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UCLA’s young D-line looks to turn improvement into a win

September 24, 2018

LOS ANGELES (AP) — UCLA did not play a game last week, but the winless Bruins did not treat it as a bye.

“We called it our improvement week,” defensive lineman Tyler Manoa said Monday.

For Manoa and other UCLA defenders seeing regular playing time as freshmen, they hope the development will carry over from the practice field to the win column when they visit Colorado on Friday night.

After going 0-3 in nonconference games, UCLA is off to its worst start since 1971 when coach Pepper Rodgers’ first season opened with four consecutive losses. A loss at the Buffaloes (3-0) to open conference play would mark the third time since the start of World War II that UCLA failed to win any of its first four games, joining the 1943 Bruins team that dropped seven straight.

A poor start to Chip Kelly’s first season as coach has not dissuaded the youngest Bruins going into their first Pac-12 game. Otito Ogbonnia, one of three freshman defensive linemen to play in each of UCLA’s first three games, is focused on making incremental progress in the hope that will lead to a breakthrough win.

“Just keep working hard. Just try to get better,” Ogbonnia said. “Going against an experienced Colorado team, an experienced offensive line, really experienced QB, so we’re just going to go in there, tackle and play hard. That’s all we can do.”

Ogbonnia, Manoa and Atonio Mafi have combined for 15 tackles, with the 380-pound Mafi recording the first tackle for loss among the five defensive linemen recruited as a part of the 2018 signing class in the season opener against Cincinnati.

Manoa acknowledged feeling some pressure playing in his first college game, but expects the whole group will benefit from the opportunity.

“We all just got done with our senior year of high school and we’re already playing on the big stage on TV,” said Manoa, who had a quarterback hurry against the Bearcats. “It was nerve-wracking but definitely a good experience, and we can learn together and take this in full strides and learn from this.”

Kelly, defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and defensive line coach Vincent Oghobaase told the incoming freshmen not to expect to redshirt in their first season at UCLA, with Manoa recalling the message as “the best man is going to play.”

Ogbonnia took it to heart and said the three freshmen are not doing anything special to be playing so early in their careers. Instead, they are simply following Oghobaase’s demands for a high-effort approach.

“All he asks of us is we go hard and try as hard as we can every practice, every play,” said Ogbonnia, who has four tackles. “It’s when you can do that you can really start going.”

“Improvement week” might have allowed the freshmen to take the next step by giving them a chance to build on their early game experience. The week included two practices in pads, stressing fundamentals and addressing mistakes from the first three games without the stress of preparing for the upcoming game, in addition to extra work with the strength and conditioning staff.

Now that the trio is playing, the Bruins will look to get more from them, specifically disruptive plays. With 15 tackles for loss, UCLA is tied for 95th nationally in negative plays per game. That includes five sacks, but UCLA will look to add to that total against a Colorado offensive line that has allowed three sacks per game.

However, there might be a bigger challenge for Manoa and his fellow freshmen this week than trying to bring down Colorado quarterback Steven Montez. Classes start this week at UCLA, which is on the quarter system, which means balancing the demands of school with the demands of football.

“Man, it’s going to be crazy,” Manoa said after getting an idea of what to expect during summer school. “We’ll see how it goes. I think it will be all right.”

Manoa has the same optimism for UCLA on the field this season.

“It sucks to lose, but we’re a young team and hopefully we can make some noise going into Pac-12,” Manoa said.

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