UCLA’s Grown-Up Bruins

UCLAs Grown-Up Bruins
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By now everyone who follows UCLA football knows it is one of the most experienced teams in the country. The storyline is well worn. The phrase, “Player led, not coach fed,” has become trite already. But hey. It’s what there is when we are still three weeks away from the start of the season and for the most part the starting positions are in place, Fall camp injuries notwithstanding. The only real news is the now-two-day absence of starting quarterback Dorian Thompson- Robinson. To that UCLA gives its stock answer of, “He’s not available.” But to the other part, about the now seasoned collegiate players, what do they think that looks like on the field? To them, these are the grown-up Bruins.

Senior Otito Ogbonnia figures to be one of the primary anchors of the defensive line, particularly with the matriculation of Osa Odighizuwa to the NFL. “More guys are on the same page,” he said earlier this week. “We’re more like-minded guys here. A lot of us have kind of grown up over time, especially being in this program after four years.” Ogbonnia has played in 31 games in his three years at UCLA, and started the last two games of the Covid-shortened 2020 season.

While the defensive line has as much experience as any other position for the Bruins this season, it also lacks the back-up bodies for depth, comparatively speaking. The Bruins were eighth in the country last year in sacks per game with an average of 3.29. But that was with Odighizuwa, who was second on the team in sacks. Ogbonnia had one-and-a-half of the team’s 23 sacks on the season. He knows his performance will have to be there for the team to succeed this year. He said there is a team camaraderie that did not exist in his previous seasons. “If anything changed, I think that’s what it’s been. I don’t think urgency has necessarily changed. I mean, obviously we are urgent. But it’s really how together we are and how on the same page we are.”

As for being on the same page, head coach Chip Kelly says he is seeing his veterans coaching up the younger players on the team. More of that, “player-led” philosophy we keep hearing about. “If an older player sees something where he can help out a younger guy; you know just kind of give him a little bit of a coaching point,” Kelly said. “You see that a lot. Our guys are trying to help out each other. Because you have no idea when you get to the season who’s going to play. You can’t say, ‘geez, I wish I had helped that freshman out two weeks ago who is actually lining up next to me now.’ They’ve done a really good job.”

Ogbonnia’s defensive line-mate Odua Isibor is a fifth-year senior. He has played in 30 of the potential 31 games in his Bruin career. With a wry grin, Isibor said, “I feel like now we are extremely old,” in talking about the team’s experience. He was quick to add that it was in a good way. “We have a lot of leaders on the team, and zero egos. We have a lot of people willing to take feedback and a lot of people willing to give feedback. I feel like we are able to build generations of players so that we can be successful in years to come.”

Isibor pointed out that while going 3-4 last year, UCLA’s total point deficit for the season was just 15 points. “It’s really that simple. We put in the work day in and day out. We come in for extra work on our off days. And we do everything we are supposed to, and more. So, I feel like we have done the work necessary to be the best. Now it just comes down to proving that on the field.”

Camps always bring optimism, but putting into practice on the field during the games is all that matters Kelly called it, “A game of attrition,” earlier this week. You know you will lose some players during the season, and so the teams that are deepest and the most prepared are the ones that survive the four-month-long roller-coaster ride. Kelly credited the process, the incremental steps in improving depth, from the 65 players he had at his first Spring camp to the 115 he had a few months ago. He said those things lead to consistency and maturity. And thus we are back full circle to what the players called “grown-up” Bruins.

 

Main image: UCLA head coach Chip Kelly at practice on Wednesday August 4th. Photo from Tony Siracusa