And, what the heck, just for the sake of good old fun, we're also going to toss five star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes into the mix, even though it would be tough to name a leader for him at this point.
The unblockable Datone Jones lived up to his nickname this year, displaying much better hand technique under the tutelage of Angus McClure. His production and athleticism will certainly be missed on next year's defensive line. In his place, we're expecting Owamagbe Odighizuwa to step up, given his heavy contributions this year and the impact he was able to have over the last few games of the season. The line loses just Jones and reserve nose tackle Donovan Carter, and could potentially bring in some high value replacements, in addition to an in-shape Ellis McCarthy.
*We're projecting that Seali'i Epenesa will hang on to his starting nose tackle spot. It's always hard to judge a nose tackle in a 3-4 because, most of the time, the position doesn't show up much in a box score. Epenesa, though, rarely got pushed off the line, and often handled double teams, which helped to free up Jones, Anthony Barr, and Cassius Marsh. What's more, the coaches have raved about the job Epenesa did this year, and the thought is that with a year of seasoning he could be a very high level player at the position. Behind Epenesa is Brandon Tuliaupupu, who the coaches are also very high on.
*We're keeping McCarthy at defensive end for now, mostly because the depth chart at nose tackle is fairly deep. McCarthy ended the regular season with a knee injury that forced him to miss the last game against Stanford, but from what we heard initially, it's not a major issue. We'll obviously check on that, but even if it holds him out for the bowl game, we'd expect him to be back for spring, and for off-season conditioning. Assuming he can fully participate, we'd anticipate him getting back down to his ideal weight of 310 pounds or so.
*We've added Nate Iese and Jeremy Castro to the depth at defensive end, mostly because the depth at outside linebacker appears pretty set, and both of these guys could be in line to move up significantly in the depth chart after next year. Iese is already a very solidly built guy, and at 6-4 and about 255 has the frame to carry more weight. Castro played mostly d-end in high school, and so would probably fit better at more of a rush-end type position. If Anthony Barr goes pro, we could see Castro as an outside linebacker who is almost strictly a pass rusher, but for now, we'll keep him at end.
*It's a bit of a stretch to include Eddie Vanderdoes in next year's depth chart, but, hey, it's fun. With the three seniors in Marsh, Odighizuwa, and Epenesa starting on the line, we could see Vanderdoes as the first off the bench in each of those slots, but especially at defensive end. He's a bit of a freak, with outstanding strength and quickness, such that you could move him around to different positions without him losing effectiveness. What's more, getting Vanderdoes would actually be pretty imperative not necessarily for 2013, but for 2014. With the three seniors graduating, some combination of Vanderdoes, McCarthy, Kenneth Clark, Iese, Castro, and Tuliaupupu are going to be relied upon to start.
Defensive Line Depth Chart
Left Defensive End: Owamagbe Odighizuwa (SR), Eddie Vanderdoes (incoming), Jeremy Castro (FR), Eli Ankou (RS FR)
Nose Tackle: Seali'i Epenesa (SR), Brandon Tuliaupupu (RS SO), Kenneth Clark (incoming)
Right Defensive End: Cassius Marsh (SR), Ellis McCarthy (SO), Nate Iese (RS FR), Brandon Willis (JR), Sam Tai (RS SO, ACL recovery)
The one loss is Damien Holmes, who moved between inside and outside linebacker this year. Holmes never really found a position at UCLA where he was particularly effective, and although UCLA will miss one of its captains, the talent level in the starting lineup should increase, especially with the players UCLA expects to add this off-season.
With Anthony Barr returning, there is one open starting spot (Holmes'), but also a need for quality depth that can play. UCLA's linebacking unit ended up being pretty good in 2012, but there weren't many bodies that the coaching staff thought were capable of playing, and there was very little insurance in case of injury.
*Given that, the talented freshman linebacker class that UCLA is bringing in has the potential to play significant snaps immediately. Now that we know Barr is returning, and there's one open spot at the other outside linebacker position, it's not that big of a stretch to envision Myles Jack or Deon Hollins actually competing for the spot. Jack, by all accounts, is a gifted pass rusher, and lines up as a defensive end much of the time for his high school team, so transitioning to outside linebacker in a 3-4 shouldn't be too difficult for him. Hollins looked explosive coming off the edge in the Semper Fi All-American Game, played the d-end spot in high school, too, and is comfortable in that position. We're projecting Cameron Judge inside, mostly because there are some depth issues there and he probably has the best chance of the freshman to play inside.
*As it stands, Jack, Hollins, Keenan Graham, and Aaron Wallace look like they'll be the main competition for Holmes' vacated outside linebacker spot. We've always like Graham's athleticism, but we've heard it's taken him some extra time to pick up the 3-4, and the various pass-defending nuances of the linebacker position. The talent of Jack and Hollins could prove very difficult to leave off the field. Wallace had a few very nice plays in the latter half of the season in a backup role, and we liked him a lot on the scout team last year. UCLA truly has an abundance of talent on the outside, and you might see more guys in the playing rotation next year because of it.
*Eric Kendricks really came on as the season progressed, and Jordan Zumwalt had his best game of the year in the Pac-12 championship game once he'd gotten comfortable with the move back inside. Zumwalt will be a senior next year, with Kendricks a junior, so they'd have to be expected to start. Behind them could be two freshmen (Isaac Savaiinaea, if UCLA gets him, and Judge) and then a linebacker coming off an ACL injury (Isaiah Bowens). We've heard that Bowens is fully recovered, and should be a full-go for spring ball. We've also heard that Aaron Porter hasn't been particularly impressive thus far, so there's a chance he could find himself behind those three on the depth chart.
*We're going to include Kenny Orjioke on the outside linebacker depth chart for now, but given how athletic he is, we could see him moving to another position before too much time has passed -- possibly even to the offense. He's a very long 6'4.
*The nickel linebacker role is one that developed into a huge part of the defense by the end of the year, so we're going to make it its own position grouping, especially when you consider how often UCLA will play nickel against the Pac-12. UCLA loses Dalton Hilliard from that position, but, since we're projecting, possibly gains Dietrich Riley. Riley, if you'll remember, had actually moved to a similar role in Neuheisel's defense in 2011. We know that the coaching staff thinks highly of Riley, and thinks he could return to his safety spot. We think they'll give him a look at safety this spring, but potentially move him to the linebacker/safety hybrid spot before the fall. It might also be the spot for Orjioke.
Linebacker Depth Chart
Left Outside Linebacker: Keenan Graham (RS SR) OR Myles Jack (incoming) OR Deon Hollins (incoming), Kenny Orjioke (RS FR)
Left Inside Linebacker: Eric Kendricks (RS JR), Isaac Savaiinaea (incoming), Aaron Porter (RS FR), Ryan Hofmeister (RS SO)
Right Inside Linebacker: Jordan Zumwalt (SR), Isaiah Bowens (RS SR), Cameron Judge (incoming)
Right Outside Linebacker: Anthony Barr (SR), Aaron Wallace (RS SO), Aramide Olaniyan (RS JR)
Nickel Linebacker: Stan McKay (RS SR), Dietrich Riley (RS JR), Jayon Brown (incoming)
UCLA loses a huge portion of its secondary after this season, and even though there might be an upgrade in overall talent in the secondary, the Bruins still lose a wealth of experience with Andrew Abbott, Sheldon Price, and Aaron Hester. In the secondary, too, experience is extremely important. Price and Hester have played significantly since their freshman years, and behind them, there aren't any really experienced players. No matter who ends up starting at the corners next year, expect some growing pains early on. Luckily, UCLA looks like it's going to have a better defensive backs class than it has had in a very long time.
*Ishmael Adams's season ended early with shoulder surgery for an issue that had been plaguing him for most of the previous year. The initial prognosis was six to nine months, after he suffered the injury in September. Doing the math, he could be ready for spring ball, but more likely that he'll be ready for summer conditioning and fall camp. Either way, he's very talented, if undersized, and had already won a pretty significant role as the team's nickel defensive back when he went down. Expect him to be one of the early candidates to seize a starting cornerback role. Also, as a bonus, because he went down between the second and third games, he should be able to get a redshirt, which would give him four years of eligibility remaining.
*Randall Goforth and Marcus Rios saw the most game action of the freshman defensive backs, and both could be in line for starting positions next year. Goforth actually started a couple of games this season, and he will probably get the first shot at taking Abbott's strong safety position. Rios took a while to get acclimated to college during the spring, when he came in early, and then was passed by Adams when Adams came in during the fall. Rios has talent, but another year of strength training and being in the program will be important for him.
*We're projecting UCLA to land a very good secondary class. As of right now, we expect Jermaine Kelly, Johnny Johnson, Tahaan Goodman, Priest Willis, and Patrick Enewally to sign with UCLA. Those five bring such a talent level to UCLA's secondary that it wouldn't be a shock to see any of them start next season. Willis and Goodman will compete for both the strong safety spot and the free safety spot, even with a returning two-year starter in Tevin McDonald at free safety. Then, with the vacuum at cornerback, Johnson and Kelly are both going to factor into the competition there. There's going to be a lot of inexperience in the secondary next year, but it's going to be very talented inexperience.
*Fabian Moreau, as was widely reported, moved back to offense when Damien Thigpen tore his ACL, but that was likely just a depth move rather than a permanent switch. We'd guess, for now, that he'd stick with the defense and then potentially move back to the F or running back if certain depth things change (Devin Fuller really wants to play quarterback, Thigpen doesn't make it back by next year, the freshmen defensive backs really are that good, etc.). We know the coaching staff was impressed with his ability to pick up the cornerback position after never having played it before, and he looks to have the proper body for it.
*Anthony Jefferson just hasn't recovered the speed or agility that he had before the herniated disc. He's moved to safety, but even there he has struggled to keep up with faster players. Another year of off-season conditioning and strength training could help him, but it's hard to make him too big of a factor in the depth chart.
Defensive Backs Depth Chart
Left Cornerback: Ishmael Adams (RS FR) OR Jermaine Kelly (incoming), Patrick Enewally (incoming), Librado Barocio (RS JR) Strong Safety: Randall Goforth (SO) OR Priest Willis (incoming), Anthony Jefferson (RS JR), Taylor Lagace (RS FR)
Free Safety: Tevin McDonald (RS JR), Tahaan Goodman (incoming), Brandon Sermons (RS SR)
Right Cornerback: Marcus Rios (SO) OR Johnny Johnson (incoming), Fabian Moreau (SO), Justin Combs (RS FR)
Defensive Depth Chart Review
There is a great deal to be excited about for next year's defense. Even if you take out Vanderdoes, or Barr, the defense, with a year of development in the 3-4 and an infusion of high level talent at linebacker and defensive back, has the potential to be a very good one. Just taking a look at the defensive front, UCLA loses Jones, which is a big loss, but gains Owa in the starting lineup, and will likely have a much more in-shape McCarthy as a back-up at all three positions. Then, if you factor in what Vanderdoes potentially gives the team, you'd be hard-pressed to say there is a downgrade from what was already a very good defensive line.
At linebacker, if UCLA returns Anthony Barr, UCLA's linebacker corps will experience a massive upgrade in talent. First, UCLA will have a full year of Kendricks performing at a high level, now that he's adjusted to the 3-4. Second, there won't be any experiments with Holmes playing inside linebacker. Instead, Zumwalt will likely man the spot to begin the year, or one of the talented freshmen will step up if the coaches move Zumwalt outside. Lastly, the depth is going to be massively, massively upgraded. This year, a player like Hofmeister had to play significant snaps, but now those will likely be taken by the incoming freshmen. You really can't underestimate the familiarity all of the returning players will have with the scheme as well.
In the secondary, it's a bit tougher to project, since UCLA loses so much experience. However, Price and Hester were always a bit limited in terms of their coverage skills. Specifically with Price, he was never able to put enough weight on to be an effective bump and run corner, which is something this defense demands. The freshmen coming in are extremely talented, and will likely bring a massive upgrade to the secondary in terms of natural ability. At the beginning of the season, they could have their struggles, but we'd say that by the end of the year, the unit will be an upgrade over last year.
In short, the defense should experience a massive talent infusion that, by the end of the 2013 season, could pay dividends. The front seven has the potential to be one of the best UCLA has had in a decade, and the secondary should be more talented and deeper than it was this past season. Combine an upgraded defense with an offense that gain several talented offensive linemen, and 2013 has the potential to be a special season for UCLA.
Next up: A Very Early Look at Next Season's Schedule...