No one questions that the UCLA defense made distinct improvements last year over the previous two years of the Chip Kelly era. With Jerry Azzinaro at the helm of the defense, the Bruins ranked near the bottom in the country in most defensive statistical categories in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, the Bruins moved up to 69th in the country in total defense. Not a landmark accomplishment but improvement, none the less. There were other notable upgrades as well. But one place where they did not improve was passing defense. The Bruins ranked 114th in the country in passing yards given up per game. That’s 114th out of 127. Going into a program defining season like 2021, that means there is pressure on UCLA’s defensive secondary.
Pressure On UCLA’s Defensive Secondary
Like most positions on the 2021 roster, the Bruins return everyone in the defensive backfield. If you are a “glass-half-full” fan, you are pleased at the returning experience. If you are of a “glass-half-empty” mindset, you are pessimistic because they are returning the same group that finished near the bottom in the country last year. The logical place is to acknowledge there is a glass and it has something in it and let’s see what happens. Afterall, you can’t fall off the floor, right?
In order to get a grasp of the potential for the unit to step up as much as need be, you have to look for the leader. That leads you to the conclusion, that the group does not have one leader, but a few filling different roles.
The Quiet Leader
If the defensive backfield is to improve, much will be expected of Quentin Lake. He is a fifth-year senior, and it is in his DNA. He missed two games last year, and two-thirds of the 2019 season. Staying healthy on the field is going to be big for the son of UCLA football alum Carnell Lake. The younger Lake recognizes the responsibility he carries. This Spring, he told us about the work he put in during the off-season. “Shoutout to the weight room staff for getting me where I needed to be,” Lake said. “I put on a pretty good amount of weight, but it’s good weight. It hasn’t slowed me down at all.”
Lake chalked up a lot of what happened last year to communication issues. The secondary was implementing the schemes of new defensive backs coach Brian Norwood, and they were doing it having had no Spring camp, because of COVID shutdowns. “Those mistakes will be eliminated. I can guarantee that,” Lake said.
He pinpointed himself, and fellow seniors Stephan Blaylock, and Qwuantrezz Knight as the leaders of the secondary. Lake said he is not a vocal leader. That role clearly belongs to Knight, who is every bit as vocal on the practice field as he is during the game. Norwood described Knight as, “passionate about his teammates.”
Norwood’s First Spring
Norwood is now in his second season as the UCLA defensive backs coach, but it is his first full Spring camp. He came to the west coast after a year as co-defensive coordinator at Navy. It was his second stint in Annapolis, having been the defensive backs coach there from 1995-99. There were two assistant coaching jobs before the first run at the Naval Academy and five jobs in between the two Annapolis stops. Now he is trying to turn around a defensive secondary that gave up 274 yards passing per game last year.
In his last year at Navy, the Midshipmen were 34th in the country in total defense. They gave up only 208 yards passing per game, though to be honest there were only four teams on the schedule that season that really opened up the offense much.
Has To Be More Than One Unit
Norwood says improvement of the defensive unit as a whole will bring that #114 ranking more into line with the rest of the statistical improvement. It comes off less like a deflection of responsibility than it does a coach trying to diagram how nothing on the defense happens in a vacuum. “We have to continue to improve as a whole defense,” Norwood said. “Everything is included in that. We have to finish some plays, where we didn’t finish. We have to continue to get better on our alignment, on our assignments. I think just overall the total defensive improvement is something that we’ve just to sort of increase.”
Norwood is big on relying on the fundamentals to carry everything else the players do. As a veteran group, it is reasonable to expect them to have those down going into the season.
For Norwood some of the reliance on fundamental discipline comes from his two stints at a military academy. Players at the academies are going through the same football practice schedules as everyone else in the country. But they have a level of academic responsibility, and military drilling that no other athlete in the country has to deal with.
Does Discipline = Fundamentals?
So how is it coaching in the more laid back Southern California now? “I don’t know if it is an east coast thing, but Coach Kelly still runs things here very in line,” Norwood said. The Bruins don’t have to go through inspections like academy players do. But he added, “There’s a few times a guy came out on the field with the wrong pair of socks. Coach said, ‘Hey Brian.’ And I had to tell him to get back in there and get those socks off.”
Norwood called it a discipline that is within the structure of the program. “It’s an adjustment from Navy, but there’s still a lot of organizational values that carry over to both places.”
If the statistical improvement also carries over to both places, there will be more fan agreement on a glass being full.