Bruins aim to sack split personality

LOS ANGELES -- Sacks are good.

Sacks allowed are bad.

UCLA’s defense at getting sacks in 2012? Really good.

UCLA’s offense at allowing sacks in 2012? Really bad.

This was the schizophrenic personality of 2012 UCLA football. On one hand, a pressure-based 3-4 scheme installed by new head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos was wildly effective at getting to quarterbacks and blowing up backfields. The Bruins jumped from 112th nationally in sacks in 2011 to eighth last year. They also improved from 87th to 22nd in tackles for a loss.

“Love this defense,” said outside linebacker Anthony Barr -- who provided the Bruins with a league-high 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss, which was second in the Pac-12. “It’s all about pressure and playing fast. It’s so much fun.”

Expect more production with a more-of-the-same approach in Year 2.

“The next step is all 11 playing as one,” Spanos said. “Everyone knows the calls. Everyone understands the big picture. They have a sense of urgency. Each snap, they are playing like it’s their last play. They are making all the calls and communicating much better than they were this time last year.”

Sounds great. Now … about the other side of the ball …

The Bruins stumbled all the way to 118th nationally in sacks allowed per game, from 67th in 2011. Only two schools were worse. Interestingly enough, both were from the Pac-12 -- Colorado and Washington State.

“Only two more spots and we can be the best of the worst,” joked offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone -- who often speaks with tongue in cheek. “That’s terrible. And it’s a combination of things. It’s a young quarterback. It’s a young offensive line. It’s having as many as seven freshmen on the field at once. And I don’t want to take the onus off of me. I need to do better job preparing those guys.

“Part of it is also the way the NCAA records sacks. In the spread, if the quarterback looks to pass but pulls it on a zone read and runs, and he gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage, that’s a sack. But that’s not an excuse. We still had about 20-something too many.”

It all evens out on the bell curve. Four Pac-12 schools were in the top eight nationally in sacks, Stanford (No. 1), Arizona State (No. 2), USC (No. 4) and UCLA. The Bruins faced all three of those opponents in 2012 and didn’t do particularly well when it came to protecting Hundley. He was sacked five times against ASU, five times against USC, seven times in the first meeting with Stanford and three times a week later in the Pac-12 championship game.

The offensive linemen -- young when they started last year but recognizing that they are no longer pups -- know they have to do a better job.

“You can make all of the excuses you want and place the blame wherever. But at the end of the day, it falls on us. Protecting the quarterback is our responsibility,” said guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.

The quarterback, for his part, acknowledges he has to get rid of the ball more quickly.

“That’s one thing that I take on myself,” Hundley said. “I try to help every aspect of this offense and it’s on me to know when to throw the ball and know what to do when I’m pressured. Sometimes you have to say screw it and take off running. That’s something that I’m working hard at this spring. We will be a lot better at that. … That offensive line is coming together really well this spring and they are going to be big and bad. I can’t wait to be behind them.”

And the head coach? Well, he finds the positive from the negative -- something not all head coaches are able to do.

“Brett had the mentality that he didn’t want to ever give up on a play,” Mora said. “I’ve seen that a lot in young quarterbacks. I would rather have that in a quarterback than a guy who gives up on a play too early, a guy that gets happy feet or gets afraid. Brett isn’t afraid. The time clock in his head just needs to say ‘Now it’s time to move out of the pocket. Now it’s time to move out of bounds and get to the next down.’ He’s maturing and he’ll get there. They are all maturing.”