The return of Rodney Leisle for his senior year is one of the most significant recent developments in UCLA football, and a huge key for the new Karl Dorrell era.
Without Leisle, the defensive line looks completely different. There would be an inexperienced starter at one of the defensive tackle positions, and two new starters at tackle. The depth would be particularly thin.
With Leisle, UCLA has a deep, talented, experienced defensive line. You only plug in two new starters that have considerable experience, you have two potential stars, and you have younger defensive tackles that will learn how to play from the two-deep rather than from a starting position.
This all gives Dorrell so much less to worry about on the defensive side of the ball, and less to have to build in his first year.
In fact, the defensive line, with Leisle returning, is the best unit on the team. Defensive end Dave Ball was second-team all Pac-10 with 11 sacks. He's switched to the weakside this spring since he's the better pass rusher between him and his brother, Mat Ball, who will look to take over the starting position at the other defensive end spot. Dave Ball, at 6-6 and 268 pounds, doesn't really embody the typical type of rush end, but he is UCLA's most effective pass rusher. It will be interesting to watch this spring how that switch enhances his ability to get into the offensive backfield. Mat is expected to hold up the strongside DE position well and has been a very good player for UCLA in his four years. Having moved around a bit in his career, at one time playing strongside linebacker, Mat now finally fulfills the projection a few years ago of having starting bookend Ball defensive ends.
So, you have a great deal of experience with those three – Leisle, Ball and Ball – and then you top it off with another talented player among your four starters, senior Ryan Boschetti. Boschetti could be perhaps the quickest among the four starting linemen. He reportedly has been a workout maniac and has put on 15 pounds of muscle and increased his quickness.
And then the talent and experience continues with backup rush end, senior Asi Faoa. It will be interesting to watch this spring how much improved Faoa is, and if he's good enough to warrant the coaches possibly considering moving him to start at the other defensive end position in an effort to get the best players on the field. He has the strength to play the strongside, but also the best quickness among the defensive ends, which lends itself to the weakside.
One of the most talented on the defensive line is sophomore defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu. He was getting about 20 plays a game there for a while last season, and was having a very big impact on the game in that limited time.
Then, after that, spring practice will be the first time to really evaluate the other players that will potentially round out the two-deep next season. Redshirt freshman end
Also interesting to watch will be the development of walkon sophomore defensive end James Jessen. He's athletic and quick, but has been lacking strength.
Kirby Joseph, the redshirt freshman, will miss spring practice due to shoulder surgery.
Overall, this is a talented and experienced group. You'd expect them to be among the most effective this spring since they've played together and know each other. Anything less than a strong spring would be a disappointment.
The way the personnel at linebacker has shaken out, in terms of position, makes a great deal of sense, and spring practice hasn't even started yet.
Of course, the big hole in the linebacking unit is in the middle, with the loss of last year's starter Marcus Reese. Listed atop the depth chart right now is senior Dennis Link. The new coaches have said they like Link's experience, but it's generally believed that true sophomore Justin London will be the guy at middle linebacker next season. Listing Link first could be a ploy to motivate
The other two linebacker positions have two of the most exciting players for next season returning as starters. Senior strongside linebacker Brandon Chillar was one of the best defensive players on the team last season and he's stepping into a leadership role. Redshirt sophomore weakside backer Spencer Havner was a first-team freshman All-American and had some of the biggest defense plays of the season. This spring it will be very intriguing to watch him continue to develop and improve.
The backup linebacker situation looks promising, and it's expected that a few other linebackers will step up this spring and show that they can be solid two-deep players. The coaches are perhaps the most excited about Wesley Walker, who will be a true sophomore next season. He showed ability and athleticism playing backup minutes as a true freshman last season. He's been moved from weakside to strongside for spring, and is thought to be the guy who will step into the starting strongside position when Chillar leaves. He's still a little thinnish (saw him on campus Monday) and is listed as weighing 222. He needs to continue to increase his strength for the position, but he shows the ability and mobility to play the position. Listed third in the depth chart at strongside is redshirt freshman Xavier Burgess. Seeing Burgess on campus also on Monday, he looked like he had gotten considerably bigger physically. After being injured for a majority of the season last year, this spring gives him the real first opportunity to display his talents. Patrick Pierre-Louis, the JC transfer who sat out last year with a shoulder injury, is supposed to be healthy. He showed some ability last fall and he's expected as junior to offer solid backup at the weakside position.
Karl Dorrell said in his press conference Monday that the defensive backfield is young and talented. It starts with sophomore Matt Ware at one cornerback position. Ware was solid last year at corner, hampered by a few nagging injuries, and expectations are high for him to have a stellar spring. Matt Clark is slated as the starter at the other starting corner position that opens up with the departure of Ricky Manning. But the position is wide open among sophomores Glenn Ohaeri and Marcus Cassel and redshirt freshman Jebiaus Brown. Ohaeri will probably give
The two safety positions are, like Dorrell said, young and talented. Ben Emanuel, who will be a junior, really laid the groundwork last year for stepping up to be a star next season. This spring could be the beginning of that. Jarrad Page will play spring football and not baseball since he had an injury to his throwing shoulder. As a true sophomore, it's expected that he could have the biggest jump in development this spring. Interestingly enough, junior Jibril Raymo is now listed below redshirt freshman Eric McNeal on the recently released depth chart at strong safety behind Page. I was told not to take the depth chart too seriously at this point, but it's still an interesting note. Eric McNeal has gotten considerably bigger, weighing in at 211 pounds now and looking particularly thicker. He, honestly, looks more like a linebacker than a safety at this point. There has been talk that he'd move to linebacker at some point, but UCLA insists that he's a safety, at least for now. This spring might determine his position while at UCLA. Joe Garcia makes the move from cornerback to safety this spring, having told the coaching staff that he feels more comfortable playing safety and the coaching staff, after evaluating him in workouts, believed he is more suited as a safety. Going on second-hand information, another player to potentially watch is a walkon transfer from Los Angeles Southwest JC, Erdolo Eromo.