UCLA Football Preview: Hawai'i's Defense Brings Experience
Todd Graham's defense is loaded with experience, but could be light on big-time talent.
The nice thing about a Todd Graham defense is that everything you need to know is right there at the top. A Todd Graham defense is going to be aggressive, almost to the point of fault. They’re going to blitz repeatedly, and from different angles, and put the onus on the offense to make the correct play each time. It’s a defensive system that can work well but is incredibly exploitable if you have a talent advantage.
Fortunately, UCLA should have that talent advantage over Hawai’i.
Still, this defense is the strength of Hawai’i and you can bet Graham will have a few new tricks up his sleeve for his return to the Rose Bowl. Graham got the Rainbow Warriros to lower their yards per play by almost a full yard last year, and got the team to the middle of the nation in points per drive. But, at the same time, it is hard to really gauge how good the Hawai’i defensive improvement actually was because they only played Mountain West opponents last year. Hawai’i ended 2020 with a defensive SP+ ranking of 112th, which to be fair did represent an improvement from 2019 but not by a significant amount.
All that said, let’s get into the preview.
Graham has opted for bulk upfront, getting a bunch of big bodies that can occupy blockers and free up space for the faster players on the back end. At nose tackle, Hawai’i trots out two seniors in Blessman Ta’ala and Justus Tavai that sit around 300 pounds. These guys are big enough impact players that you could realistically see them on the field at the same time. Hawai’i has another returning starter at defensive end in Djuan Matthews, and has reinforced the line with a few quality transfers, among them Pita Tonga from Utah and Zacchaeus McKinney from Oklahoma. Both players will be competing for the defensive tackle spot in Graham’s 4-3 defense. Finishing out the starting group is Jonah Laulu, who has seen time on both sides of the field.
Darius Muasau is the big star of the Hawai’i defense. He led the team with a ridiculous 102 tackles in nine games (the next closest player only had 69 tackles) and flew all over the field. He also led the team in sacks with 4.5. Complementing him will be the combination of senior Penei Pavihi and junior Isaiah Tufaga. Pavihi will likely get the start, but Tufaga seemed to be the more well-rounded player and should see equal playing time.
Hawai’i runs a nickel formation, so they trot out two corners, two safeties, and a nickelback. These guys are all over the field and are counted on to make plays. After all, five of Hawai’i’s top eight tacklers last year were defensive backs.
Starting at the nickelback spot is senior Quentin Frazier, who put together a solid season with 48 tackles and two interceptions. At one of the safety spots will be senior Khoury Bethley, who was second on the team with 69 tackles while leading the team in passes defended with six. Across from him will likely be Iowa State transfer Chima Azunna, who has plenty of experience from his time with the Cyclones. The Rainbow Warriors will welcome back their starting cornerback duo of Cameron Lockridge and Cortez Davis as well. Lockridge seems to be the better of the two, with two passes defended and an interception to go with his 39 tackles, but I’m not sure if those numbers are more due to him being the weaker option, thus having more passes come his way.
This is a pretty experienced group. All of the starters are upperclassmen, with eight of them being seniors, and they’ve added some solid transfer options that should contribute immediately. I’m also of the opinion that they’re probably better than the advanced stats would indicate, and Todd Graham’s style of aggression can cause all sorts of problems.
But, theoretically, these are problems UCLA is equipped to solve. UCLA can match Hawai’i on the experience front, and they should have superior talent. And, again, Todd Graham isn’t doing anything new on defense that he hasn’t shown you before. If UCLA struggles in this game offensively, that would be a good sign of hubris from either the players or coaching staff, as they likely assume they could sleepwalk through the game and be fine.
I think UCLA will ultimately be fine here, but there’s a window for trouble if the Bruins foolishly decide to open it.