The D-line will lose starting defensive end Datone Jones and quality back-up defensive tackle Donovan Carter. Jones is having a good senior season, and he'll be missed, but there probably won't be much drop-off by plugging in a senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who, in the last several games, has been playing just as well as Jones. Give him a another year of development and that's a pretty good trade-off.
Returning at the other two starting spots will be senior nose tackle Seali'i Epenesa and senior defensive end Cassius Marsh (making the starting front three all seniors next season). Both are having good seasons as juniors, and Marsh has really started to come into his own in the last several games. If he continues to play this way, he could be poised for some post-season honors as a senior.
Depth is a bit of an unknown. Brandon Willis started off fall camp as the starter at nose tackle, but was too light for the spot, and now has been playing both nose tackle and defensive end. Willis' situation is a curious one; he's actually looked good when he's gotten in games so far this season, but the word is that he's still a little light for a nose tackle. We think he projects at defensive end, probably because there's more playing time there in UCLA's 3-4 (especially when UCLA goes to a DE at the nose in nickel situations). Next year he'll be needed to play a vital role as at least a back-up.
Another curious situation is that of Ellis McCarthy. The much-hyped freshman came into UCLA as a defensive lineman, struggled some, switched over to offensive line, where he looked pretty good at guard, but now, for the last several weeks, has been back on the DL. It's clear, at this point, the staff doesn't really know where big, young Mr. McCarthy fits in the best. He looked a bit too big and heavy for defensive end, but since the beginning of the season he's actually lost some weight. We do think that McCarthy will more than likely stay on the DL and they'll plug him in next season to whichever position -- end or nose tackle -- that ends up fitting him best. At this point, that might be determined by which way his body goes by next fall. UCLA still wants him to be a defensive end, and McCarthy wants to be one, so that's still the first option at this point.
After those two, it's even more unknown. Nose tackle Brandon Tuliaupupu will be a redshirt sophomore in 2013 and, we have to admit, we haven't had enough opportunity to really get a good look at him, since he mostly sat out fall camp after being hurt for a big portion of last season. The coaches think he has a chance to be a good one, even though he's been inconsistent in games this season. As of right now, we hear it's expected that Pupu will be next year's Donovan Carter, to come in and provide 10-15 solid plays at nose tackle backing up Epenesa. UCLA, then, will have true freshman Kenneth Clark, who is good enough and physically developed enough to have a chance to come in and compete. The nose tackle position, at least how it's been utilized this season, doesn't necessarily need a great deal of depth. In fact, like we said above, much of the time when UCLA goes to the nickel, it uses a defensive end at the spot.
The defensive end depth is more key, since there's more playing time overall. Like I said, it will more than likely be Willis and McCarthy who will be getting most of the back-up minutes in 2013. After that, it's probably more about players that will have a chance to contribute in future seasons, and not necessarily 2013. Sam Tai, who is a redshirt freshman, suffered a torn ACL early in fall camp, so there will be an issue of his health, and then the issue of whether he can contribute at this level. Eli Ankou, who looks good physically, has a chance, but probably not in 2013.
The wildcard at defensive end would have to Nate Iese. Iese is currently playing outside linebacker on the scout team, but when he walked into fall practice in August, without the benefit of a college weight lifting program or training table, he was about 6-4 to 6-5 and 250 pounds, so you could see him get to 265 or so by next season. His quickness and athleticism could potentially be a game-changer at defensive end.
UCLA clearly will have to bring in two DE-types with the 2013 class, and we've heard there is the potential for some JC defensive ends who would have a better chance at an immediate impact.
Position Status for 2013: About Same as 2012
The unit will lose just one starter, Damien Holmes, and while Holmes has found a spot at outside linebacker which has maximized his ability this season, it won't be an irreplaceable loss.
It has to be mentioned that Barr could potentially consider jumping to the NFL after this season, since he's looked so exceptional at outside linebacker in 2012. We'd have to think, however, it being his first year playing linebacker (really, ever, in high school or college), that most of the advice he'd get is to return for his senior season and continue to learn his craft and potentially improve his draft stock dramatically. He'll more than likely be a pre-season All-American candidate.
Kendricks has struggled some this season, but also settled in and improved some. You'd have to think the experience of being in this system a year, and getting bigger and stronger, will definitely benefit him. Zumwalt has the athletic ability and talent to be an all Pac-12 type of player as a senior.
Keenan Graham, who will be a senior, will probably have the first crack at the open outside linebacker spot. It's funny, because we think in many ways Graham is a better overall football player than Holmes right now. Graham, perhaps, doesn't bring the type of leadership and work ethic that Holmes does, and that makes Holmes have more value to coaches, but it will be interesting to see, on the field, next season, if Graham is at least as good as Holmes has been this season.
But there are some other potential scenarios. Aaron Porter could develop enough to step into the starting spot at inside linebacker, and that could move Zumwalt outside, where he started this season. Porter has been a bit overwhelmed as a true freshman, but he'll probably have a decent chance to pull this off by next fall. Isaiah Bowens, who might have been starting at that other inside linebacker spot if he hadn't torn his ACL in spring, is recovering and back doing individual drills in practice, and is expected back by spring. It's difficult to project how he'll be coming off an ACL, but it's easy to expect him to compete to be one of the top four linebackers on the team by next fall.
Among the other linebackers currently on the roster, there aren't many we could see have a chance to win a starting spot. Perhaps with the best chance would be Iese, if he does indeed remain a linebacker. It does make the coaches drool thinking about him coming off the edge opposite Barr. We've heard, too, that Kenny Orjioke, the true freshman, is another who has some considerable potential, that could start to be realized by next fall. He's played in games only on special teams, but is slated for inside linebacker. He's very young for being a freshman and at 6-4 and 225, and still on the thin side, it will be interesting to see what he looks like physically by next fall. Perhaps among the rest, Aaron Wallace, who will be a redshirt junior, will have a chance to contribute more than he is this season.
What could potentially be very exciting is how the true freshman linebackers impact this. We believe that Myles Jack, if he does indeed stay committed to UCLA and sign in February, is talented enough to come in and play as a true freshman, probably as the second coming of Anthony Barr. Deon Hollins is right there with Jack. Cameron Judge looks perfect for one of the inside linebacker spots that requires quickness, flexibility and the capability of dropping into coverage. These three are probably good enough to, at least, compete to make the two-deep next season. Then, UCLA is still trying with some elite linebacker prospects on the same level as these three.
Position Status for 2013: Upgrade
Besides the position of running back, the biggest question mark for the 2013 Bruins will be at defensive back.
We have to say, though, it might be addition by subtraction. UCLA will lose its long-time starting cornerbacks, Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, to graduation and, even though they'll be replaced by considerably younger and less experienced players, it could still be an upgrade.
The leading candidates to step into the starting cornerback spots are Ishmael Adams, Marcus Rios or Randall Goforth. Adams played in the first two games, but will miss the rest of the season, needing surgery on his shoulder. He might not be recovered by spring, which could set him back, but we still think he's the most talented of the candidates on the roster. Marcus Rios, even though he's shown his inexperience, has also shown flashes of being very good, and he's played some this season. Randall Goforth has gotten the most time this season among the true freshmen, but at safety not cornerback; we think he could go back to cornerback in spring with the prospect of two open spots next fall. Fabian Moreau, who came to UCLA this year as a freshman running back, made the switch to cornerback having never played the position, but the word is that he has some potential. We would have to guess that the potential won't be realized in time for next fall. Justin Combs will be a redshirt freshman and more than likely won't be part of the equation in terms of the two-deep at corner back.
One starting safety returns, Tevin McDonald, and they'll have to find a second starter. If you go by playing time in 2012, that could be Stan McKay, who will be a senior, and is currently having a productive junior season. Goforth could very well stay at safety, and we've heard, at this point, the coaching staff doesn't even know where Goforth will be next fall. It appears that Anthony Jefferson, who will be a junior, hasn't returned to his full capability after the back injury, and Brandon Sermons, who will be a senior, doesn't really offer much beyond third- or fourth-string depth.
A wildcard in this is Dietrich Riley, who suffered that horrifying neck injury last season. It was uncertain if he'd be able to return to football for a very long time, but he's now been given the green light, has been doing non-contact work, and is expected back for spring. If he can return to his previous level, where he played as a true freshman and sophomore, he could give the secondary a big boost. He actually would fill that safety/linebacker hybrid role very well.
UCLA has a commitment from 2013 DB Jayon Brown, who is slated to be that safety/linebacker hybrid.
But this leaves plenty of room for a big 2013 defensive back class, with opportunity for immediate playing time. It's very conceivable that a cornerback with elite talent could come in and start as a true freshman.
Not to disparage Price and Hester, but there is actually a chance that UCLA could upgrade its productivity next season in the secondary with a considerably less-experienced unit.
Position Status for 2013: About Same as 2012
UCLA loses a great talent at punter, Jeff Locke. He hasn't been as stellar as we thought he'd be this season, but you still can't under-estimate how the loss of his contributions will impact UCLA's special teams. UCLA will go from one of the most experienced and savvy punters to a true freshman, Sean Covington, who just verbally committed this last week to UCLA. Even if Covington's transition to college is seamless, it's still too much to expect that he'll be as good in many of the nuances of punting as Locke, particularly pooching it within the 20 or putting 99% of kick-offs in the endzone for touchbacks. Then, you have to consider a true freshman punter is going to probably have some issues.
We've seen the issues that a true freshman kicker can have this season with Kai'mi Fairbairn. We're still of the opinion, however, that Fairbairn will settle down and be the kind of kicker he is in practice, where he's regularly hitting field goals out to 54 yards.
It is, though, getting a bit annoying to go through two successive seasons with field goal kicking issues, for a program that is especially known for its place-kicking excellence.
UCLA will probably stick with the same returners on kick-off and punts, so you can probably expect it to be about the same as this season.
UCLA's punt return team has had some issues, with two muffed punts with the returner running into a teammate, and Steven Manfro's punt return blunder, and we'll chalk that up to a new staff realizing how much it has to emphasize special teams in its first season. You'd have to hope that these kind of issues are cleared up by next season.
Position Status for 2013: Downgrade