With fall football camp starting later today, we thought we'd finish out our preview series with a look at the key position battles on the team and how we think they might end up, based off some educated guesswork.
Left Defensive End
Main contenders: Eddie Vanderdoes, Brandon Willis, Keenan Graham
Darkhorse: Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Importance: It may sound a little strange, but the outcome of this position battle could be the most important key to UCLA's defense this year. With the youth in UCLA's secondary, it is absolutely imperative that the front seven be close to dominant this year. It might even be important for UCLA to be able to pass rush with just three or four players to compensate for the questionable defensive backfield.
Our take: That's why it's extremely important for Eddie Vanderdoes to be as good as advertised. Vanderdoes, playing defensive tackle in high school, commanded double and triple teams on nearly every snap, and it's that Vanderdoes that could push UCLA's defense over the top this season. With three very talented returning starters among the linebackers, a returning starter in Cassius Marsh at right end, and either a returning starter at nose tackle or the talented sophomore who beat him out, the Bruins have the building blocks for what could be one of the best front sevens in the conference—as long as they can get an adequate replacement for Datone Jones on the left side. For our money, the only healthy player with the potential to fill that role is Vanderdoes. Neither Willis nor Graham have the kind of bulk and explosion of Vanderdoes, nor the ability to command multiple blockers.
Obviously, if Owamagbe Odighizuwa is healthy, that changes the dynamic, but from what we've heard, Odighizuwa has been able to do very little in terms of working out since injuring his hips, so there's a chance that he might have some considerable work to do to get back to where he was at the end of last year. Owa tweeted this morning that he's not even participating in San Bernadino, so it's looking more and more like he's headed for a redshirt season.
Who we think wins it: Vanderdoes
Main Contenders: Ellis McCarthy, Seali'I Epenesa
Darkhorse: Eli Ankou
Importance: Last year, Epenesa was the unsung hero of UCLA's defense, frequently eating up a double team, which helped Anthony Barr and Datone Jones rack up their incredible statistics. By the end of the year, though, the nose tackle was only playing about half of all defensive snaps, since UCLA went much more to its nickel package (where the two defensive ends become the only down linemen) to compensate for the lack of great man-to-man defenders in the secondary. This year, with what the coaches hope is better talent in the secondary, UCLA could very well use its nose tackle more, which could make the position even more important.
Our take: We'd heard after spring that McCarthy, despite having not taken a snap in anger since fall of last year, might be the front runner for the nose tackle spot thanks to his hard work in the offseason on his body, and the considerable dropoff in Epenesa's conditioning in the offseason. Since then, Epenesa has gotten back into shape, so the situation is once again a bit murky. McCarthy provides something that Epenesa doesn't: pure size and strength. Now that he's in better shape, you can see truly just how mammoth McCarthy is. At 6'4, and a strong-looking 320, you'd be hard pressed to find an offensive line that wouldn't want to double team him.
The tricky part is that, really, we haven't seen him healthy in over a year. We have no real idea how well he's going to play nose tackle, since we only saw a few snaps of him playing it last year when he had a hurt knee. Epenesa, though, we know has the ability to play the position at a fairly high level, and now that he's in shape, we suspect that he'll do enough to secure the job for the second year in a row.
Who we think wins it: Epenesa
Main Contenders: Asiantii Woulard, Jerry Neuheisel, T.J. Millweard
Darkhorse: Mike Fafaul
Importance: The most important player on a football team is quarterback, and with UCLA's history, you could make an argument that the second most important player on the team is the backup quarterback. Last year, UCLA had a security blanket in Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, both experienced starters who could fill in when Brett Hundley tweaked his ankle or suffered some other minor bump. This year, if Hundley goes down, the depth chart is genuinely concerning, filled out with four freshmen, one of whom is a walkon. Determining an adequate backup for Hundley might be the most important development on offense this fall.
Our take: If Woulard is not more talented than Neuheisel and Millweard right now, then UCLA is in for a world of hurt for several years to come. Luckily, it appears from reports that Woulard is indeed a cut above the other contenders. Physically, he's impressive, moreso than either Neuheisel and Millweard, and simply basing off of film, he has a stronger arm than either player. We've heard reports, too, that he's a bit of a playbook junkie, so the mental side of the game may not be an issue. However, most of this is conjecture at this point, and it remains to be seen exactly what UCLA got in the late commitment from Florida. It seems like it's already been years that Neuheisel and Millweard have been in the program. Neuheisel may already be hitting his ceiling, with below-average arm strength and a thinly built body, but we know that the coaches like him for his knowledge of the playbook. Millweard has more upside, as he's shown over the last year, developing from a real project a year ago to someone who you could eventually see competing for a starting job a couple of years from now.
So, our guess is that Woulard will be considerably more talented than either of his two main contenders. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that he'll win the second string job, though. As many have opined on the message board, UCLA might be sensitive about burning Woulard's redshirt for a series or two when Hundley twists his ankle. If there's a situation where Hundley actually has to miss a game or two, then our guess is that Woulard would get the nod.
Who we think wins it: Woulard, but Neuheisel/Millweard plays in spot situations.
Left Outside Linebacker
Main Contenders: Kenny Orjioke, Aaron Wallace, Myles Jack
Darkhorse: Deon Hollins
Importance: Honestly, whoever wins this job has it easy. First, no matter who it is, he'll likely be an upgrade over last year. Second, whoever it is will probably get some free shots at quarterbacks and running backs with Anthony Barr and the defensive line eating up blockers. Of course, getting a talented player in at this position will help to build continuity for the following year when UCLA loses two starters in the unit, but given the quality of the three players really contending for the position, that shouldn't be a problem.
Our take: This might be the most competitive race in the fall. Kenny Orjioke has the physical gifts, already nearing Barr proportions as just an 18 year old sophomore. He's still learning the position, since he spent most of his high school years playing safety, but the natural strength, agility, and speed is impressive. Aaron Wallace, though, has long been a favorite of ours since his days on the scout team his freshman year. Wallace received some playing time last year, and looked good in limited time. This spring, he held the first string reps down for all of camp, and looked dependable at worst. With Orjioke, there's probably more upside, but Wallace might be the better choice to start out with.
None of that is meant to discount the potential of Jack. The true freshman has the athletic ability to immediately step in and compete for playing time—the issue is that he's stepping into the most stacked unit on the team. Still, we could see a scenario where he's so impressive that he sneaks in front of both Orjioke and Wallace—leaving them to continue their battle next year for Barr's departed right outside linebacker position.
Who we think wins it: Orjioke
Main Contenders: Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Craig Lee
Darkhorse: Malcolm Jones
Importance: None of the contenders for the job are going to be able to play the way Johnathan Franklin played last year, since Franklin played like a video game version of himself for about 75% of last season. The good news is that none of them have to, as long as the offensive line is somewhat improved from last year, which we suspect it will be. With a year of experience for Hundley, too, you have to imagine that the quarterback-centric offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will shift the emphasis of the offense away from the run game. That being said. UCLA would love to lock down a starter for the next two years this August.
Our take: Right now, James has to be the front runner for the job. With three years of experience at UCLA, and a good spring camp where he showed more confidence as a runner, the situation seems perfect for James to finally put everything together for a nice season. Perkins was underwhelming this spring after wowing most observers during fall camp, but we still like his combination of quickness and burst. Lee, now that he's eligible, could compete with both James and Perkins for the starting job, but we have to imagine that it might be a tall order for the true freshman, especially after all he's been through just to get into school.
We think the race will come down to those three simply because they fit Mazzone's style of running back much better than, say, Jones. While the big back had a nice spring where he finally showed the consistent desire to lay hits on defenders, we don't think he'll have much of a role beyond short-yardage situations.
Who we think wins it: James
Fall Camp Preview: Position Battle Primer
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