Given Tevin McDonald's departure from the program prior to spring practice last month, in addition to the graduation of Andrew Abbott, Sheldon Price, and Aaron Hester, UCLA spent the month of April breaking in an entirely new secondary. The results, as you could imagine, were mixed. UCLA had just three scholarship safeties at its healthiest, and at various points were down to two, which forced Stan McKay to fill in from the mini-linebacker position. McKay, who has done well at mini-linebacker, is not a safety, and looked lost in coverage.
At corner, the depth situation was better, but still dire. Marcus Rios, who was expected to compete for a starting job this year, missed all of spring and will now most likely miss the entire season after undergoing multiple procedures to fix a sinus problem. Fortunately, Ishmael Adams returned after sitting out the majority of last year with a shoulder injury. Combined with Anthony Jefferson's emergence as a contender for a starting spot, UCLA actually got fairly credible play from its corners during camp.
Looking at the situation going forward, with four high-level defensive backs coming in this fall, you could make an argument that not one starting spot was secured in the spring. Based off play alone, we'd say Jefferson made the best argument for going into fall as a real incumbent, but his history of injuries has to play a role in the discussion. At any rate, as we expected going into the spring, very little seems to have been decided in terms of the depth chart.
Anthony Jefferson RS JR: While Dietrich Riley's story is obviously the feel-good story of the year for UCLA, after Riley suffered a very serious neck injury two season ago, Jefferson's story has to be a close runner up. After suffering through a serious back injury that left him unable to walk for a time, and a host of other minor injuries, Jefferson finally found his way back to full health this spring, the results were impressive. He has a nearly perfect cornerback body, with great length and good athleticism, and he was finally able to put it all together for a very nice spring. At various points, he was the only corner on the team who could lock up UCLA's best receivers. He has the physicality to press at the line, and, now that he's healthy, the athletic ability to run with most receivers. If he can stay healthy, we really like his chances of competing for a starting spot in the fall.
Ishmael Adams RS FR: Close behind Jefferson as the best cornerback in camp, Ishmael Adams showed in the first week that he didn't gather much rust while sitting on the bench for most of last year. He has a bit of a spark plug-type body, but his strength and athleticism allows him to play against bigger receivers. After his first week, he did hit a bit of a wall, but still managed to make great plays seemingly every practice. As with Jefferson, we like Adams' chances of competing for a starting spot this year, and at the very least, we could see him as the first defensive back off the bench.
Brandon Sermons RS SR: There were quite a few big surprises in the spring, but Sermons may have been one of the bigger ones. He hasn't shown much up to this point in his UCLA career, but this spring, especially once Riley went down with a shoulder injury, he was impressive. He's better at safety than he ever was at corner, using his physicality and big body to punish receivers. He isn't a great turn and run athlete at corner, but he closes well at safety. With the safeties UCLA is bringing in this fall, we don't think Sermons will be in the mix to start, but if he can build on this spring, he could play a significant contributing role this year.
Fabian Moreau SO: We said last year that Moreau has the physical tools to be a good cornerback, with good hips and athleticism, but just didn't have the experience yet. With a year under his belt, that's still the case. This spring, he still looked pretty raw, and with the emergence of Jefferson and Adams, and the corners coming in this fall, he might quickly be buried on the depth chart. Much will depend on where Priest Willis ends up, but we could see a scenario where Moreau switches positions again, because UCLA will be reluctant to keep his athletic ability on the bench.
Dietrich Riley RS JR: It's almost certainly unfair to say Riley's stock fell this spring, but I created this awful structure in the first spring review and now I need to continue with it. Simply making it back from his neck injury is an incredible sign of dedication from Riley, which should be commended. This spring, suffering a shoulder separation at the end of the first week cost him some valuable reps at safety that he could have used to regain some seasoning. Not to rehash what we've said previously, but we question whether Riley has the coverage skills to excel at safety in the long term. We'd be intrigued to see how he'd do at the mini-linebacker spot, since it seems to fit his skillset a bit better. The coaching staff will likely keep him at safety, though, and you could make an argument that it's necessary because of depth issues.
Where Things Project:
Before spring, we might have guessed that Randall Goforth would be the only starter to secure a spot during the spring. We still think Goforth has a good shot of keeping his spot, since he played well in the spring and the coaching staff likes what he brings to the table, but we'd probably add Jefferson to the mix as a likely starter in the fall. That leaves two spots open.
After the first week of spring, we would have said Adams was a shoe-in for a starting corner spot, but now we're not so sure. He was dominant the first week, and then showed some flaws during the last three weeks, where it seemed like receivers were able to fake him out much easier with double moves and jab steps. He showed enough, though, that he'll almost certainly be in the competition for that spot with Johnny Johnson and Priest Willis, and we still think he has a pretty good chance of being the starter.
Safety is going to be the interesting spot. Riley didn't get as many reps as anyone would have liked this spring and definitely didn't do enough to secure a starting role. Goforth is obviously a returning part-time starter, and will have a leg up on the freshmen, but you have to figure both spots are going to be up for competition to a certain extent. Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman both have a chance of starting in the fall, which we expected to be the case heading into the spring. Right now, we'd probably guess that only one of the two starts, opposite of Goforth. There's also a chance that Willis could move to safety as well, although we'd expect that with the limited depth at corner, Willis may have to spend most of his time this year on the edge.
Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada
Ishmael Adams RS FR
Johnny Johnson FR
Fabian Moreau SO
Tahaan Goodman FR
Dietrich Riley RS JR
Brandon Sermons RS SR
Randall Goforth SO
Tyler Foreman FR
Librado Barocio RS SO
Anthony Jefferson RS JR
Priest Willis FR
Justin Combs RS FR
Spring Review: Defensive Backs
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