The Bruins' defense ranked towards the top of the conference last year in several major statistical categories, but Bo Calvert said that's only going to be a stepping stone for this year's unit.
"I think we had a really good year last year, for it being COVID and everything," the linebacker said. "Just being able to remember what we did during COVID, I think we got really close and the team was here because that's all we had, the guys around us. So being able to maintain that, build off of that, I think we're gonna be doing great this year."
Calvert has been playing a lot of raider since fall camp opened Friday, a position he said he played a little bit against Oregon last season and has comparable experience on the edge from high school. While Carl Jones is the one who's been bumped out of the starting 11 as a result, Caleb Johnson is the one getting time as an inside Mike linebacker himself.
The shifts in the linebacking corps were some of the first things we noticed Friday. Saturday, the media got a much closer look at the defensive line, including several new faces and others returning from injury.
Martin Andrus Jr., John Ward, Datona Jackson, Otito Ogbonnia, Jay Toia and Odua Isibor spent a good chunk of practice working in the northwest corner with outside linebackers coach Jason Kaufusi.
Andrus seemed once again to be a full participant, but Kaufusi specifically noted to him during one of the drills to trust his knee – the knee he injured when he tore his ACL back in 2019.
Incoming freshman and recent USC transfer Jay Toia was looking massive Saturday, a key trait UCLA could really use moving forward. Kaufusi was giving Toia a lot of attention in these drills, which is to be expected for a lineman so raw who's only in his second official collegiate practice.
Coach Chip Kelly said he had no idea what Toia's status is for the season in terms of his eligibility, considering he only left the Trojans' program in May.
Toia being ready for week one would be a massive boost for a UCLA interior line that will be without Osa Odighizuwa this season after he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2021 NFL Draft. While he may not be the same versatile, 3-technique lineman that Odighizuwa was, Toia can help make up for the missing production by contributing alongside improved veterans like Ogbonnia and Isibor.
Personnel-wise, left guard Paul Grattan is still practicing with the team amid misdemeanor charges stemming back to 2020, and Kelly said everything related to discipline will continue to be handled internally. Kelly was similarly mum on the status of running back Keegan Jones, who was seen walking around practice Friday in a hoodie, as he was simply labeled as unavailable.
Kelly said UCLA's vaccination rate is around 98% as of Saturday.
The entire University of California system is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all students who come to campus, and that applies to the student-athletes on the gridiron for the Bruins as well. There will be exceptions for religious and health reasons, Kelly said, and he has spoken with multiple players on his team who will be applying for opt-out waivers regarding the vaccine.
When the season kicks off Aug. 28 against Hawai'i, Kelly said every player on the roster will either be vaccinated or have an approved waiver.
Vaccinated or not, Kelly reminded everyone that the pandemic isn't over yet for his team, and that it still very much looms large over the upcoming season.
"It’s good to get back to some sense of normalcy, but we also caution them that with the delta variant, we still need to be really vigilant about what’s going on right now because you’re not out of the woods, even if you are vaccinated," Kelly said. "And you just go back to the NC State baseball program, making it all the way to the semis and all the sudden, they get hit and they can’t play in the championship game. So we still gotta be conscious."
Fans in the stands
The last time Caleb Johnson was in a crowded Rose Bowl, he was in middle school.
He couldn't remember the exact year, only that it was a UCLA-Stanford game – based on the timeline he provided, that means the Bruins came out on the losing end.
Johnson played in all seven games for UCLA in 2020, including all four home games. None of those contests featured fans of any kind, however, meaning the season opener against the Rainbow Warriors will be the first time he hears the Bruin faithful screaming his name. One week later, UCLA will host SEC powerhouse LSU.
"I feel like it’s going to be a great environment," Johnson said. "I feel like there will be a lot of fans out there, especially coming out of COVID and because our program is on a rise right now, so I think it’ll be a great environment."
Calvert talked about how important it was going to be to have crowds filling stadiums this year, not only in terms of the outcome of games but also regarding the energy it can bring to the program.
"I think for a lot of guys, that's a big reason why you want to play college football on a big stage, right? You want to play in front of a lot of people, you want to play in big games and you want to win big games," Calvert said. "So hopefully we'll be able to get people packed in there and obviously have COVID protocol and everything, be safe. Hopefully it's loud and hopefully we're gonna have a lot of fun."
Follow Connon on Twitter at @SamConnon
Follow All Bruins on Twitter at @SI_AllBruins
Like All Bruins on Facebook at @SI.AllBruins