying on team speed to track down ball carriers and emphasizing the importance of gang tackling, something that will be important not only Saturday, but for the entire season.
"That's what we do," Carter said. "We rally to the ball. That's what teams don't like about us. We're a bunch of monsters out here. That's our plan, to be monsters and beasts."
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.