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October 11, 2006
Notebook: UCLA getting a change of attitude
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An arrival brought a revival at UCLA.
The Bruins, who were defensively challenged the last two seasons, are now playing challenging defense under DeWayne Walker.
No offseason move has paid off bigger than UCLA coach Karl Dorrell's hiring of Walker as defensive coordinator.
In 2004 the Bruins ranked 106th nationally in total defense. Last season they were worse, ranking 113th while allowing an average of 468.08 yards per game.
After five games this season, the Bruins (4-1) are allowing an average of just 221.6 yards per game to rank second in the nation.
More importantly, they've given up just 55 points (Washington scored on an interception return against UCLA), which is just three more than they allowed Arizona in an upset loss a year ago. It is also just 11 fewer than was surrendered to USC.
Continuing that level of performance will be critical for the Bruins, who lost quarterback Ben Olson for at least four weeks because of a knee injury sustained in last week's 27-7 victory over Arizona.
When Walker arrived, he realized he inherited players with as much self doubt as talent. Changing that mentality was the top priority for the former Washington Redskins secondary coach.
"The first thing we tried to do as a staff was to come in and change the attitude," he said. "That's not questioning what they were doing before, we just wanted to change to the attitude we wanted as a defensive staff.
"We focused on fundamentals and basic principles of old-school football. We wanted to get these guys to respect the game and understand the integrity of how good defenses play."
So far the Bruins are allowing opponents just 1.8 yards per rush. They've grabbed seven interceptions and forced seven fumbles, they're allowing just a 23 percent third-down conversion rate and they've accumulated 17 sacks.
Safeties Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton lead the team with 23 tackles each, but 10 players have recorded at least 11 stops – including middle linebacker Christian Taylor. Even though he is a bit undersized, Taylor has emerged as an emotional leader despite being slowed by a sprained ankle. Defensive end Justin Hickman has posted 5½ sacks.
"Christian Taylor is about 225 pounds soaking wet, but he's been a ring leader in terms of getting everybody to drink the same juice," Walker said. "We want to be good in the locker room, too, and we want everybody believing in what we're doing. We're not a defense with a bunch of stars – that's not my style of coaching, anyway. Even if I had a bunch of great players I would still teach the same principles of team defense, about not having individuals carrying the defense themselves."
Whatever his style, Walker apparent has taught the Bruins to tackle - which has been a costly shortcoming in recent seasons.
The statistic that he obsesses on is yards after contact. He counted 62 yards after contact in the season-opening victory over Utah. The next week against Rice the number was trimmed to 33.
Walker kept track of that same stat with the Redskins, and when he was with the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
That's quite a résumé, and it begs the question of why he'd leave a successful NFL career to return to the college game. He was the first assistant coach Pete Carroll hired when he took over at Southern Cal.
"It was just the opportunity to be a defensive coordinator, and I'm not getting any younger," the 45-year-old Walker said. "I've been around some real good defensive coordinators and I've learned a lot football and I wanted to put it to the test."
He's acing that test. And if the Bruins defense continues to improve, it will raise questions of how long he will be the defensive coordinator in Westwood.
In the future, teams seeking head coaches might see how Walker fixed UCLA's dilapidated defense and wonder just what else he can fix.
But as is the case with all coaches, Walker isn't looking any farther ahead than next week's game at (4-1) Oregon, which boasts the nation's fourth-ranked offense.
The Ducks are averaging 37 points per game, but at least Walker can go into that game feeling secure that his defense is one of the best in the country.
Well, he could if he would allow himself to do that.
"I'm never going to feel that way," he said. "It's just a flaky game. Once you think you've arrived the ceiling falls in. I don't think I'll think we've become a top defense until we're in the Rose Bowl against Michigan.
"Then, maybe, I'll reflect back and say we did get it done. But now, every week is a grind."
Yeah, but it has also been a grind for the offenses that have faced the Bruins.
UCLA still has to face the most high-powered offenses on its schedule. Aside from Oregon, teams like Notre Dame, California and USC still loom.
A year ago those teams would be expected to put up high scores on the Bruins.
This year, that cannot be taken for granted because of UCLA's defensive revival under Walker.
Three questions with Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee, who directed an 80-yard drive in the final three minutes for a 21-18 victory over Kansas last week.
Do you see that final drive as something that will influence the remainder of the season, or was it just a good thing that happened in one game?
"I think it's a little of both. The fact is we had to rely on each other and it was a complete team effort. I don't think you win a game like that unless everybody on the team is sticking together. If you have cracks in your team they will show in a game like that. That we were able to come back like that is a huge boost for our team, but we have to move past it."
Do you feel that win had any more importance because your team had lost to Texas Tech in the final minute the previous week?
"It was so important for us. We needed to get a Big 12 win under our belts. We were disappointed (in the loss to Texas Tech), but we needed to move on. A win always helps boost morale. Winning always helps, especially on the road (at Kansas). In the Big 12 every win is huge. There are no easy wins, so any time you do get one it's special."
The Aggies are 5-1. Is your team as good as the record says?
"I don't know. That's so hard to say. We have to go through the Big 12 to figure out how good we are. The only way to see how good you are is to go out and do it on the field. We haven't done anything yet. We have some huge games left, and we have a lot of tests to pass before I can answer that question."
Floyd of Rosedale is the prize bronze pig trophy for which Minnesota and Iowa play annually.
Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.