May 23, 2024

D’Anton Lynn demands that his players talk.

Before the snap. After the play. Back on the sideline at the end of drives that mostly have gone nowhere.

Talk about what formations they see. About shifts and movement and tendencies. About anything that might help a teammate gain the slightest edge in getting another stop.

“Obnoxious communication” is how Lynn, UCLA’s new defensive coordinator, describes his relentless call for chatter.

He’s found a responsive audience in a jaunty jumble of comeback stories, late bloomers and out-of-nowhere contributors who comprise what might be the best defense in the Pac-12.

These guys have a lot to say and want everyone to hear it, not just themselves.

“I’m pretty sure I can speak for our whole defense,” redshirt senior linebacker Darius Muasau said, “when I say that we come in with a chip on our shoulder every day. We want to prove that we are the best.”

Muasau came from Hawaii before last season, making him one of 13 transfers on the two-deep depth chart. Edge rusher Laiatu Latu was told his career was over at Washington because of a serious neck injury. Turns out it’s just getting started, the preseason All-American who has logged five sacks in as many games now widely coveted by NFL teams after becoming a pain in the neck for foes at his new home.

UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu pushes against South Alabama offensive lineman Adrein Strickland

UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu (15) pushes South Alabama Jaguars offensive lineman Adrein Strickland (70) as he tries to get to the quarterback on Sept. 17 at the Rose Bowl. Latu is one of the stars of the Bruins’ dramatically improved defense.

(Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What makes their success all the more remarkable is that these are many of the same players who have long heard their defense called the worst. It’s the one thing that’s dragged down UCLA under Chip Kelly.

Now it’s sparking daydreams of a special season. The No. 18 Bruins (4-1 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) find themselves back in the national rankings heading into a Saturday showdown at No. 15 Oregon State (5-1, 2-1) after their defense held Washington State to one offensive touchdown. That sustained a seasonlong streak in which no opponent has reached the end zone multiple times against UCLA without help from its defense.

His star quarterback befuddled all afternoon, even on plays in which he eluded the initial pressure, Cougars coach Jake Dickert called the Bruins defenders “creatures” for their freakish size and ability to shut his team down. He might have just coined a nickname.

“I think we all love it,” said UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo, a transfer from California who packs 250 powerful pounds onto his 6-foot-3 frame. “We want to be creatures, we don’t want to be regular humans.”

The turnaround has been otherworldly for a defense that ranks No. 5 in the nation by giving up 254.2 yards per game. Take away two interception returns for touchdowns that UCLA has surrendered and it is giving up just 9.4 points per game, which felt like an average amount for two drives in seasons past.

The man behind the rise is making his own swift ascent. Already the Bruins’ first million-dollar man at defensive coordinator, Lynn is earning a big raise as well as universal admiration from those who watched UCLA finish the last five seasons Nos. 86, 70, 69, 113 and 102 nationally in total defense. Along the way, the 33-year-old has found something more worthwhile than the promise of a more lucrative contract.

UCLA players celebrate an interception by UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo against Washington State

UCLA players celebrate an interception by linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (2) against Washington State on Oct. 7 at the Rose Bowl.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

“The most fun part,” Lynn told The Times this week in a quiet moment outside the Wasserman Football Center, “is just seeing the guys have fun. Just seeing the way they’re playing out there is awesome.”

He’s getting a close-up view. Unlike many defensive coordinators who cordon themselves off in the faraway comfort of the press box, Lynn sees everything from the sideline. Since the Bruins did not hold a spring game, Lynn did not get a test run to decide whether he wanted to work from high above the field or directly on top of it in his first season calling plays.

He chose the sideline, intentionally starting from the bottom.

“It’s better to start on the field and that way I can at least look guys in the eye, I can be down there with the players and handle adjustments and stuff like that,” Lynn said. “If I feel like I need to go up, I can always make my way up. I didn’t want to start up and then feel like I needed to be down.”

Being there has allowed Lynn to celebrate with an unlikely cast of characters. In addition to all those transfers are two former walk-ons, three players who switched positions and four more who are in their sixth college seasons while waiting patiently for this moment.

Defensive back Alex Johnson, around since the start of the Kelly era, has a team-leading three interceptions. Redshirt senior Kain Medrano has made his switch from wide receiver to linebacker pay off after several relatively quiet seasons at his new position, becoming a constant presence in the backfield with two sacks and 3½ tackles for loss.

UCLA defensive back Alex Johnson intercepts a pass by Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward at the Rose Bowl

UCLA defensive back Alex Johnson intercepts a pass by Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“That’s their edge,” Lynn said of his widely overlooked players. “They like not being talked about, I think that’s something they take pride in and I think that’s something that’s been the edge to this defense.”

Sometimes they go a bit over the edge. Muasau might have taken the whole obnoxious communication thing a bit too far, drawing disconcerting signals penalties in back-to-back games for mimicking the other team’s snap count.

“We’re going to stay away from doing that,” Muasau said.

His exuberance could be forgiven considering he’s among the transfers making plays that eluded them last season. A year after routinely flying into the backfield only to fail to bring down the quarterback, Muasau has four sacks. Twin edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy have combined for 11 tackles for loss while also doing a much better job of containment on their respective sides of the field.

“We’re all a byproduct of our experiences and the more snaps you get, the better off you can be,” Kelly said. “Those guys all have a real thirst for learning and they want to get better.”

Lynn credited his boss with making structural changes before his arrival that have contributed to this turnaround. Ikaika Malloe became both the defensive line and outside linebackers coach, allowing those players to become interchangeable. They repeatedly have pressured the quarterback with a limited pass rush thanks to a so-called amoeba defense in which players mill about the line of scrimmage to confuse offenses wondering whether they will drop into coverage or charge into the backfield.

Kelly also hired Kodi Whitfield as cornerbacks coach, giving those players specialized training just as the safeties and nickel backs have their own coach in Brian Norwood.

One coach continues to inspire every day despite his absence. Bill McGovern’s favorite saying — “We can do hard things” — can be found on players’ T-shirts and helmets, a reminder of the grandfatherly defensive coordinator’s impact before he suffered a setback in his battle against kidney cancer midway through last season and died in May.

“We’re very thankful for him,” Muasau said, “and the foundation that he left in our program.”

Lynn uses two other mantras besides his communication edict to boost his defense. He tells his players to give “shocking effort” and always “attack the football,” something they have done expertly in generating 13 turnovers, tied for No. 8 in the country.

“Those are three things that anybody can do,” Lynn said, “and those are three things that whatever scheme we put out there, it’s going to elevate the scheme.”

One can safely say it’s working.

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