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UCLA’s defense suffers huge blow with star lineman Jay Toia entering transfer portal

UCLA's Jay Toia wraps up Stanford running back E.J. Smith
UCLA defensive lineman Jay Toia brings down Stanford running back E.J. Smith on Oct. 21. Toia announced he is entering the transfer portal.
(Scot Tucker / Associated Press)
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There was a 6-foot-3, 325-pound hole on the inside of UCLA’s defensive line Thursday.

It felt much bigger.

Update:

9:16 p.m. April 22, 2024Jay Toia announced on social media Monday that he has decided to come back to UCLA.

Jay Toia, the Bruins’ best defensive lineman and top run-stuffer, announced shortly after practice ended on the social media platform X that he intended to enter the transfer portal after speaking with his parents about his future.

His departure is a huge blow to a defense that was already considerably thinned by the loss of top edge rushers Laiatu Latu and twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy to the NFL draft, not to mention defensive backs Kamari Ramsey and John Humphrey to transfers to USC.

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With UCLA halfway through spring football practice, here are five takeaways for the Bruins thus far as they adjust to new coach DeShaun Foster.

April 17, 2024

Keanu Williams, Gary Smith III and Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi are the top candidates to take the two starting spots on interior defensive line, though Smith has been sidelined this spring by an unspecified injury that has limited him to individual workouts. While Williams and Smith have previous starting experience with the Bruins, Havili-Kaufusi has appeared exclusively as a reserve.

Havili-Kaufusi, Williams and Siale Taupaki spent turns rotating with the first team defense in practice Thursday.

A major contributor since arriving as a transfer from USC before the 2021 season, Toia started every game last season and logged 28 tackles — including four for loss — to go with one sack. The senior appeared to be in the best shape of his career this spring after having slimmed down to a weight that made him increasingly mobile.

Toia sparked controversy during his freshman season when a video emerged showing him blocking an elevator doorway to prevent a group of students from leaving while also using degrading and threatening language. Toia did not miss any games, but it was never publicly disclosed whether he faced any discipline as a result of the incident.

UCLA football coach DeShaun Foster is hoping to recruit talent via the NCAA transfer portal to bolster several position groups that are lacking depth.

April 13, 2024

Toia becomes the third UCLA player to enter the transfer portal since the start of spring practices, joining quarterback Collin Schlee and edge rusher Choe Bryant-Strother.

Like every player who enters the portal, Toia has the ability to change his mind and return. UCLA kept running back Keegan Jones and guard Spencer Holstege after they entered the portal over the winter, though a return involving Toia appears less likely given the timing of his move.

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Together again

Juan Castillo coached in the NFL so long that he was around for Eric Bieniemy’s final season as a player. In 1999, Castillo was the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line coach when Bieniemy got 12 carries as a running back for the team.

They reconnected last year, when Bieniemy was the Washington Commanders’ offensive coordinator and Castillo coached the team’s tight ends. Castillo then followed UCLA’s new offensive coordinator to Westwood, where Castillo serves as the offensive line coach.

After spending most of the last three decades at the professional level, Castillo has found it refreshing to be back around college players.

“They say, ‘‘Preciate you, coach’ and then they call you coach,” Castillo said, “and I’m used to being called Juan.”

New UCLA offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy knows the offensive scheme he’s building with DeShaun Foster will take some time for the players to learn.

April 4, 2024

While Castillo’s only college stop since the mid-1990s was as an offensive analyst with Michigan in 2019, he said he expected his pedigree to be an asset in recruiting.

“High school kids that are coming to college want to go to the NFL,” said Castillo, who will turn 65 in October. “Well, I’ve coached in the NFL for 28 years, so what better place to come than UCLA to learn from somebody that’s been in the NFL? Coach Bieniemy and myself, we’re teaching it just like we taught it in the NFL and we’ve both had some success, so I think this is a great place to come if you want to go to the NFL and get a great education.”

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Fun Friday

UCLA’s “Friday Night Lights” event scheduled to start at 7 p.m. is intended to be a fun throwback to players’ high school days.

“Just picture a carnival out here on the field,” coach DeShaun Foster said.

New UCLA coach DeShaun Foster talks with the L.A. Times about the start of his tenure, what he hopes to change and how he wants the Bruins to compete.

March 20, 2024

Bleachers are expected to be erected in a parking lot overlooking the practice field to accommodate fans. Food trucks will sell a variety of delicacies. A large group of high school recruits is scheduled to attend, including some highly coveted prospects.

“There’s going to be some heavy-hitters here,” Foster said.

The format will feature a large number of team periods to show how the offense and defense are progressing. It’s all part of Foster’s effort to inject enthusiasm — one of his three pillars, alongside discipline and respect — back into the program.

“That’s like the main thing we talk about — you can’t really do well if you’re not having fun,” running back T.J. Harden said. “You should always do the sport with a purpose and there’s going to be ups and downs, but you’ve got to always remember this is the sport you played since you were a little kid.”

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