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've already looked at Projected Depth Analysis: D-Line.
Looking at the secondary, it's difficult to nail down even one sure-fire starter for 2013 and 2014, let alone four. While we love what we've seen from Ishmael Adams (2013 RS FR) through three practices this spring, and think he has what it takes to potentially be a four year starter at UCLA, it has been just three practices, and he'll surely face competition in the fall from the incoming freshmen as well as Marcus Rios (2013 SO).
Aside from Adams, who has shown enough to demonstrate that he'll contribute this year, everyone else in the secondary runs the gamut from a question mark to an enigma, which is going to make this fall very interesting.
Even before his injury two years ago, Dietrich Riley (2013 RS JR) had already been moved to linebacker on a part time basis because he hadn't shown great coverage skills. With Tevin McDonald now off the team, and only five scholarship safeties on the roster come the fall, much will hinge on how Riley progresses this spring and summer. From what we've seen so far (and admittedly it has to be taken with a grain of salt given that it's been only three practices and Riley is practicing for the first time in a year and a half) he still has many of the same issues he had before the injury. He has difficulties dealing with quickness in coverage, and doesn't show great instincts in space. If we had to project him at an ideal position, it would probably be the mini-linebacker role, where Stan McKay (2013 RS SR), a safety with some of the same issues as Riley, currently plays. In any case, at this point, we're uncertain whether he's a starting option at safety for a high level defense.
Randall Goforth (2013 SO), who started five games last season, was promising, but also had some lowlights, such as the Holiday Bowl. As a former receiver, he has good ball skills, and knows where to position himself to get interceptions. At times last year he had difficulty taking proper angles at ball carriers, and didn't show the greatest tackling technique. Those are correctable, though, and with an offseason of development, you can guess that he'll either start or be a strong contributor at safety over the next couple of seasons.
At the other corner spot, opposite Adams, there are plenty of options, but it's difficult to say how ideal any of them are. Marcus Rios and Fabian Moreau (2013 SO) both have shown ability, but Moreau is in just his second year of playing the position, and Rios has battled a sinus problem through multiple operations this offseason. It's no guarantee that he'll be totally ready for the season, after dropping some weight over the last few months while dealing with the procedures.
If we're projecting, among the players who are currently on the roster at corner or safety, only five really have a chance of competing at this level (Riley, Goforth, Adams, Rios, and Moreau) and one of those is out for at least the spring (Rios), one is in his second year ever of playing the position (Moreau), one might be a better fit at another position (Riley), and the one we're nearly penciling in as a starter isn't yet fully back from shoulder surgery (Adams). Librado Barocio (2013 RS SO) is good for a walkon, and Anthony Jefferson (2013 RS JR) might have a role as a pure red zone corner, but neither is a real option as a rotational player. Justin Combs is undersized and isn't much more than an average athlete, so he doesn't figure to be much of an option down the road. In short, there isn't a single known quantity in the secondary this spring.
So, realistically, UCLA has anywhere from two to four starting spots in the secondary that it needs to fill this fall, and there's a reasonable chance that any of those spots could be filled by the incoming freshmen: Johnny Johnson (2013 FR), Priest Willis (2013 FR), Tahaan Goodman (2013 FR), or Tyler Foreman (2013 FR). Each of those guys has the potential to come in and play early, but that's a different thing entirely from saying that each of those guys will actually come in and play early, much less start. In fact, using history and the law of averages as our guide, there's a chance that at least one of those freshmen won't even pan out, let alone play significant time his first year. So, even though they're talented prospects, let's say that each of those freshmen is an unknown as well.
While his play last year left much to be desired, it can't be understated how much Tevin McDonald's departure affects the depth for the next two seasons. If you figure that both Taylor Lagace (2013 RS FR) and Stan McKay were moved to linebacker for good reason, UCLA's safety depth for 2013 and 2014, with or without Riley, is extremely shallow.
While we know the plan is for Priest Willis to take a shot at cornerback first, with his size and skillset, you have to wonder if he'll get moved to safety given the potential depth concerns there. If we had to make a guess at a position switch in the secondary, aside from Riley moving to linebacker, Willis to safety would be our next best bet.
We heard last year that some on the coaching staff actually like Devin Fuller as a potential safety. Athletically, we could see it, since he's a strong kid and has good quickness. We would have our doubts, though, that he'd approve the switch, especially since he's now the starting slot receiver. It's something to keep in mind for 2014 and beyond, but it would almost certainly not happen this year.
The good news? While this year is likely going to be a bit rough in the secondary as the coaches tinker with the personnel to find a combination of players that works, 2014 should see a starting secondary relatively unchanged from the previous year, with at least one or two talented players in reserve. With the assumption that both Adams and Goforth can at least carve out positions in the two deep, UCLA really only needs three or four of a group that includes Rios, Moreau, Riley, Johnson, Willis, Foreman, and Goodman to field the bare bones of a secondary in 2014.
Looking at the sheer number of unknowns, though, it'd behoove UCLA to hedge against a greater failure rate with its 2014 secondary recruiting. In terms of recruiting, if Willis stays at corner, UCLA could justifiably take two more safeties in the 2014 class. If Willis moves to safety, the need shifts to two cornerbacks. That would put the UCLA secondary in good position for 2014 and beyond. If Mossi Johnson (2014 FR) is fully healthy by next spring, and isn't needed on the offensive side of the ball, he could come in as a DB, which would help to add depth, but that's a ways down the road.
For our projected 2014 depth chart, we've made a few assumptions. First, while we think that Willis is a good player, if we had to project one of the four freshmen to not live up to the hype, it'd be him. It's not that we don't think he's a good player, it's that we are not sure he's a cornerback. We actually think he's more likely to end up at safety than not, and he'd probably be behind Goforth at safety given Goforth's head start in the program. Second, we think Johnny Johnson has the talent to nail down a starting cornerback spot this year. Lastly, we don't think Riley stays at safety beyond this season, if even that long.
Projected 2014 Defensive Backs Depth Chart
CB: Ishmael Adams (RS SO), Marcus Rios (JR), Anthony Jefferson (RS SR), 2014 Frosh
FS: Randall Goforth (JR), Priest Willis (SO), 2014 Frosh
SS: Tahaan Goodman (SO), Tyler Foreman (RS FR)
CB: Johnny Johnson (SO), Fabian Moreau (JR), 2014 Frosh, Justin Combs (RS SO)
Mini-linebacker: Dietrich Riley (RS SR)