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UCLA football relies on experience, familiarity for improving its defense

LOS ANGELES — Elijah Gates had no idea what Dorian Thompson-Robinson was seeing on the play. All the cornerback saw was a pick-six opportunity for him and he gladly took it as he jumped in front of an errant pass from Thompson-Robinson in practice Tuesday.
Gates, who grabbed his first interception of spring practice, is one of the few new full-time starters on defense for the Bruins this season. He played significant snaps last year, ascending to the starting role late in the season after injuries to Nate Meadors, and earning 39 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups in his debut year as a redshirt freshman.
He has bigger plans for this season.
“I’m just going to try keep perfecting my craft,” Gates said. “I played last year so they want me to come in and take a big role, try to teach the younger guys how to step up and really just compete.”
The Bruins return nine of 11 defensive starters and have likely successors waiting in Gates and Stephan Blaylock, who has been starting at safety in Adarius Pickett’s former position during practice. UCLA replaced only one assistant coach from last year’s staff, picking up former Nevada coach Jason Kaufusi to coach outside linebackers. The increased familiarity with players and coaches entering the second year under head coach Chip Kelly has made for a smooth beginning to spring practices.
“We have a better knowledge of what we’re doing now, so there’s not much teaching going on,” linebacker Krys Barnes said. “It’s more just fixing up where we left off. After practice, we go back to meetings, fix some more things every day, and I feel like every day we improved.”
Gates is a former four-star prospect, but redshirted his first year. He said Tuesday it was a useful break from the field that allowed him to truly grasp the college game and the playbook. The new coaching staff, including defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads, has only increased his knowledge.
“Coach Rhoads, I don’t even think he’s a coach, he’s a teacher, actually,” Gates said. “Just having him, when he takes the time throughout the day to actually make sure you get the material and the extra work, it’s a blessing to have him here.”
The Bruins were 11th in the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense last season, giving up 444.9 yards and 34.1 points per game. Their passing defense gave up 7.9 yards per pass, which was the second-highest average in the conference.
With experienced returners leading the way, the Bruins hope to change the results.
“We got dogs on our team,” Gates said. “We got people who want to win, want to compete.”
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Coordinator by any other name
Justin Frye earned a promotion to offensive coordinator during the offseason, but the two-year assistant coach has retained many of the same roles on the field in practice. Frye handles more administrative duties in meetings as the official offensive coordinator, head coach Chip Kelly said, but his role in practice remains mostly the same as he oversees the offensive linemen.
Offensive lineman Michael Alves said Frye now teaches the linemen about the whole concept of each play rather than just the offensive line’s role.
“One of the reasons why we brought him here was he’s really smart, really intelligent and has a great background,” Kelly said of Frye. “As we move forward, he continues to bring more ideas and organization to that position.”
Quick hits
Linebacker Josh Woods, defensive backs William Nimmo and Kenny Churchwell and receiver Dymond Lee remained in yellow noncontact jerseys. … Offensive lineman Mohamed Khalil was limited in a yellow jersey for the first time this spring, riding an exercise bike for much of practice. … Defensive lineman Winston Polite appeared to injure his hand during a one-on-one drill against offensive lineman Stephen DeFranco.

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