UCLA’s secondary shows its old boss how much it has improved

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UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) runs back after intercepting a pass against Arizona.
UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock runs with the ball after intercepting a pass against Arizona in the fourth quarter on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Nice of Paul Rhoads to show up and see what has become of his UCLA secondary.

It’s growing into an elite group almost a year after Rhoads left his post as defensive backs coach with the Bruins to become Arizona’s defensive coordinator.

Rhoads deserves partial credit. He was universally praised for his teaching ability and football knowledge in his two seasons at UCLA, but the results didn’t always match the admiration. The Bruins allowed a school-record 3,729 yards passing last season while giving up 310.8 yards passing per game, ranking No. 129 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

The numbers are far more palatable in 2020 under new defensive backs coach Brian Norwood. UCLA is giving up 217.5 yards per game, ranking No. 42 nationally, and its team passing efficiency defense is ranked No. 25. The Bruins’ three interceptions through four games puts them on pace to easily eclipse the four they had all of last season.

UCLA defensive back Elijah Gates earned a hug from coach Chip Kelly on Saturday night after his interception in the final minute of the Bruins’ 27-10 victory over Arizona.

“When you see somebody work as hard as he’s worked, to have success like that, to finish a game off that way, it was awesome and I’m just really proud of Gatesy,” Kelly said. “He gives us everything he’s got.”

Safety Stephan Blaylock had made his first career interception earlier in the fourth quarter, responding to a halftime challenge from Kelly to start forcing turnovers. The Bruins (2-2) also sacked Arizona freshman quarterback Will Plummer twice and hurried him four other times after he replaced injured starter Grant Gunnell, reversing their habit of making opposing quarterbacks look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas in their collegiate debuts.

Graduate transfer cornerback Obi Eboh had his best game as a Bruin, collecting one sack and two tackles for loss. He credited his teammates with a selfless, relentless approach that helped free him to make plays.

Shea Pitts is taking the [defensive] tackle upfield so that I can come underneath,” Eboh said, referring to the Bruins’ nickel back. “Everybody’s working together as a cohesive unit to accomplish one goal.”

Eboh said Norwood has contributed by helping defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro devise an attacking game plan and harping on takeaways in practice.

“Most everything we do there’s a ball involved and we’re taking it away,” Eboh said. “We’re always practicing creating turnovers whether it’s interceptions, strips, recovering fumbles, whatever we can do. We’re doing those things fundamentally so that when we get into the game it kind of becomes second-nature and I think we’ve done a good job of that.”

Etc.

A City of Pasadena spokesperson said she did not envision the city adopting any orders that would bar UCLA from playing its final scheduled home game against USC on Dec. 12 at the Rose Bowl. The spokesperson also confirmed that the new stay-at-home order from Los Angeles County public health officials that prohibits public or private gatherings not involving members of the same household does not apply to college sports. … UCLA has outscored each of its opponents in the fourth quarter this season while surrendering only three points, on a field goal against Colorado. … Under Kelly, the Bruins are plus-13 in the turnover margin in wins and minus-25 in losses.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.