Fall football camp is right around the corner.
To kick off our camp previews, we took a look at the status of UCLA's offensive line heading into August, analyzed the unsettled running back position after the loss of Johnathan Franklin, broke down the quarterback position, discussed how UCLA stacks up at receiver, dove into the status of the defensive line heading into the fall, and previewed the linebackers, the most stacked unit on the team. Now, for our final preview, we'll try to figure out which four players have the best chance of replacing last year's starting secondary.
Three players graduated from last year's starting secondary, which was expected. What was unexpected was Tevin McDonald's suspension during bowl practices and ultimate expulsion from the team. The rising redshirt junior safety did not have an exceptional sophomore year, but his experience could have been a helpful guidepost for what promises to be an unusually young secondary.
Luckily, UCLA signed a class of defensive backs in February that, man-for-man, might have more talent than all four of the recently departed. The class, comprised of two cornerbacks (Johnny Johnson and Priest Willis) and two safeties (Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman), is arguably one of UCLA's more talented defensive back classes in recent memory, and all four have the potential to step in immediately and compete for playing time, which, given the situation, might be necessary.
Willis, who didn't sign immediately on Signing Day due to academics, had some further hiccups with his academics which prevented him from joining the team for the summer. From what we've heard, though, it's expected that he should hear good news from the NCAA very soon regarding his eligibility, and he'll be with the team for fall camp.
In spring, Anthony Jefferson emerged as a legitimate starting cornerback option. For once injury-free, the redshirt junior was arguably UCLA's best defensive back in spring, and by the midway point of camp, was a first string corner. Ishmael Adams, who was coming off his own shoulder injury, also showed flashes of brilliance, and could be a candidate for the other starting cornerback job. If you'll remember, he was the first string nickel corner last year before undergoing shoulder surgery early on.
Marcus Rios, who played most of last year despite a fungal infection that was potentially life-threatening, has mostly eliminated the infection, but will still almost certainly miss the entire season. Rios still has the PICC line inserted in his arm, which prevents him from working out. In our last conversation with him, Rios said that he expected to be fully cleared by December, so he'll most likely redshirt.
Dietrich Riley, who was attempting to make his comeback after suffering a serious neck injury in 2011, was forced to medically retire this offseason after never gaining full medical clearance for contact. Riley was the starting strong safety to begin spring, and the loss takes away even more experience from the unit. In response to the loss, Coach Mora announced that Stan McKay, who had previously moved to mini-linebacker, would move back to strong safety.
We heard that Tyler Foreman really impressed the coaches with his dedication during the offseason, attending more practices than any of the incoming freshmen and seeming to be like a sponge, watching every defensive back drill intently. We've heard that he could have a good chance of winning a starting spot at either safety position.
Mora likes to say, during these camp environments, that you could write the depth chart in water, and at no position is that more true than in the secondary. Anthony Jefferson and Ishmael Adams were the first string corners in the spring, but they'll likely be pushed heavily by the incoming freshmen and Fabian Moreau. Jefferson, who looked very good in the spring, has suffered several injuries throughout his career, including a herniated disc two season ago as well as a serious ankle injury. If he can maintain his health, which is no guarantee, he'd be a good bet to start this season.
Adams looked very good to start spring, but faded after the second week, likely hitting a bit of a wall after not playing for months. Though undersized, he matches up well against bigger receivers thanks to his strength. After winning the first string nickel job last year, it's clear that the coaches like what he brings to the table, so he'll most likely have a better than even chance of locking down the other starting corner job.
Safety is where things get a bit tricky. McKay will make his return to the position, but we're a bit skeptical of how he'll do. The reason why he was a good candidate to move to linebacker is that his cover skills were never particularly advanced. He looked lost at times this spring when asked to move back to safety, so it'll likely be a tall order for him to start this season.
Randall Goforth is probably the obvious guy to start at free safety, since he actually started games last year, but he's no sure thing. Goforth had some good moments and bad last year, and didn't look like he ran away with the job in spring. His feel for the position needs work, as oftentimes last year he took poor angles at tackles or was caught flat footed by receivers. We'd guess he'll get the initial crack at free safety, but the situation will be fluid.
Fabian Moreau impressed the coaches last year with his athleticism, and actually saw a bit of playing time toward the end of the year. Moreau, shockingly, had never played much cornerback prior to last year, but showed fluid hips and good instincts for the position. He spent most of the spring as the second string corner behind Jefferson, and will fight with the incoming freshmen for a position in the depth chart.
Brandon Sermons ran the best 40 on the team in offseason workouts, and actually had a good spring. With this being his senior year, there's a chance that the light will turn on for him and, with the depth chart being completely fluid, he may force his way into the safety depth chart.
Unlike most of the other positions on the team, there isn't a true, surefire starter that you can name heading into camp. On the defensive line, you know Cassius Marsh will start. On the offensive line, you know Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jake Brendel will start. At quarterback, you know Mike Fafaul will leap to the fore and snag the job.
The secondary is different, and the biggest reason for that is the incoming class of freshmen. Willis, Johnson, Foreman, and Goodman all have the potential to start immediately. With no returning full-time starters from last year, it's a virtual guarantee that each of the freshmen will have every opportunity to earn a starting role.
So, now, we have to make some educated guesses. Right now, of the freshmen, we'd say that the two with the best shot at starting this year are Foreman and Goodman. The cornerback position, with the play of Adams and Jefferson, got a bit more settled in the spring, and we have to figure that both have a better than even shot at starting this year, which might be a roadblock for Johnson and Willis.
With the safety spots, Goforth hasn't done such an exceptional job that his position is untouchable, and, at the strong safety position, there really isn't anyone with a strong claim for the job. If we had to guess, we'd say that Foreman will have a good chance of winning the strong safety position, and that Goodman will compete heavily with Goforth for the free safety position.
There is a wildcard in that Willis, as we've speculated before, could switch to safety at some point in his career. We know that the plan is for him to start out this year as a cornerback, and, if we had to guess, we'd say he'll most likely play out the year at that position. Right now, UCLA only has four other corners who are ready to play at this level, and it's probably more important to have five corners than it is to have five safeties, especially with the way UCLA uses its mini-linebackers.
At this point, we'd say it's extremely likely that one freshman will start in the secondary about 50/50 that two freshmen will start, and extremely unlikely that more than two of the freshmen will start. Feel free to set your own betting lines.
The Final Word on the Secondary
Last year, UCLA's secondary spent much of the year as the whipping boy for the defense, which was somewhat unjustified. The coaching staff didn't do a great job of putting the secondary in a position to succeed early in the year, matching up Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester in too many one-on-one situations, which was not their strength. After UCLA went to more of a coverage, nickel-based scheme about halfway through the year, the secondary had fewer blemishes.
That being said, the secondary, as a whole, did not play particularly well last year. McDonald had a poor year, Hester and Price struggled with the demands of the new defense, and Andrew Abbott spent too much of the year playing away from his strengths.
Going forward, while UCLA loses a good amount of experience with those four players leaving school, the Bruins might now have better talent at each of the positions. Jefferson, based off of spring ball, looked like he'll have a chance to be a better one-on-one corner than either Hester or Price, and Adams looks like he might also have that potential. At safety, the incoming freshmen will help to drastically bolster the talent level of the unit.
Fall camp will be interesting, simply to see where each of the new freshmen slot into the depth chart, and whether players like Jefferson and Adams can hold off those talented newcomers before the start of the season. The unit is extremely shallow, with just ten scholarship defensive backs available this season. As such, the secondary will likely experience some growing pains throughout camp, and likely well into the season.
Taking the long view, though, it's clear that UCLA's secondary for the next several years will be more talented than it's been in years, and that should be an exciting thought for UCLA fans.
Secondary Depth Chart Going Into Fall Camp
Left Cornerback: Ishmael Adams RS Fr. Johnny Johnson Fr., Justin Combs RS Fr.
Strong Safety: Tyler Foreman Fr., Stan McKay RS Sr., Librado Barocio RS Jr.
Free Safety: Randall Goforth So., Tahaan Goodman Fr., Brandon Sermons RS Sr.
Right Cornerback: Anthony Jefferson RS Jr., Priest Willis Fr., Fabian Moreau So.
Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs
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