PHOENIX — Everyone lines up after Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. The senior shuffles his feet and jabs his hands at the padded mannequins printed on the brick wall. The rest of UCLA’s defensive linemen follow. Then he jogs across the field to the next drill, all of his fellow linemen in tow, where he rotates between sprawling away from a big red ball, pushing the ball at his teammates and offering one-on-one advice.
Tuioti-Mariner has been doling out a lot of advice this year.
Since fellow senior Matt Dickerson injured his collarbone in October, Tuioti-Mariner assumed the sole leadership position for a young defensive line big on potential but short on experience.
The St. John Bosco High alum sets the tone and hopes the rest follow. So far, the progress has been excruciatingly slow for a unit that was expected to be one of UCLA’s strengths this year, but Tuioti-Mariner is seeing improvement as the Bruins prepare to face Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday.
“It’s kind of difficult when you see the guys trying to do the stuff that they did in high school, see what worked there and see what works (here), but it’s a different level,” Tuioti-Mariner said. “You gotta have a lot more technique than it is talent, so I think the guys have done an outstanding job of learning more of the technique and applying it to the field.”
UCLA had three strong defensive performances to finish the regular season, including a 28-point game against USC and 27 points allowed against Cal. Its season-average for rushing yards allowed, 282.7, still ranks second-worst in the country, but the mark is at the lowest it’s been since the third week of the season.
Although then-head coach Jim Mora said Dickerson’s collarbone injury was not thought to be season-ending, the senior defensive lineman will not return for the Cactus Bowl. Tuioti-Mariner was desperately hoping Dickerson would be able to play Tuesday so they could finish their careers off together, the same way they…