Spring Review: Defensive Backs

The secondary got hit hard by injuries, but weirdly, may have ended up with a solid two deep by the end of spring, with some younger guys stepping up...

If your lasting image of the spring game is Erick Zumwalt vainly attempting to cover Jerry Johnson and Tyler Scott, then you have a pretty good idea of what went wrong with UCLA's secondary this spring: depth. Andrew Abbott suffered a knee injury in the first week of practice. Brandon Sermons broke his hand halfway through camp. Librado Barocio tore his ACL. Anthony Jefferson got hit in the back in the last week and had to sit out the last few practices because his back was too sore. Even Aaron Hester had some concussive symptoms and missed a couple of practices.

It was our big worry heading into spring, that the secondary was one or two injuries away from some serious issues, and that was more or less borne out. Luckily, only one starter went down (Abbott) which kept the top four more or less as Sheldon Price, Tevin McDonald, Stan McKay, and Hester for the majority of the spring. But with the injuries to those players mentioned above, and Dietrich Riley and Alex Mascarenas sitting out the entire spring, the depth chart was extremely thin.

As we predicted prior to the spring, at a certain point, it was necessary to move Dalton Hilliard back to safety. Hilliard looked good at running back, but the situation at safety demanded that Hilliard make a switch back. With Barocio out for the year, Abbott recovering from a knee injury of his own, and with some concern about Jefferson's back, Hilliard's return to the secondary was necessary. We were honestly kind of amazed it took as long as it did, but kudos to the coaching staff for honoring Hilliard's request to try out running back, and then his subsequent request to help out at safety.

On the bright side, Jefferson looked increasingly impressive as the spring wore on, before getting hit in the back. We were concerned prior to camp that Jefferson would have difficulty returning back to the field after suffering a really debilitating herniated disc issue last year. For the first few practices, he looked a step slow, and seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to playing full speed again. His early matchups with Devin Lucien generally ran like this: Jefferson would hold him up at the line and do a good job pressing him, and then Lucien would just break free and run right past him.

And then, something just clicked for Jefferson. Toward the end of the second week, and especially through the third week, Jefferson seemed to shake off the rust and looked wildly better in coverage. There was an entire practice during the third week where he locked up Lucien, and just made everything uncomfortable for him: pressing him at the line, staying on his hip, keeping him from getting a clear view of the ball. He still looks like he's got some work to do with respect to sheer foot speed, but he made great progress this spring, and showed he can be a factor in the defense post-injury.

Price and Hester are known quantities at this point, but it was exciting to see them get so much hands on training from Mora and Coach Martin. We seemingly hear this every year, but there does seem to be a much more intense focus on forcing turnovers. After every single dropped interception, no matter how difficult the catch may have been, the defensive backs did pushups. Hester seemed to really benefit from this, picking off a number of balls in tight coverage.

Price has turned himself into a true shutdown corner. His matchups with Jerry Johnson were, at times, spectacular, with both holding their own. Price gives up maybe an inch, and probably about 20 pounds, to Johnson, but he even managed to win a couple of jump balls on fades.

McDonald, as Mora has alluded to, had an excellent spring, and the word is that he's gotten much better in terms of knowing where he's supposed to be at all times. Combine that with his excellent ball skills, and his athleticism, and McDonald managed to be a beast in the spring. He also got a few opportunities to bring pressure on quarterbacks, and seemed like a natural for that role.

Beyond those four, though, things were a little more questionable. Marcus Rios was the bright spot among the remaining players, despite looking like he's 160 pounds soaking wet. He started off struggling, not just with covering college level players, but also with the tempo. In fact, Mora was frequently in his ear the first couple of weeks, constantly having to tell him to hurry up. But once he got the hang of that, he started to improve quickly. Mora mentioned this in his audio interview after spring ball, but Rios is one of the ones who needs to learn how to finish in coverage. He's surprisingly good off the line, and can hang with a receiver through his break, but gives up just enough separation at the end to allow the catch. With improved footwork, added strength, and simply more experience he could be a special player.

Anthony Thompson really struggled at times. He's got a good sized body for a safety, but he lacks quickness and speed. He had a few bright moments throughout the spring, including a couple of interceptions, but he mostly had a tough time, frequently getting worked in coverage by scholarship and walkon receivers alike.

Barocio, before he went down with his knee injury, looked like he might be a serviceable option at safety if the injury bug continued, but alas, he was struck as well. He's one of those hard working players who shines in a practice setting but might have a bit more difficulty matching up with players in games, since in games all but a few special cases try hard.

Dylan Price and Erick Zumwalt's most memorable moments generally involved something negative happening to them.

So what to make of it all? Honestly, the four starting guys are almost assuredly going to be Price, McDonald, Abbott, and Hester, just as we all knew prior to the spring. But all in all, the spring gave some good news. Jefferson is good enough to get significant playing time, and Rios, after a summer of work, could be a good option as the fourth corner. With Hilliard back at safety, and Stan McKay having a decent spring, UCLA ended camp, surprisingly, with a solid two deep headed into the fall.

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