LOS ANGELES -- Just after explaining how he and his teammates on the defensive line talk all the time about how they want UCLA to lead the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss, defensive end Takkarist McKinley was asked why the Bruins didn’t have much success rushing the passer last year.
He quickly laughed, threw up his hands and scratched his head.
“I honestly don’t know. The 3-4 ...,” he said before he voice trailed off, seeming genuinely puzzled. “That is a great question.”
The Bruins finished the season with just 28 sacks -- only three teams in the Pac-12 had fewer -- but, this year there is good reason to believe that will change. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes' return from a season-ending knee injury is a big reason for that, but it has more to do with the cast around him.
In defensive line coach Angus McClure’s 10 years with the program, he said this is the deepest the Bruins have been on the defensive line.
“It’s quality depth,” McClure said. “You have a core group of veterans that have played a lot of games here and certainly I’m pleased with the newcomers. They’re mixing in well, blending well.”
That depth played a factor in UCLA’s decision to switch its base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and while it’s premature to evaluate the change, the early returns have been overwhelmingly positive. McClure and McKinley were in agreement that the 3-4 didn’t take enough advantage of McKinley’s best attribute -- his speed -- as he was forced to play inside more than he was accustomed to.
“It was honestly my first time doing that; it was new to me,” McKinley said. “I just had to suck it up and do it for the team. In the 4-3, there’s more space and I can use my speed more. Get to show why I’m going to be the best pass-rusher in the country.”
Yeah, that’s right, the best pass-rusher in the country.
A bold statement from someone who finished with 4.5 sacks last year, but there’s no denying his physical gifts are there. At the end of spring practice, coach Jim Mora reserved his highest praise for McKinley, saying the defensive end would have been the spring MVP if they handed out such an honor.
Lining him up outside is a much more natural fit and with Deon Hollins opposite him, the Bruins have two defensive ends with high-sack potential.
“Me and Deon talk all the time about who is going to get the most sacks,” McKinley said. “Last year, we didn’t do as good as we wanted to do. We know we can do much better. We’re both aiming for 10-plus, 15-plus sacks, easy.”
McKinley also pointed out he goes up in practice against one of the best tackles in the country in Conor McDermott, and that can only help.
“If I can beat him, I can beat anybody,” he said.