Kenny Churchwell III stared at the lawn trying to find the words, his hands working faster than the muscles in his mouth.
Last year, UCLA football’s hopes for the Pac-12 were dashed under a relentless airstrike, Oregon’s Bo Nix and USC’s Caleb Williams and Arizona’s Jayden De Laura all too often firing into windows that were too wide and secondaries that were too shaky. Chip Kelly’s offensive juggernaut and Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s development failed to save the collapsed defensive covers.
“We’re trying to promote a different standard,” Junior Safety Churchwell assured Tuesday at spring training. And then he paused, trying to quantify a platitude that, in his tone, was of paramount importance.
“We’re trying to make ourselves uncomfortable, if you know what I mean,” he continued.
On a very small scale, this looks easy. Sprint anywhere, no matter if you’re tired. Show up 30 minutes early. Hold additional meetings. But more broadly, this shift in standards is beginning under the umbrella of new defense coordinator D’Anton Lynn, who has been regularly praised by Bruin defenders this spring for attempting to incorporate new concepts into UCLA’s scheme.
Lynn, a former safety coach with the Baltimore Ravens and son of former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, said Thursday he went “back and forth” about staying in Baltimore before finally accepting the Bruins’ job.
He spoke extensively about coverage as part of the interview process, Lynn said, acknowledging his background working with defensive secondaries — also a former Penn State cornerback — which likely played a role in the hiring.
“That’s been a focus this spring,” Lynn said, “not giving up on big gigs and just trying to cover up our coverage as best we can.”
When asked about defensive changes under Lynn last week, Kelly said in a textbook Chip-ism that his staff had been “conscious of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Translation: Haven’t introduced any radical new defense ideas yet, sticking to similar schemes and terminology that UCLA has used in the past so as not to confuse players.
However, some of the former Ravens coach’s defensive principles are evident, particularly in his work with a Bruins secondary who needs an adjustment in approach.
Last year, Churchwell and junior defenseman Alex Johnson explained, the Bruins did quite a bit of pattern “match” coverage — a zoning principle that tracks receivers in a defender’s area. However, Lynn has introduced more “spot drops” this spring, the backs said, ignoring certain receiver routes and breaking the ball as soon as the quarterback winds up to throw.
“This year we’re going to be more of a looser zone, harping on the vision and making sure everyone is on the same page,” Johnson said Tuesday. “And I think that’s an area that we’ve lacked in the past.”
Two days after being hired, Lynn was in Southern California. And the first thing he did, the coordinator said, was a review of last season’s film, in which he analyzed how Pac-12 offenses attacked the Bruins’ plans.
One of his key takeaways: UCLA’s red zone defense was missing. Wasn’t just the eye test. The Bruins ranked in the bottom 25 in the NCAA in percent of red-zone results surrendered last season and stopped opposing offenses within the 20-yard line only 11.5% of the time. This is bad.
Modern reporting, the coordinator explained, requires a mix of pattern match, spot drop and man-to-man. Mixing more of one might seem like a minor change in terminology, but it’s a notable adjustment in philosophy that speaks to Lynn’s vision: Disguise tries to confuse the opposing quarterback as often as possible. It could certainly pay off in the red, where the field shrinks and split-second decisions are made.
“If I do my job for the D lineman, they’re going to get a lot of cover sacks,” Churchwell said, referring to games where cover is so heavy that rushers have time to get to the quarterback. “That will happen. We’ll do better this year.”
Amid college football’s increasingly complex offensive systems and use of wide receivers, Johnson said you need strong defenders, potentially at every snap. That goes hand-in-hand, he said, with an overhaul of the Bruins’ secondary school this fall: not only Lynn as their new coordinator, but also adding Kodi Whitfield, former Sacramento State safety coach, to coach the cornerbacks.
“Our defensive meetings as a unit really feel like an NFL room now, an NFL vibe with Coach Lynn,” Johnson said. “The expertise he brings from the NFL side is great. He’s still learning to transition the NFL game to the collegiate game…but I think the leap we’re going to make this year is going to be awesome.”