LOS ANGELES — There was some disbelief last winter when first-year UCLA Coach Jim Mora installed Angus McClure as defensive line coach.
McClure had spent most of his college career working with offensive linemen and tight ends. He had never coached defensive linemen on that level, and had spent three of his previous five years off the field, serving three years as the on-campus recruiting coordinator.
At first glance, he didn’t seem like a logical fit, and one of his first moves didn’t do much to change that impression among players. At least initially.
McClure brought in a martial arts expert, Paul McCarthy, to help players with technique last spring.
“We saw the guy and he was like 5 feet 6 and we thought, ‘This is not going to work,’” defensive end Datone Jones said.
McCarthy started talking in a voice more suited to Westminster Abbey than Westwood.
“We heard that English accent and we thought, ‘This is really not going to work,’” Jones said.
McCarthy sought a volunteer. Jones, who has dabbled in boxing, stepped up.
“I threw a punch at him and he grabbed my hand, flipped me to the ground and acted like he punched me in the throat,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Ah, man, this works. I’m a believer.’”
The Bruins’ defensive linemen had been powder blue pylons at times in 2011; they finished 96th nationally against the run and 112th in sacks.
Under McClure, and with McCarthy’s help, things have changed in 2012.
The Bruins are seventh nationally in sacks, 15th in tackles for a loss and 54th against the run, important statistics as they face Baylor’s No. 1-ranked offense in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27.
“I wanted to incorporate martial arts as much as I could,” McClure said. “When you pass-rush, the combinations you use with your hands really come into play.”
McClure had not coached defensive linemen since a three-year stint at Sacramento McClatchy High that ended in 1994. He has been on UCLA’s staff since 2007 and coached tight ends last season.
But after McClure accompanied Mora on his first recruiting trip in January, he had a new job. He was the only assistant coach from Rick Neuheisel’s staff who was retained.
“Spending time with him, I felt he was a guy who could easily go from coaching offense to defense,” Mora said. “When you’re an offensive line coach, you have to be a technician. I knew anything he didn’t understand about defensive line, he’d learn and apply it quickly.”
Plus, Mora said, “Angus is a progressive thinker.”
McClure reached out to other coaches: Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, San Diego Chargers defensive line coach Don Johnson and New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson.
His background as an offensive line coach provided defensive linemen with a unique perspective.
Said defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa: “He taught us how to read them and how to combat them.”
McCarthy, who is the instructional program coordinator at UCLA, began martial arts training as a graduate student at Indiana and quickly rose to black belt.
McClure had attended San Francisco 49ers practices in the 1990s, where he first saw martial arts techniques taught to defensive linemen.
“Seeing Charles Haley do that was pretty impressive,” McClure said.
McCarthy also had a connection to football. He studied martial arts under Dan Insonato, an instructor who was a student of the late actor Bruce Lee. Insonato had worked with Dallas Cowboys defensive linemen in the 1970s. “This was like Christmas for me,” McCarthy said. “I had heard stories from Guro Dan about the Cowboys and I thought this had potential.”
The Bruins, at first, were a bit skeptical.
“I saw a lot of guys with crossed arms,” McCarthy said.
It didn’t take long for that to change.
“This guy is serious,” Jones said. “He’s the British ninja. He moves so fast, he’s like a fly. It’s like watching a Jackie Chan movie.”
McCarthy, 33, worked with the Bruins during spring practice and summer training camp, teaching Filipino martial arts and hubud, a drill to help stay connected with another person’s arm and body, that he learned from Insonato. McCarthy will resume their education during the offseason.
Jones demonstrated what he had learned against Nebraska at the Rose Bowl in the second game of the season. He shed a blocker and dropped quarterback Taylor Martinez for a safety to break a 27-27 tie. Jones had three tackles for a loss in that game.
“Everything I do now is quicker,” Jones said.
McCarthy had no background in football, though he did work with rugby teams in England. He met with McClure to get a basic understanding of the game and what needed to be taught.
He altered martial arts workouts to fit the need.
“It usually takes a student six weeks to pick things up,” McCarthy said. “These guys learned it in a matter of days.”
UCLA had seven sacks in the opener against Rice. Of course, Rice is, well, Rice. But the Bruins also had seven sacks against Stanford’s rugged offensive line.
Defensive end Cassius Marsh, who has done martial arts training in the past, said, “It helps you be more violent. But the No. 1 thing is your hands.”
The Bruins have 43 sacks this season. Linebacker Anthony Barr has done the majority of the damage with 13.5 sacks. But Marsh has 7.5 and Jones six.
Said McClure; “Playing defensive line, it’s like hand-to-hand combat every play.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services