The defense might not be the key to the season, but it certainly will be what many observers look to when gauging if UCLA has improved this year. UCLA's defense has been poor, at best, over the last three years. Essentially, in the 1998 season, if UCLA had even a decent defense, the Bruins at least are playing for a national championship against Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. The last two years, with a solid defense, UCLA definitely would have improved upon its 4-7 and 6-6 records.
Head Coach Bob Toledo hired his third Defensive Coordinator in four years, and fourth since he's been head coach. Phil Snow takes over the reigns as coordinator and, while we've all been burned every August by predicting UCLA's defense would be improved, Snow definitely has given new life to the defensive unit since being onboard in spring. He's instilled a new, agggressive attitude, as well as tweaking the defensive scheme itself.
Not only is the hiring of Snow a distinct change for the defense, they have one thing this year that they've lacked the last three years: age and experience. UCLA could actually start six seniors on its defense, which would be unprecedented, compared to the last three years. Also, among the twelve players currently listed in the two-deep, 12 of them are juniors or seniors.
Destroyed by injury last year, the defensive line has to be one of the deepest and most talented in the history of UCLA, probably the best in the Pac-10 this season, and one of the best in the country. The line is anchored by its three experienced tackles, Ken Kocher (6-4, 206, SR), Anthony Fletcher (6-4, 295, SR) and Rodney Leisle (6-4, 295, SO). Kocher returns from nagging injuries that kept him out of many games last year and not at 100% in the games he played. He's expected to make a major impact for his senior year. Fletcher, too, was hampered by injury a year ago, but he's now 100%. These two are all Pac-10 caliber players when healthy. Add to that Rodney Leisle, probably the best defensive tackle on the team a year ago with probably more potential than either Kocher or Fletcher and you have a very intimidating threesome. Behind them, the depth looks very, very good. Steve Morgan (6-3, 288, JR) is an experienced back-up who started many games over the last several years. Sean Phillips (6-6, 299, JR) is one of the most talented linemen on the team. He switches from defensive end to tackle this season, now weighing close to 300 pounds while retaining his end-like quickness. He is reportedly back 100% from his injuries a year ago. Saia Makakaufaki (6-3, 288, JR) comes into fall camp in the best shape he's ever been in, having lost some weight and put on muscle. David Tautofi (6-3, 285, JR) comes in from Fresno CC. With so much depth at the position, he'll probably redshirt, having three years available to play two. This is a great deal of talent here, which UCLA feels good about having since last year just about every player mentioned here missed some time due to injury.
The defensive ends also seem loaded, but it's also a position that UCLA needs to get some All-Pac-10 performances from if it wants to have a dominating defense. Kenyon Coleman (6-6, 276, SR) returns after missing most of his season last year and redshirting due to injury. Coleman is an awesome physical specimen and has shown flashes over his four years of being a dominant player. But flashes don't get it done. This is his money year, the year he needs to show the NFL that he's a big-time defensive end. One of the most promising players on the team is Dave Ball (6-6, 265, SO), who will more than likely start at the weakside defensive end position, opposite Coleman. Ball played quite a bit last year when the line was hit by injury and, while he looked out of sorts sometimes, most of the time he was very good. Rusty Williams (6-4, 270, JR) returns after he spent most of last year injured. He'll have to beat out Ball and earn his spot back. Mat Ball (6-6, 263, SO), played very well as a redshirt freshman last year and will undoubtedly get plenty of playing time this year. Asi Faoa (6-4, 269, SO) has permanently been moved to defensive end after flirting with the position at the end of last year. He has the potential to be a good one but just needs to learn the position. And don't forget Stephen Sua (6-2, 267, SR), who seems like he's been on the team for eight years. Sua is a pass rusher, and will see time in passing situations. Watch for a battle at the weakside position between Dave Ball and Williams, and watch for the development of Asi Faoa.
The bigger issue of what to watch for in fall practice is, first and foremost, that the DL stays healthy. Secondly, watch to see if the line has improved its pass rushing, which last year (and actually the last three years) has really been the Achilles Heel of the defense. Without it, opposing quarterbacks have had far too much time to pick apart UCLA's secondary. In spring, the defensive line looked like they were going to be dominant against the run, but there still wasn't a distinct improvement in pass rushing.
At linebacker, UCLA has one of the best in the nation in Robert Thomas (6-2, 237, SR) at middle linebacker. He also is fully recovered from the stress fracture to his foot a year ago. After Thomas, it gets a little mysterious. The two most proven on the roster are Ryan Nece (6-2, 224, SR) and Marcus Reese (6-2, 209, JR). Nece had off-season shoulder surgery and is still in the process of recovering, though, one source said they expect Nece to be at full strength for the team's first practice next Saturday. Having spent just about his entire career nursing injuries, we've never really seen a healthy Nece play for a prolonged period of time. The last two years, reports are, that the player on the field was a shell of the player Nece really is, severely hampered by his shoulders. So, a big issue this fall will be whether Ryan Nece is healthy, and now good a healthy Ryan Nece is. If he's solid, Reese could move over to the strongside position and leave leave the weakside for Nece. It would be getting UCLA's three most experienced linebackers on the field at the same and playing into Phil Snow's theory of speed over size. Penciled in as the starter at the strongside backer spot is Brandon Chillar (6-3, 229, SO), who showed promise last year and in spring. If he steps up the position is his. Backing up at linebacker, on the weakside, is converted safety Audie Attar (6-0, 205, JR). Attar was one of the surprise standouts in spring, looking far more comfortable attacking at the backer position than backpedaling and making reads at the safety position. It gives him the opportunity to do what he does best, and that's hit. After those four, it gets even more mysterious. Probably the most known commodity is Dennis Link (6-1, 210, SO), the back-up MLB. With the health of UCLA's defense always a question, it's key this fall that Link proves he could capably back-up or step in to Thomas's spot if need be. Tim Warfield (6-2, 237, FR) spent last year on the scout team as a freshman and hopefully in fall he'll prove he also can be a capable back-up at the strongside position. Ray Cassaday (6-1, 247, FR) will also try to prove himself as capable of being a solid back-up at MLB. Incoming freshman Spencer Havner (6-3, 210, FR) hopefully will be able to redshirt. If he doesn't it probably means that the LB crew is hit by injury or a few guys didn't step up. Havner is talented, having great quickness, but needs to bulk up.
If we're talking mysteries, there are two in the secondary, along with two very sure things. The sure things are Marques Anderson (6-0, 207, SR) at free safety and Ricky Manning Jr. (5-9, 180, JR) at one of the corner spots. These two are All Pac-10 caliber players and potentially more. Watch to see if both take leadership roles in fall. Manning definitely had assumed his in spring. The two mysteries are the two remaining DB positions, at the other corner position and strong safety. Joe Hunter (6-11, 171, JR) would have probably had the inside track on the other corner spot but he chose not to come out for spring football and just run track. That's set him back a bit, in his football, and in the eyes of the coaches. Keith Short (5-9, 167, SO) showed flashes last year, especially on special teams, but showed in practice he probably won't be able to provide more than back-up minutes at the corner. So, big expectations lay on the shoulders of incoming freshman, Matt Ware (6-3, 195, FR), to possibly come in and play the open corner position. While he might be better suited as a safety, UCLA feels that they have more talent at the safeties and need his athleticism at corner. That athleticism and ability to close will make up for his inexperience and possibly being a little too big for corner. Also, with Ware lining up on the same side as Anderson most of the time, Anderson might get the assignment of covering a receiver a great deal of the time. Ware at the corner also makes him only responsible for a smaller chunk of the field as opposed to playing safety. And you'd definitely want your experienced star, Anderson, in a position to make the most plays, needing to cover the majority of the field. So, one of the big questions of spring will be if Ware can step in a feel comfortable at the corner position. One potential problem is that Ware is still recovering from a groin injury (not a hip pointer as previously reported). Reports are that he was slowed by it all summer, but UCLA is hoping he'll be 100% by next week. Ryan Wikert (6-2, 186, SO) had some moments in spring practice and it would certainly be a bonus if he came into fall practice and was able to contribute. The UCLA coaches would also be tickled if just one of the incoming freshmen would be able to make a contribution this year. Marcus Cassel (6-0, 170, FR) is the most likely candidate, with the speed and athleticism to possibly compete. Matthew Clark (5-9, 160, FR) also got good reviews in the summer seven-on-sevens.
At strong safety, there will be much to watch in fall practice. The tentative starter right now is Jason Stephens (6-2, 192, SR). Stephens looked good in spring and the word is he took his off-season work very seriously, and is in great shape and serious about holding the starting position. Also getting serious in the off-season was Ben Emanuel (6-3, 202, FR), who has trimmed down and improved his athleticism. A lot of this newfound seriousness could be because of the arrival of Jibril Raymo (6-3, 195, FR). The early word on Raymo was that he was a stud in the summer workouts and seven-on-sevens. Raymo will definitely push Stephens and Emanuel and will probably see some serious playing time of his own. It will be one of the biggest shows of the fall – to see how Raymo stacks up and how Stephens and Emanuel respond. Kevin Brant (6-0, 192, SO) is a scrappy type and backs up Anderson at free safety.
Chris Griffith (6-2, 198, JR) returns as the #1 placekicker, but he'll be pushed by Nate Fikse (5-9, 190, JR) who has a bigger foot but just needs to get more consistent and accurate. This fall we'll see if it could be time for Fikse to overtake Griffith, who has a chance himself to be all Pac-10 this year. Fikse has had the punting chores for two years, but he'll be pushed by Chris Kluwe (6-5, 198, FR) the redshirt freshman. Kluwe has a bigger punting leg than Fikse but himself needs to be more consistent. He'll push Fikse in fall. So, it will be a near-round-robin among the kickers and punters, everyone pushing someone. The #1 punt returner is Ricky Manning, but Craig Bragg will also be back in punt formation on occasion. Kick-off returns will be handled by Tab Perry and Akil Harris, with Bragg also getting an opportunity. It might be something to watch in fall – if Bragg can move up as the #1 returner for punts or kick-offs.