Off-Season Football News and Clues

There isn't a great deal of news or information coming out of the football program during the off-season, but here are a few things we've heard and a look at the updated roster...

It's the off-season for UCLA football and with Jim Mora and his new staff getting acclimated and prepared for spring practice (which begins in early April), there isn't a great deal of information coming out of the program.

It's not as if we haven't asked for information or access, because we have. But things like the off-season workouts, we've been told, are closed to the media (as was Pro Day).

Even when we interviewed new Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos he wasn't exactly forthcoming.

It's understandable – with Mora preparing for his first spring practice not really wanting too much distraction from the media.

Without being able to watch the workouts, we have, though, been hearing some things coming out of them, and other bits of news.

As we reported, safety Dietrich Riley's status is still uncertain. He's confident he'll be able to play, as early as spring practice, but others around the program are skeptical that he'll be able to return with still some uncertainty around the neck injury he suffered last season.

Quarterback Kevin Prince hasn't been doing full workouts, and it's uncertain why.

Quarterback Richard Brehaut is with baseball the entire off-season, but he's expected to be back for spring practice.

Middle linebacker Isaiah Bowens will be suspended for probably a couple of games to begin the 2012 season, due to his ineligibility from last quarter.

New Strength and Conditioning coach Sal Alosi has been putting the team through some grueling workouts, mostly the ones called "Mat Drills," which are basically cardio drills until you puke, like up-downs, somersaults, rolls, etc. It's pretty clear that Mora and staff are making an effort to toughen up the program, and weed out the softness, and sources are saying there are mixed results. While, on one hand, it's good to weed out the softness in the program, some believe that it's over-training in the off-season, that it destroys an athlete's body, and it's the same exact thing that, two years ago, led to many season-ending injuries. It will be interesting to see how it plays out and impacts performance.

What most fans are curious about is probably exactly what kind of defense Spanos and Mora are going to be running at UCLA. It's leaked out from various sources that the base defense will be a 3-4, which would be a huge departure for the program.

It's curious, and a little strange, though, that perhaps some of the biggest clues as to what kind of defense – and other new aspects of the team – will be instituted under Mora is evident in the position changes that have been made on the roster from the official UCLA site.

If you had to draw an initial conclusion from those position changes you'd certainly conclude that UCLA is moving to a 3-4. Damien Holmes, a defensive end for the last four years (one redshirt year), is now listed as a linebacker, as is Keenan Graham (6-3, 255). Holmes is 6-3 and 270, and perhaps he'll slim down some by next season, and be leaner and more agile, but the only way he's a "linebacker" is in a 3-4 defense where he's the hybrid DE/LB that can also put his hand down. We do actually think that this is a better fit for Holmes, who runs fairly well for his size but struggled mostly at the line of scrimmage in his career. Graham is quicker and more mobile than Holmes, but he also is only the hybrid position as a linebacker.

You can see, too, that with a base 3-4, the coaches simply don't know where some of the defensive linemen are going to fit. There are guys that the coaches obviously see as the nose tackle in the 3-4, like Damien Carter (6-2, 295), Sealii Epenesa (6-2, 308), and Brandon Willis (6-3, 255), all being listed as "DT." But there are other guys who are listed as the general "DL," like Cassius Marsh (6-3, 289), Kevin McReynolds (6-2, 304), Sam Tai (6-4, 251), Brandon Tuliaupupu (6-2, 331), because they simply don't know how they will plug into the 3-4. Marsh, who has started for two years as a true freshman and sophomore, very well might be better suited to the defensive end spot. In the 3-4, the nose tackle is generally supposed to be a wide, strong guy with a low center of gravity that plugs the middle and holds the line of scrimmage, taking on the opposing center and many times the guard at the same time. Marsh was always the 3-technique in the 4-3 and he fits better as a defensive end in the 3-4. McReynolds is probably destined to be a nose, as is Tuliapupu. Already designated as "DEs" on the roster are Datone Jones (6-5, 275) and Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 266).

In the 3-4, the defensive line's job, really, is mostly to hold up the offensive linemen, don't allow them to go downfield to block, and mostly enable the linebackers to make the tackle.

As we said, there is a hybrid DE/LB, who can line with his hand down as a conventional defensive end, or stand up and drop back in coverage like a traditional linebacker. Many times what personnel you have at this position depends on down and distance, and you can see that the UCLA staff is going to try to find guys who can fulfill the roles of that position in various situations. The ideal hybrid DE/LB was Akeem Ayers, who actually did alternate between the positions in the 4-3. And you can see that there are guys currently on the roster who could very well be an Ayers-type, like Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 236), who has put his hand down a few times in his UCLA career, and was tough to match up with when he did. Zumwalt, though, will probably stay "inside" at the strongside linebacker spot, or even get time at middle linebacker, like he has before. Anthony Barr (6-4, 237) has made the switch to linebacker, and we'll see how the experiment works this spring (even though we think he's probably best suited to be the "Y" in Noel Mazzone's spread offense). UCLA also signed a couple of guys who are in that hybrid Akeem Ayers-type mold like Jeremy Castro and Nate Iese.

There have been some interesting position changes, or new position names, in the off-season on offense. There is no longer anyone listed as a tight end. Joseph Fauria, who is about as traditional of a tight end as you can get, is listed as a "Y," because, really, that's the closest thing to a traditional tight end in Mazzone's offense. This doesn't mean to imply at all that there's no place for a traditional-type of tight end in Mazzone's offense – when, in fact, a guy like Fauria should be able to flourish in it due to mismatches. It just means that they'll be labeled "Ys," and they'll be listed as the position with other guys who are 5-8 and 182 pounds, like Damien Thigpen, because, like the hybrid DE/LB spot, there will be different types of players at the Y that fulfill different roles. It makes for some tough match-ups play by play; imagine if you're the defense and on one play you have 6-8 and 252-pound Fauria lining up in the slot as the Y, and then on the next play there's Thigpen. Thigpen, by the way, is being listed as a "WR," which means he could line up as the X, Y, Z or F in Mazzone's offense.

Perhaps the most dramatic move – besides that of Barr – is safety Dalton Hilliard now being listed as a wide receiver. With UCLA seemingly being thin at safety (with the uncertainty around Dietrich Riley), you'd think they'd still need Hilliard at the position. But you can see the factors that went into the move: the fact that Hilliard struggled last year at safety; having been a running back in high school and a good pass-catcher; and that UCLA needs a huge amount of wide receivers in Mazzone's offense. We know Hilliard has been working as a wide receiver in the off-season and has gotten some pretty decent reviews from those who have seen him.

As we reported previously, Darius Bell, the former quarterback, will get a shot at wide receiver, listed as a Y.

Christoph Bono, the walk-on quarterback, is now listed as a WR.

There isn't much of a role for a traditional fullback in Mazzone's offense. There are rumors that Mazzone might utilize a pro-style set a bit, which obviously utilizes a fullback, but we'll believe it when we see it. If you peruse the roster, again, it doesn't appear that Mazzone will be using a fullback much since the only players now listed at fullbacks are walk-ons.

Kip Smith, the placekicker who struggled to be healthy last season, is also off the official roster.

As we've reported before, you can probably expect more players to leave the program, more than likely after spring practice.

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