Spring Practice Preview: Defense

There hasn't been a spring practice for UCLA like this ever in recent memory, where there are so many things to be watching for in terms of personnel, coaching, and schemes. Here's the preview of the things to take note of on defense when UCLA takes the field today...

It's difficult to write a Things-to-Watch-For in regard to UCLA's spring football practice. In years past there were a few items per unit, and some things to note in regard to coaching.

But this year's spring practice has far too many Things to Watch For -- with a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, and a true freshman probably getting the majority of the minutes at quarterback.

Here's Part 1, a preview of the offense. And on to the defense:

DEFENSIVE LINE


Perhaps this is just a glass-is-half-full type of attitude, but when looking at the UCLA d-line, and many of its very promising players, we tend to dwell on the considerable blow the unit took during the off-season.

Brandon Willis, the defensive tackle, redshirted last season after transferring to UCLA from North Carolina. In practice, he was exceptional, with explosive quickness, and just about anyone who watched him in 1-on-1s just one time thought he'd perhaps be UCLA's best defensive lineman in 2011. But Willis has now left the program, choosing to transfer back to UNC to be close to his ailing grandmother. In a recent interview with Rick Neuheisel, the coach said it wasn't a done deal, and implied that if Willis didn't get the waiver from the NCAA to not have to sit out another season because of the transfer, he could be back at UCLA.

With Willis, UCLA had probably its most talented defensive line in the last 10 to 15 years for the 2011 season. Without him, they'll still have good talent and decent depth.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:

LE: Datone Jones (JR, 6-4, 272), Iuta Tepa (SO, 6-1, 259), Wesley Flowers (R-FR, 6-4 264), Sam Tai (FR, 6-4, 264)
DT: Cassius Marsh (SO, 6-4, 295), Nate Chandler (SR, 6-5, 299), Donovan Carter (JR, 6-1, 305)
DT: Justin Edison (SR, 6-4, 292), Seali'I Epenesa (SO, 6-2, 323)
RE: Owamagbe Odighizuwa (SO, 6-4, 264), Damien Holmes (JR, 6-3, 265), Keenan Graham (SO, 6-2, 250)**, Derrick Bryant (R-FR, 6-3, 249)

Things to Watch:

-- The return of Datone Jones. He was projected to be one of the stars of the defense last season, but then suffered a season-ending foot injury. In hindsight, UCLA fans should be grateful, since it opens up the possibility that Jones, who redshirted, will be with the program for two more years.

-- Who will win the open DT spot? UCLA's depth chart says Justin Edison is the starter at nose tackle, but that position is wide open. Edison struggled last season; it'd be great if he improved considerably in the off-season, but it's unlikely. Without Willis on the roster, Epenesa suddenly gets a clear shot at the spot, and we've been told he has a chance to be a starter, but it's unknown if that's as a redshirt freshman. There could some position changes to get the best talent at this spot: Jones could be moved to the three-technique and Marsh could be the nose; Donovan Carter, now listed at 305 pounds, could be big enough to hold down the nose position, or perhaps Nate Chandler comes into his own and is too good not to get starter's minutes. Ideally, the UCLA coaches would like Epenesa to win it in spring.

-- The Young Turks. Guys like Marsh, Epenesa, and Odighizuwa have a great deal of talent, and now they've been in the program for a season, so it's exciting to see them in the spring practice leading into their second year. It's exciting to just think about what Owa's body looks like now, after he was very cut last season as a true freshman.

-- Even younger guys, who will really be getting their first chance at the spotlight: Wesley Flowers, Derrick Bryant and Sam Tai. Flowers was on the scout team last season, and the coaches loved his upside, and already weighing 264 pounds is promising. Bryant redshirted last seasons with a shoulder injury, so it will be the first look at him. And there's Tai, the true freshman who graduated high school early to be at UCLA for spring practice. He's grown at least an inch and gained 30 good pounds in the last year or so – before ever entering UCLA, so it will be interesting to see his first foray onto Spaulding.

-- The return of Iuta Tepa. He was really starting to come into his own before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

-- Will Damien Holmes continue to improve? If you remember, Holmes began the season as a starter, and was over-matched in most games, then relegated to coming off the bench. By the end of the season he seemed to get far more accustomed to the level of play and had a pretty effective last few games.

-- New defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield. The former Oregon State player comes to UCLA most recently from Montana. He's young, at 33, and probably has quite a bit to learn about being a D-line coach, but he's already getting very favorable reviews from the players and insiders of the program for the energy and enthusiasm he's brought in since being hired a couple of months ago.

**Graham will miss all of spring practice due to off-season surgery on his hip.

LINEBACKER

Probably the biggest setback to UCLA's defense for spring is the absence of Patrick Larimore, who is out following surgery on his left shoulder. That makes the coaches have to juggle the personnel a bit. But it does give some guys a chance to shine and make a case for themselves.

The one thing that stands out looking at the depth chart UCLA released is the over-abundance of weakside linebacker types, and a lack of stronside types. It's fairly likely that UCLA is going to be under-sized at the strongside position next season.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:

SLB: Glenn Love (SR, 6-4, 219), Aramide Olaniyan (R-FR, 6-2, 208), Aaron Wallace (FR, 6-4, 230)
MLB: Patrick Larimore (JR, 6-3, 254)**, Jordan Zumwalt (SO, 6-4, 230), Isaiah Bowens (SO, 6-1, 235), Todd Golper (SO, 6-0, 240)
WLB: Sean Westgate (SR, 5-11, 223), Erick Kendricks (R-FR, 6-1, 226), Ryan Hofmeister (SO, 6-2, 220), Jared Koster (FR, 6-1, 208)

Things to Watch:

-- The strongside linebacker spot. UCLA doesn't really have anyone on the roster who fulfills that role. If Larimore were healthy, Zumwalt might plug in there, but while he might have SLB size, he has more of a middle linebacker's mentality. Right now, the two guys on the top of the SLB depth chart average 213 pounds. Perhaps Bowens will move back to SLB, and was moved temporarily to MLB for spring for depth there. Or it could be that new Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey wants quickness and athleticism at the SLB spot over size. He'll get that in Love and Olaniyan. But we have to be skeptical that either of those guys will be able to line up over a 250-pound tight end.

-- Eric Kendricks. He's been hailed as the next big thing among the linebackers, and the heir apparent at WLB.

-- First looks at true freshman Aaron Wallace and JC transfer Ryan Hofmeister.

-- The return of Todd Golper. He starts off fifth on the depth chart at middle linebacker, but we still like the scrappy, heady Golper. He sat out last season with a back injury, and it was thought he might have to take a medical retirement. Then we heard he might move to fullback, if UCLA were going to go to a fullback. Now he's back at MLB.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Two big pieces of the defensive back puzzle will be out for spring practice, projected starting safety Dalton Hilliard, and second-string corner Anthony Jefferson. It's a blow to the secondary since those two guys could have really used the practice.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:

LC: Aaron Hester (JR, 6-1, 209), Anthony Jefferson (R-FR, 6-1, 183)**, Courtney Viney (SR, 5-8, 167)
SS: Tony Dye (SR, 5-11, 205), Dietrich Riley (SO, 6-0, 205), Stan McKay (SO, 6-1, 198)
FS: Dalton Hilliard (JR, 6-0, 189)**, Alex Mascarenas (SO, 5-10, 188), Tevin McDonald (R-FR, 6-0, 194), Brandon Sermons (SO, 5-11, 185)
RC: Sheldon Price (JR, 6-2, 178), Andrew Abbott (JR, 5-10, 181), Anthony Thompson (FR, 6-1, 208)

Things to Watch:

-- Without Hilliard (off-season knee surgery), the free safety spot, open after Rahim Moore left early for the NFL, will be interesting this spring. We've heard that McDonald blew up in the off-season drills, and that he's the guy to watch. Sermons, after a long recovery from breaking his leg, will take a shot at the position. It's a shame Hilliard will miss spring since the inside word on him is that he's one of the best up-and-comers on the team, and will be better than Moore.

-- Tony Dye. He's always been under-appreciated. It seems that, since Moore got all of those interceptions as a junior, the spotlight never got off Moore, when it should have been focused on the more effective safety in the tandem, Dye. Now, with no Moore spotlight, it's Dye's time to shine.

-- Hester and Price. They had an iffy sophomore season, but you have to chalk it up to gaining experience, which will get them poised to be experienced juniors. Spring is the time they have to start to look dominating, and Hester can prove he can defend someone without committing a PI.

-- Dietrich Riley. He made a name for himself with the hit on Jacquizz Rodgers, and looks to be the type of hitter UCLA needs at safety. It will be interesting to see if the talent can translate into effectiveness this spring.

-- True freshman Anthony Thompson. He graduated from his Canadian school early and will participate in spring practice. Not only are we all curious to see exactly what type of player he is, the UCLA coaches admit privately they're as curious as anybody.

COACHING

UCLA, of course, starts a new era with a new defensive coordinator, and other changes to the defensive coaching staff.

Things to Watch:

-- While we are a bit vague on what type of offense Mike Johnson will run, we're even more in the dark about the type of defense new DC Joe Tresey will employ. We're told it won't look much different than the Walker/Bullough types, working mostly out of a standard 4-3. But over the course of spring practice it will be interesting to take note of the differences – whether Tresey will appear to blitz more aggressively, etc. Neuheisel keeps citing as one of the reasons he made a change and fired Bullough was the desire to have a defense that can give an offense different looks, so we'll be looking for those looks out of Tresey this spring.

-- As we noted with the offense, perhaps the biggest challenge to UCLA's defense being effective in 2011 is how seamless the players pick up the scheme, terminology, etc. This spring will give us a good indication if the assimiliation is going well.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Angus McClure, the former Director of On-Campus Recruiting, picks up his whistle again and takes over as Special Teams Coach. McClure, who was the tight ends coach under Karl Dorrell, hasn't been an on-field coach under Neuheisel, but now gets his chance.

Projected Spring Depth Chart:

PK: Kip Smith (R-FR, 6-0, 218), Jeff Locke (JR, 6-1, 210)**,
KO: Jeff Locke, Kip Smith
P: Locke, Smith
LS: Kevin McDermott (JR, 6-5, 250)
H: Jeff Locke, Alex Mascarenas (SO, 5-10, 188)
KOR: Josh Smith (SR, 6-0, 209)
PR: Taylor Embree (SR, 6-3, 205)

Things to Watch:

-- Whether Kip Smith's leg gets tired this spring. With Locke out because of surgery to his hip, the redshirt freshman Smith is going to get a lot of work, on punts, field goals and kick-offs.

-- UCLA has some integral parts of the special teams to replace. All-American long snapper Christian Yount graduates and, while you might not think that's a tough position to replace, it really is. UCLA has taken it for granted it had the best long snapper in the country for four years. Luckily, walk-on Kevin McDermott is a pretty good long-snapper, and will step in. The holder has yet to be determined, and it could be until fall, actually, since Locke might be the holder for Smith. Neuheisel tried to see if Locke could come out for spring just to hold on field goals, but the doctors didn't want to endanger his recovery. Alex Mascarenas will take over the holding duties for spring. Neuheisel said he'll try to get a little more excitement into the punt returns next season, so you can expect the likes of Smith, Randall Carroll, Damien Thigpen, and Ricky Marvray to get a shot at it.


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