Fall Preview: Defensive Depth Chart

Fall Camp is two days away, and we continue with projections on how the defensive depth chart and special teams might look once we plug in the incoming freshmen...

We analyzed all the current players pretty thoroughly in spring, so we're going to focus here on how we think the incoming freshmen will fill out the depth chart this fall.

We're going to include all players who, even with an average amount of injuries, would have even the slightest chance of playing next season, scholarship or walk-on. In other words, the guys not included here will be the ones on the scout team in September.

FRONT SEVEN

With the defense switching to the 3-4, and with new Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos and Jim Mora trying to match up with so many college spreads, you can expect UCLA's defense to look quite a bit differently when it lines up this fall. While the 3-4 is the base D, it will utilize the nickel quite a bit, which will then probably utilize quite a few different alignments among its front "six." In some packages, you'll see a few different players who then put their hand down and become that fourth defensive lineman, including some mixing and matching among the defensive linemen and some of the hybrid-type of 3-4 linebackers.

The defensive line was perhaps the unit story of the spring, with Mora repeatedly praising it as the team's deepest and most talented. On one hand, that's a great sign; on the other, we're skeptical, and far down the Show-Me road. In other words, we'll believe it when we see it. The DL looked pretty good in last year's fall camp and then consistently stunk it up for most of the 2011 season.

There are a good many bodies, however, that DL coach Angus McClure has to choose from. And then he'll be getting in one significant big body this fall, but there is now a caveat.

Ellis McCarthy was the jewel of the 2012 UCLA recruiting class, the one get that really validated the class. He's a very talented young man, with rare physical gifts. He's a good 6-5, and probably right now about 325, with very little body fat on that massive frame. And the thing is, he's athletic, with good feet and agility. He has small feet, which allows them to be quick. And this is without any benefit of a college training or nutrition program.

There are two issues with McCarthy:

1) He tore his meniscus in an off-season workout and underwent surgery. UCLA is saying he'll miss just a couple of weeks, but we're hearing it could be 3-4 weeks, which would set him back considerably. It's put into doubt if McCarthy will be able to actually play this season, literally starting a month behind. He could, though, be talented enough to overcome it. It's perhaps one of the biggest storylines of fall camp.

2) Where do you use him? The debate has raged about what is McCarthy's best position. First, when you get a kid of this caliber, you tend to tell him: "Go, son, go choose any position you want." McClure told us in his interview this week that McCarthy will be a defensive end -- that his height and length don't lend itself necessarily as well to playing nose tackle -- so we expect to see him at least start at defensive end this fall. Whether he sticks there will entirely depend on just how much of a true freak (and that's said in the most endearing sense) he is, meaning: At 6-5 and 325, can he really be athletic enough to play defensive end? Playing the position in the 3-4 will benefit him, since defensive ends in the 3-4 are usually bigger-sized than DEs in the 4-3 and play more a style of being space eaters that plug gaps rather than running around the edge. But still, a 325-pound defensive end? If McCarthy can succeed there he truly is a physical freak.

He could very well end up at nose, despite not being 6-1 and a fire plug. Most tackles are low to the ground and kind of squat, to get the leverage they need. A nose tackle in the 3-4 needs to be able to hold his ground and take on double teams, which sounds like it's perfect for McCarthy, despite his physical dimensions. Right now, the starting nose is Willis, who is 6-3 and 275 -- not exactly the ideal weight for the position, but Willis is a strong kid who plays bigger. There is decent depth at nose guard behind Willis, but definitely room and opportunity for a strong, 325-pounder with talent to crack the rotation.

Will any position move from defensive end have to be inspired by McCarthy himself? Will the coaches feel they have to give him some time at the position of his choice before they can broach the subject of a position move?

This mystery was going to be one of the most intriguing aspects of fall camp -- but it will all be put on the back burner for about four weeks because of McCarthy's injury.

No matter where he ends up, it's all good -- to have a NFL-level talent like McCarthy at any position.

Probably the other incoming freshman projected to be a defensive lineman most physically prepared to play immediately would be Jeremy Castro. Castro is 6-2 and listed at about 250 already, and he's developed and strong. He has been labeled as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid, the type you see in the 3-4, but being familiar with Castro's body, and the way it's going, we're skeptical that he'll be playing linebacker at UCLA. He'll start off in that DE/LB hybrid spot, but we see him finding a permanent home as a defensive end. If it doesn't happen this season, it probably will down the line. While the DE spots are fairly well-stocked going into fall, like the NT position, if there's a true freshman with talent -- like Castro -- there is probably some opportunity there, though, to make the two-deep, or at least, not be relegated to the scout team.

Nate Iese, the 6-4, 240-pounder, is also listed at linebacker going into fall. We know that he's still young-looking at that height and weight, which is promising but probably means two things: He'll probably redshirt, and his body is on its way to being a defensive end. But with his length and agility, we could see Iese actually being that linebacker hybrid, unless in two years he's at 260+ and then we could see Iese settling into the DE spot. We'll get some kind of clue on Iese in fall camp, of course.

But that leads us to a linebacker discussion. Coming out of spring practice there is quite a bit of uncertainty, in terms of depth, personnel usage and so much more.

UCLA, even in many different packages, is going to quite often be utilizing four linebackers. We really can't get into the specifics of it, and what they did this spring, since UCLA doesn't want the information public (and we understand why), but suffice it to say that there are opportunities for players, specifically those labeled a linebacker, to be utilized in many different ways in UCLA's defensive packages.

The depth issue will be inside, not only because of lack of overall depth, but injury. Bowens going down in spring with an ACL was a huge blow to UCLA's defense, hitting it right at its heart, where it's already a little thin -- inside linebacker. Golper, too, tore a meniscus, but the word is that he's recovered and ready to go. We could easily foresee a scenario where UCLA needs to find more guys who can play one of the two inside linebacker spots.

The first candidate among the true freshmen is Aaron Porter. The talented Porter is considered UCLA's middle linebacker of the future, but that future could be coming sooner than expected. With little depth inside, Porter, if he's as talented as billed, will have a chance to make the two-deep, and given how injuries can beset a college football team, probably get a good deal of playing time as a true freshman. Next we could also see Castro getting time at linebacker initially. It's the position he'll start off at in fall, he's talented and UCLA is thin at LB.

Just our speculation, but we could possibly see true freshman Taylor Lagace, who is listed as a safety, get moved up to linebacker and actually be apart of the fall depth chart. Lagace is listed at 200, but he looks bigger and is well put together. He's also a guy we know the coaches love.

What else might happen is that, since UCLA is far deeper at outside linebacker than it is inside, it moves some of its outside linebacker types inside, creating more playing time opportunities outside also. This spring, UCLA needed to move Holmes inside because of a lack of bodies, and that might be something that happens again this fall. We, though, would guess that, if for whatever reason, Larimore or Kendricks aren't available inside, Zumwalt would be a likely guy to move inside. Or even possibly Wallace.

What this could do, then, is make immediate opportunities for someone like Iese, or even Lagace, or Kenny Orjioke, who is slated for safety but is 6-4 and 222 and only 17 years old, and will probably grow into a linebacker.

In other words, there is quite a bit to sort out, and just far too many uncertainties in the front seven to really be able to nail down the depth chart at this point. There very well could be incoming freshmen that, in fact, get PT opportunities that you wouldn't foresee.

SECONDARY

Along with wide receiver, the defensive secondary is probably the unit where there is the most opportunity for true freshmen to make the fall depth chart. The secondary has solid talent at the top, but lacks depth, especially with so much uncertainty due to injury -- and UCLA probably utilizing a nickel quite often.

What's really encouraging, though, was the performance of some of the youngsters in spring camp. If most everyone who was expected to return to health by fall actually has, and UCLA can get a little help from its incoming freshmen, then the secondary has a chance to be not only talented but decently deep.

With the move of Hilliard back to safety, the safeties should actually be good in terms of talent and depth. The question, really, is depth at cornerback.

Rios is a true freshman who enrolled early for spring practice. He's thin and physically has a long ways to go (reminiscent of Price as a freshman physically), and he started off spring shakey, as you'd expect. But by the end he was making plays, and was playing a bit beyond expectation given that he was a true freshman at spring practice.

It's expected that Ishmael Adams will come in and compete for a role in the two-deep this fall. Adams is shorter than Rios, but built better at this point, and probably more PT-ready. He seems to fit the role of the nickel back.

Then, there is Randall Goforth, who is physically closer to Rios but very talented and definitely has a chance to avoid the scout team this fall. We'll give Rios the edge in having the better chance to make the depth chart since he's ahead of the game having participated in spring.

If Jefferson can be a serviceable back-up (which is a good-sized "if" since he's still coming back completely from injury), and just one among Rios, Adams or Goforth is good enough to be a solid back-up, then the corner spots should be fine. Sermons, who has never yet shown he was capable of being someone the coaches could utilize, actually had a good spring until he broke his hand, looked like he could possibly add some depth, too.

Justin Combs will almost certainly redshirt.

At safety, there is a possibility that Lagace or even Orjioke could make the fall depth chart. We detailed how it could possibly happen at linebacker, but there is also some depth chart possibility at safety. Right now, UCLA is good with its two two-deep, but with an injury here or there, it's not difficult to see a true freshman not being relegated to the scout team. It would almost certainly be Lagace as the first option, since we know Orjioke to be raw.

NOTES ABOUT CURRENT PLAYERS:

-- Just from what we saw during spring practice, we'll project Owa moving ahead of Marsh on the depth chart this fall. Owa, once he got acclimated to the new alignment, was probably the best defensive end on the team in April. But it wasn't as if Marsh was slack. It could very well be a case that Marsh actually moves ahead of Jones. In fact, it's so close we could be inclined to move Marsh ahead of Jones on the depth chart.

-- With depth being a concern at inside linebacker, like we discussed above, we believe Golper, if indeed fully recovered from his meniscus tear, will be the first option inside this fall. We think he's ready to be a solid back-up at this point. Bowens blowing out his ACL was particularly a big loss, given the lack of depth at inside linebacker.

-- What do to with Barr? In spring, after Barr was moved to linebacker, Mora said that he thought Barr was suited for linebacker, but at Pac-12 media day the tune had changed, with Mora stating pretty clearly that Barr had to make a big impact at linebacker quickly -- or else. Having watched him the last two seasons, we think he's actually best suited to go back to offense and fit in at the Y position on offense. If Barr, though, and can get actually respond to Mora's challenge and be worthy of contributing at outside linebacker, that gives UCLA one more body to work with and perhaps more availability of someone else to move inside.

-- Dietrich Riley, who is still recovering from his neck and spine injury, tweeted about a week ago that he got good news, and what we're hearing is that he received a doctor's report that he'll more than likely be able to play football -- just not this fall.

True freshmen in italics

DEFENSE

Defensive End
56 Datone Jones (6-5, 280, Sr.**)
93 Ellis McCarthy (6-5, 326, Fr.)
91 Sam Tai (6-4, 275, Fr.**)

Nose Tackle
92 Brandon Willis (6-3, 275, So.)
90 Donovan Carter (6-2, 313, Sr.**}
98 Seali'i Epenesa (6-2, 323, Jr.)
77 Kevin McReynolds (6-3, 310, Fr.**)
95 Brandon Tuliaupupu (6-2, 331, Fr.**)

Defensive End
94 Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-5, 278, Jr.)
99 Cassius Marsh (6-4, 295, Jr.)
96 Iuta Tepa (6-2, 268, Jr.**)

Outside Linebacker
35 Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 235, Jr.)
59 Keenan Graham (6-3, 252, Jr.**)
10 Jeremy Castro (6-2, 250, Fr.)

Inside Linebacker
42 Patrick Larimore (6-3, 253,Sr.**)
55 Todd Golper (6-1, 240, Jr.**)
30 Aaron Porter (6-2, 230, Fr.)
33 Ryan Hofmeister (6-2, 220, So.**)

Inside Linebacker
6 Eric Kendricks (6-2, 230, So.**)
30 Aaron Porter (6-2, 230, Fr.)
14 Aramide Olaniyan (6-2, 220, So.**)

Outside Linebacker
43 Damien Holmes (6-4, 260, Sr.**)
12 Aaron Wallace (6-4, 235, Fr.**)
11 Anthony Barr (6-5, 238, Jr.)

Cornerback
22 Sheldon Price (6-2, 185, Sr.)
24 Ishmael Adams (5-10, 190, Fr.)
8 Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 190, So.**)

Strong Safety
26 Andrew Abbott (5-11, 200, Sr.**)
19 Dalton Hilliard (6-0, 205, Sr.)
28 Taylor Lagace (6-1, 200, Fr.)

Free Safety
7 Tevin McDonald (6-0, 202, So.**)
4 Stan McKay (6-1, 205, Jr.**)

Cornerback
Aaron Hester (6-1, 205, Sr.**)
24 Ishmael Adams (5-10, 190, Fr.)
2 Brandon Sermons (6-11, 185, Jr.**)
9 Marcus Rios (6-0, 185, Fr.)

Injured and Not Expected for Fall:

S 1 Dietrich Riley (6-1, 205, Jr.) (5)
FS 31 Librado Barocio (5-9, 175, So.**)
LB 25 Isaiah Bowens (6-2, 235, Jr.**)

Expected to Redshirt:
CB -- 32 Justin Combs (5-9, 165, Fr.)
LB -- 89 Nate Iese (6-4, 240, Fr.)
S -- 23 Kenny Orjioke (6-4, 225 Fr.)
CB -- 3 Randall Goforth (6-0, 180, Fr.)

SPECIALISTS

As is widely known, true freshman kicker Kai'imi Fairbairn will immediately slot in to the #1 spot. Mora has hyped him as being an NFL-level talent, but we'll take a wait-and-see approach. While Fairbairn is talented, there still might be some transition time that could delay him immediately being the #1 placekicker.

UCLA got some insurance in taking a walk-on JC kicker in Justin Moreno, from Reedley Colllege. Moreno is supposed to be very good, in fact.

In terms of returners, as we said on the offensive depth chart projection, we could see true freshman Kenny Walker coming in and potentially competing.

Place Kicker
15 Ka'imi Fairbairn (5-11, 170, Fr.)
Justin Moreno (6-0, 190, Jr.)

Kickoff
18 Jeff Locke (6-1, 210, Sr.**)

Punter
18 Jeff Locke (6-1, 210, Sr.**)
42 Michael Leamy (5-11, 183, Fr.**)

Long Snapper
48 Kevin McDermott (6-5, 250, Sr.**)
53 Christopher Longo (6-4, 203, Fr.**)

Kickoff Return
6 Jordon James (5-11, 200, So.**)
33 Steven Manfro (5-11, 195, Fr.**)
7 Ricky Marvray (6-0, 190, Jr.**)

Punt Return
1 Shaq Evans (6-1, 205,Jr.**)
33 Steven Manfro (5-11, 195, Fr.**)
6 Jordon James (5-11, 200, So.**)
7 Ricky Marvray (6-0, 190, Jr.**)


Bruin Report Online Top Stories