Perhaps they're not vitally pressing issues for spring, because the first priority is just having enough bodies on the field, really. And maybe they're not that important even for this fall. But the key to success under Jim Mora will be maintaining a talent level so there is continuity of a sustained quality of play. That, of course, starts with recruiting, but management and evaluation of the existing players in the program is probably just as key.
We've seen in the past, both in UCLA football and basketball, how poor evaluations of a program's own players can dramatically contribute to that program's demise.
UCLA's personnel is in a critical transition period – between when it is still dealing with the aftermath of the tail end of a departed coach, which typically leaves at least some cupboards of a program bare, and a new coaching staff bringing in their own talent. Personnel decisions during this time can either be huge boosts in that transition, or mistakes that can ultimately be costly. The thing is, personnel decisions made now can not only affect the 2013 season but the 2014 season, so the UCLA coaches have to be good evaluators, have a good sense of their overall talent and personnel, and have some vision on where all the puzzle pieces fit.
Some moves can end up being like Anthony Barr being moved to linebacker last season, or former quarterback Osaar Rashaan being moved to wide receiver as a senior.
We'll start with some issues we've recognized on the defensive line.
The DL is looking pretty well-set for 2013, no question. It returns to two stand-out starters (Cassius Marsh, Sealii Epenesa) and plugs in a guy who was virtually a starter and ready to emerge as a potential star (Owamagbe Odighizuwa). Depth might be an issue, but there are enough promising players that you could see a solid two-deep sorting itself out by August.
The defensive line, however, will lose all three starters after the 2013 season, and there just aren't enough bodies – just not talent, but bodies – at this point waiting in the wings to provide a solid vision of the 2014 DL and beyond.
If we had to project right now what the 2014 starting DL would look like it would probably be Brandon Willis (2013 JR) at one defensive end spot, Kylie Fitts (2014 FR) at the other, and Ellis McCarthy (2013 SO) at nose guard. Those three will probably make up the two-deep in 2013, so they'll get some playing experience on the field this fall.
Here are the issues:
McCarthy is a bit of an enigma. He's a big boy, at 6-5, and 320ish, and he looks like he's actually slimmed down some. He's not, however, agile enough to play defensive end, even in the 3-4, and he's not ideally suited as a nose tackle, since they usually are shorter and squattier, with a lower center of gravity. Now, of course, last year there were plenty of players who jumped between defensive end and nose, so players can be utilized in ways that fit their talent depending on game situations. But it's still key that players fit into the base 3-4 defense and the roles of the positions. We know that UCLA has come around to determining that McCarthy, with his issues, might be better suited as a nose; even though he doesn't have a low center of gravity, his bulk might provide essentially the same result. He has a great deal of talent, and it will be interesting this spring and fall to see how he begins to learn to play the nose tackle spot. UCLA really likes Brandon Tuliaupupu (2013 SO), who at 6-1 and 302 is more like the traditional nose guard. He's had some health issues, but has shown flashes of being good. So, between McCarthy and Tuliaupupu, the two deep at nose guard might have its potential bodies for 2014 and 2015. We'll see how these two fare this spring and fall; Tuliaupupu, as we said, has had some health issues, and he has to prove he can stay on the field for an entire season. If he does, he'll probably see a bit of playing time this season at NG.
The projected two-deep for 2014 at defensive end is quite a bit more of a mystery. After Willis and Fitts, there is no obvious player, or players, to plug into a projected two-deep. It's even a stretch, really, to project that Willis and Fitts are going to perform well enough this fall to project them as the starters in 2014.
Eli Ankou (2013 RS FR) is listed as a defensive end, but after seeing him on Spaulding this week, he looks all of the listed 6-3 and 290 pounds. If he's this size as true freshman this season, you have to believe he's only going to get bigger and end up more of a nose guard than a defensive end. The coaches like him – not in a potential star way – but feel he's good enough to fill out a two-deep solidly.
Sam Tai (2013 RS SO) tore his ACL at the beginning of fall practice last year and missed the entire season, and he's still not completely back from the injury. At 6-2 and 276 pounds, he doesn't ideally fit the defensive end mold (UCLA wants their DEs to be 6-3 to 6-5), but he's not bulky enough to be a nose guard. To be candid, too, it's completely uncertain if Tai can play at this level.
What other options are there on the current roster?
We have been asserting since last fall that Nate Iese (2013 RS FR) would probably end up at defensive end, and he took some reps at the spot at Thursday's practice. Iese is 6-3 and about 241, with a long, big frame you could easily see being able to hold 260 pounds, and not too many years from now. He has the kind of length and quickness UCLA wants in its DEs, too. It was thought he could end up on the other side of the ball, at the Y, but the transition would be much easier for him moving from linebacker to defensive end. UCLA is looking well-stocked at linebacker, and it's clear that UCLA is trying to find the right spot for the athletic Iese, and this is the time to do it, now, in the spring of his true freshman season, so that he gets settled in to the position early and can start working at it. We'll see if Thursday's experiment sticks.
Come this fall, the offensive line is going to have plenty of bodies, so if you think an OL might make the move to the DL, the obvious player would be Kevin McReynolds (2013 RS SO), since he started out on the DL. He's a very strong kid, but was moved to offensive guard because he just didn't have the explosiveness to play the DL. We think, however, he might be motivated to move back to the DL once the 7 true freshman OLs come in this summer. We just don't know where he'd plug in – probably back as a back-up at nose.
Here's the far-premature guess: We've said Jeremy Castro could end up at defensive end, and we still think that could happen. Castro, who just completed his first two UCLA practices after grayshirting, is working out at outside linebacker. Here's why we think he ends up at defensive end: 1) He played defensive end in high school, never played linebacker, and has to learn how and might not be natural at dropping into coverage, 2) He's 6-2 and 243 pounds, as a grayshirt true freshman who hasn't been in weight training or at the training table for long. He has a thick body, too, so we could easily see him get to 270-ish. He'll undoubtedly get a long look at linebacker but, as we said, UCLA looks well stocked at linebacker and will be even moreso this fall.
The true freshman DL coming in this summer (don't forget Fitts enrolled early for spring practice) is Kenneth Clark. Clark has been projected as a nose guard in the 3-4, but we're going to go out on a limb, without having seen him in one college practice, and guess that he'll get a shot at the defensive end spot at UCLA. He's about 6-2 and 275, and might be a little lighter actually. He doesn't have the ideal height, but he is athletic and explosive, and if you look past the height, has more of the traits you want in a defensive end in the 3-4 than, say, McCarthy. UCLA looks like it has a good amount of bodies at the nose spot, too, so you could see a clearer path to early playing time for Clark at defensive end.
It's clear that UCLA needs to recruit two defensive ends for the 2014 class, and at least one that can make an immediate impact. They, like Fitts in 2013, might have a chance to compete for the two-deep, and that would really help to fill it out for the 2014 season.
Projected 2014 Defensive Line Depth Chart:
DE: Brandon Willis (SR), Nate Iese (SO), Jeremy Castro (R-FR), 2014 Frosh
NG: Ellis McCarthy (JR), Brandon Tuliaupupu (JR), Eli Ankou (SO), 2014 Frosh
DE: Kylie Fitts (SO), Kenneth Clark (SO), Sam Tai (JR), 2014 Frosh