When Jim Mora and company installed their defense in spring and fall, it was obvious that their intention was to develop an attacking defense that relied heavily on blitzing and man coverage—and it made sense. Those kinds of defenses, when run well, can be devastating to offensive schemes.
Unfortunately for the coaching staff, they ran into two issues. First, there wasn't really a capable blitzer among the inside linebackers available at the beginning of the season, which made blitzes pretty ineffective. Second, UCLA's cornerbacks were generally poor in man coverage.
Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester enjoyed somewhat embattled careers at UCLA, as is usually the case with cornerbacks. This past season, especially at the beginning of the year, they were arguably asked to do a little too much outside of their comfort zone. Having played in weak, passive schemes for most of their careers at UCLA, it's understandable that they looked like fish out of water having to cover the fast receivers for Oregon State and California at the beginning of last season.
Midway through the season, the coaching staff recognized the issue at corner and dialed back the blitzing, oftentimes opting for a nickel look. Our guess is that the coaching staff will look to reestablish some of the principles from the beginning of last season so that the next crop of defensive backs is better able to handle being on an island.
A Look at Spring
Now that Tevin McDonald has been dismissed from the team, it's official: the entire starting defensive backfield is gone from last season. Obviously that presents some depth issues for the spring (and likely next year), given that the talented freshmen (Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson, and Tyler Foreman) will not be enrolled until the summer. As if those depth issues weren't enough, UCLA will also be missing Marcus Rios, who has had repeated sinus issues that have required multiple procedures since the middle of last season. He will be held out of spring after not being able to work out with the team throughout the last few months and losing a great deal of weight.
So what does that leave? Thankfully, UCLA will return Ishmael Adams this spring, who has been out since he underwent shoulder surgery after the Nebraska game last year. Adams won't play in contact drills, but aside from that he should be a full go. Additionally, Dietrich Riley will make his long-awaited return to practice, after sitting out the entirety of last year due to the scary neck injury he suffered in 2011. Both players figure to be running with the 1's to start spring practice, but it'll be interesting to see how much rust they have to shake off.
As a general thing, it's going to be hard to tell much from the spring, simply because each position is so thin and so much talent has yet to arrive in Westwood. No starter returns from last year, which means that no starting spot is guaranteed. If we had to guess, in fact, we'd say that there's a good chance that no more than two of the starters in spring at safety and cornerback will be starters by the first game of the season.
What to Watch For
*How will the loss of McDonald impact the defense? McDonald didn't have a great year last year, but he did provide a leadership role to the secondary, and it'll be interesting to see who takes up that mantle in the spring. Riley is obviously the veteran of the bunch, and Randall Goforth got the most playing time last year, so it'll be interesting to see if one of the two steps up to lead the unit. Riley is slotted to line up as the strong safety and Goforth the free safety, but it's a virtual guarantee that there will be some mixing and matching as the coaches try to experiment with different combinations.
*What will Riley be able to do? Riley has been fully cleared for practice, which is a great thing in and of itself, but now it'll be interesting to see what he's able to do in terms of his athleticism and tackling ability. It'll be really encouraging to see if he has refined his tackling technique, not only because it will leave him less prone to injury, but it will also be an improvement over the tackling technique of McDonald, who all too often tried to shoulder tackle or push guys down.
*How will Fabian Moreau look with an offseason of learning the position? Moreau actually played some cornerback in games last year, which is amazing when you consider that last year was the first time he'd ever played the position. He's a natural athlete, with good hips that allow him to easily break out of his backpedal to make plays on the ball or run with receivers. He looked decent when he first started working with the defensive backs in fall camp, and improved throughout the season. Now that he's had an offseason to work on his body and digest some of the nuances of the position, it'll be very interesting to see where his development is.
*Is Anthony Jefferson ready to contribute? It's been a shame that Jefferson hasn't been able to regain his form after suffering a herniated disc over two years ago. The injury, if you remember, caused pain to radiate down his legs from a nerve issue to the point where he had difficulty walking for a time. He hasn't regained the speed or flexibility he had prior to the injury, and it's an open question whether it'll fully return. The hope is that with another offseason of conditioning and work with Sal Alosi, Jefferson will have returned closer to his old self, and be ready to contribute at corner or safety.
*What kind of drills will UCLA be able to run in spring? Depth is a huge concern in the secondary, to the point where it could actually impact some of the drills that UCLA runs (receiver vs. cornerback one-on-one's could get especially difficult). Tempo may also be impacted when UCLA scrimmages, since there isn't even a full second string of scholarship defensive backs. It's a virtual guarantee, though, that the defensive backs will be in pretty good shape by the end of spring.
Projected Spring Depth Chart
Ishmael Adams (5'8, 185)
Anthony Jefferson (6'1, 184)
Dietrich Riley (6'0, 200)
Anthony Jefferson (6'1, 184)
Randall Goforth (5'10, 187)
Brandon Sermons (5'11, 195)
Fabian Moreau (6'0, 182)
Librado Barocio (5'7, 170)
Spring Preview: Defensive Backs
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