If there was a strength for the mostly awful defense last year, it was the secondary, which is astounding given the sheer number of injuries suffered among the defensive backs.
Starting cornerback Sheldon Price suffered a knee injury early on in the season, missed two games, and didn't look quite right until the last couple of games. Starting safety Tony Dye missed nine games. His replacement, Dietrich Riley, missed six after his scary neck injury. Alex Mascarenas missed ten games after a concussion early on in the season. Cornerback Jamie Graham, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt who was expected to get some playing time, missed all but two games after a knee injury to start the year. Anthony Jefferson was lost before the season arrived. Even the stalwart Andrew Abbott missed a game.
While the injuries were all unfortunate, they allowed some talented underclassmen to emerge. Tevin McDonald and Stan McKay, both expected to be backups prior to the season, started for much of it and had some spectacular moments. McDonald, in particular, had the amazing three interception game, where he showed off some of the Rahim Moore radar.
The real revelation of the season, though, was Abbott. While not physically imposing, he's a good enough athlete, and a smart enough player that he was probably the best defensive player on the team last season. He mostly played the nickel, but got to play a little bit closer to the line of scrimmage than Hester and Price, where he excelled in run support (which may help to explain his move to safety).
Aaron Hester also showed improvement, although the defensive play calling wasn't exactly designed to play to his strengths. He's much better when he can be physical with a receiver, but the vast majority of the time, he was forced to play seven to ten yards off of his man. Two years ago, that would have been a pass interference penalty every down, but to his credit, Hester improved at covering without penalties, although he was still prone to occasional handsiness.
A Look at Spring
Injuries are still the story of the secondary. While at the top, UCLA has its starters more or less figured out (some combination of Hester, Price, Abbott, McKay, and McDonald depending on whether they start in base or nickel), the depth is non-existent after that. Jefferson is certainly a physical talent, but after suffering a herniated disc in his back, it's a question whether he'll be able to perform at a high level in his first major playing time since last spring. Riley will not be back in spring, and it's unknown whether he'll ever make it back on to the field. Mascarenas is also a question mark heading into the spring, having suffered a bad concussion last season. Anthony Thompson and Brandon Sermons both showed little last year that would make you think they're ready for big playing time. Heck, even Dalton Hilliard has moved to running back.
It all amounts to a very, very shallow depth chart. If you call those five guys starters, given that UCLA will probably play a fair amount of nickel, then there's really no proven depth behind them. On the bright side for UCLA, freshman Marcus Rios is coming in early and will play in the spring, which will give Demetrice Martin a little more to work with. Martin said that given the depth issue, Rios is going to get a real chance to play at corner, and possibly even safety if they need another body there.
The best case scenario is that Jefferson is fully healthy and Rios comes in ready to play, because that will help to solve some of the depth issues when in nickel. Reports thus far are encouraging on Jefferson, but there's really no way to tell until he starts playing and taking hits. Regardless, this is probably going to be the one unit where there really isn't a ton of competition for the starting spots, simply because there aren't enough bodies to compete.
Somebody start counting down until Ishmael Adams arrives on campus…
Things to Watch
-Injuries. If any one of those five proven guys get injured, it could get ugly, especially at the safety spot. Three of the six guys listed at safety suffered pretty serious injuries last year (Mascarenas, Riley, and Jared Koster) so it's a question whether any of them will be able to play a whole lot. If anyone gets injured, look for a lot of mixing and matching among the healthy corners and safeties.
-How quickly will Hilliard be moved back to safety? The coaches are giving Hilliard the opportunity to try out at running back, per his request, but the situation in the defensive backfield could prove dire enough to force a switch for Hilliard back to the defensive side of the ball.
-How aggressive will the coaching staff be? Last year, Tresey was extremely conservative in his use of the secondary, rarely blitzing and rarely pressing at the line of scrimmage. Given the talk of Steelers defense from Mora and Spanos, the general rhetoric of aggression, it'll be interesting to see whether they'll be able to back it up with such a depleted secondary.
-How will the coaching staff utilize Abbott? Abbott combined to be both the best coverage guy last season as well as the best defensive back in run support, which, like I said up top, probably contributed to him being moved to safety. Martin has said that the way Abbott played last year, in kind of a nickel role, will be similar to how they use him this year, but look for the coaching staff to play him closer to the line of scrimmage to take advantage of his tackling and run support skills.
Projected Depth Chart
1. Sheldon Price
2. Anthony Jefferson
3. Brandon Sermons
1. Tevin McDonald
2. Alex Mascarenas
3. Anthony Thompson
1. Andrew Abbott
2. Stan McKay (starts in nickel)
3. Jared Koster
1. Aaron Hester
2. Anthony Jefferson
3. Marcus Rios
Spring Preview: Defensive Backs
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