UCLA’s new defensive coordinator likes to play mind games

Bill McGovern’s top defender looked slightly deranged, with his eye black smeared like a WWF wrestler.

He would pace the sideline before every game. He would stare across the field at the player he wanted to destroy.

The menace on his face was unmistakable.

“That was my thing,” Mark Herzlich recalled this week, more than a decade after the linebacker terrorized quarterbacks and running backs alike under McGovern at Boston College. “It’s weird and a little sadistic but Bill was like, ‘Hey, this is what gets Mark jacked up.’”

Pulling his star aside before the 2008 season opener, McGovern delivered an even bigger jolt.

“He goes, ‘Mark, you’re the best player on the field right now. Play like it,’” said Herzlich, who would go on to become the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year. “I kept reminding myself that’s what Bill told me and whether every single game that was true or not, I felt it was true because my coach believed it was true.”

Over the last month, UCLA’s new defensive coordinator has been up to his old cerebral tricks. His message to the Bruins sounds more like something out of a psychologist’s handbook than a coach’s playbook.

“He just lets me be me,” said Devin Kirkwood, the trash-talking Bruins cornerback who tries to irritate everyone besides referees. “He’s just helped me express my game in ways I wasn’t able to do last year, so now when I demonstrate it, it just looks like poetry.”

McGovern finds himself in Westwood because UCLA’s defense has mostly resembled gibberish since coach Chip Kelly’s arrival in 2018. When the Bruins gave up 26.8 points per game last season, ranking No. 74 nationally, it qualified as something of a breakthrough compared to defenses that had given up 30 or more points in each of the three previous seasons under Jerry Azzinaro.

Kelly then traded in one old friend for another, hiring McGovern to replace Azzinaro even though some might consider their backgrounds nearly identical. Both had strong ties to New England and Kelly. Both had worked at the NFL and college levels, including three stops on the same staff. Both had gone at least a decade between stints as defensive coordinators.

One critical difference emerged in March when McGovern consented to a round of interviews with local beat writers. By the time he uttered his first word, he had said more publicly than his famously silent predecessor in four years on the job.

A native of northern New Jersey who has spent his entire 37-year coaching career in the Northeast and Midwest, McGovern revealed a self-deprecating sense of humor when asked if this was his first time living in Southern California.

“Oh, yeah, you haven’t seen my white legs yet,” he cracked. “No one wants to see me down there at the beach or at the pool.”

Bill McGovern in 2014

Bill McGovern during his time as Philadelphia Eagles linebackers coach under Chip Kelly in 2014.

(Associated Press)

McGovern also divulged that he has known of Kelly since they played football at rival New England colleges in the 1980s, McGovern an All-American defensive back at Holy Cross and Kelly a reserve counterpart at New Hampshire. As they commenced their coaching careers, they continued to cross paths at camps and in recruiting.

Those paths finally merged in 2013 when Kelly hired McGovern to be his outside linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. They parted after Kelly was dismissed near the end of the 2015 season, McGovern becoming linebackers coach with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears until being let go as part of another staff change in January.

A second term of Kelly-McGovern followed, Kelly saying he was intrigued by the NFL concepts McGovern and new inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. could use to fortify his team’s lagging pass defense.

“Obviously, I think we’ve done a really good job against the run,” said Kelly, who made McGovern his highest-paid assistant at a salary of $900,000 per year, “but we need to do a better job in pass defense.”

McGovern’s four-year run as Boston College’s defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2012 started with lots of stops. His Eagles rose from No. 26 nationally in total defense during McGovern’s first season in that role to No. 13 in 2010. But things rapidly deteriorated, the Eagles ranking No. 70 in 2011 and No. 100 in 2012.

One of McGovern’s favorite sayings was that his players didn’t need to leave Chestnut Hill as coaches, but they should be able to given all the hours they spent in the film room. Players learned not only formations but also the top three things opposing teams liked to do out of them so that there would rarely be any surprises.

“I had 12 interceptions throughout my career, which is almost unheard of for a linebacker,” said Herzlich, who also spent two seasons playing for McGovern in the NFL with the Giants, “but that’s because we knew what the other team was going to do.”

The mindset among defensive players after a three-and-out by the offense, Herzlich said, wasn’t that they had to go back onto the field but that they got to because it gave them another chance to hit somebody. McGovern preached toughness and playing within the rules … given that sometimes those rules did the Eagles a favor by allowing them to contact receivers after five yards.

“We would rep at all times where if you can knock down a wide receiver on a crossing route or you can knock down a guy legally,” Herzlich said, “that’s the easiest way to cover him, so we were very physical, we were very aggressive.”

Every year during spring practice, when he felt the timing was right, McGovern would make a show of ripping players to reignite their competitive fire. Writing their names on a board, he would tick off the shortcomings of everyone in the room.

“He’d be like, ‘This guy’s hurt, you’re not producing, you’re not doing this, we need to pick it up!’” Herzlich said.

McGovern also revealed a more tender side with players who consider him family. Some say he’s like an uncle. Others compare him to a father, Herzlich noting the way McGovern constantly checked in on him and kept his parents updated while Herzlich was undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer after returning to campus his senior year.

Considering that McGovern will turn 60 on New Year’s Eve, it might be more accurate to call him a grandfather figure.

UCLA fans won’t care if he’s hailed as the Dalai Lama if he can’t revive the team’s defense. McGovern has been as tight-lipped as his predecessor when it comes to what that defense might look like, saying only that it would be varied. He’s been known to favor having linebackers essentially serve as part of the defensive line to increase pressure and fill gaps in coverage.

“You want to give different looks, different presentations,” McGovern said, “things that are going to hopefully work to your advantage and create some issues on the other side of the ball.”

His return to the college game after a decade away — save for a stint as a defensive analyst at Nebraska in 2020 — might not be all that jarring given that many NFL offenses employ the same read-option, spread and run-pass-option concepts that have overtaken college football. It should help that the Bruins feature a bevy of potential playmakers between Kirkwood, linebacker Darius Muasau and twin edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy.

Forcing turnovers has been emphasized since spring practice, defenders continually being taught to strip the ball and react instantaneously to passes thrown in their vicinity. Along the way, McGovern has injected dad jokes, saying that players who fell were hit by a sniper or victims of the “Turf Monster.”

How would McGovern describe his sense of humor?

“Lacking,” he deadpanned.

The Bruins’ defense might finally have everything it needs thanks to the man who makes players feel his love before his wrath, letting them have the final say on the field.

“Whenever I step out there,” Kirkwood said, “he’s banking on me, he put his money down on me, and I put my money down on him.”

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