Earlier today, we posted the premature offensive depth chart for 2014. Now, we turn our attention to the defensive depth chart for next year. On the surface, with Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, and Cassius Marsh all graduating, it would appear to the naked eye that UCLA's defense may be in a bit of a rebuilding mode. In going through the depth chart, though, it becomes more and more evident that the talent that Mora and company have brought in over the last two years should actually give UCLA's defense a chance, on the whole, to be better than it was in 2013.
There are certainly some losses on the defensive line. UCLA loses Cassius Marsh, Seali'I Epenesa, and Keenan Graham. By the end of the year, though, Epenesa was barely playing, and Graham's playing time had also diminished some. Looking at Marsh and Graham, though, it's pretty obvious that the defensive line will lose that speed element on the edge that it had the last two years. That doesn't necessarily mean the defensive line will be worse next year, though, just that it'll be different. Between Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark, Ellis McCarthy, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, the Bruins should have a top four rotation that's among the most talented in the conference. Adding in a now-healthy Kylie Fitts, a now-healthy Brandon Tuliaupupu (who compares favorably to Epenesa), a now-healthy Eli Ankou, and a now-healthy Ian Taubler means the Bruins should have enough depth and top end talent along the defensive line to not have too much dropoff from the loss of Marsh. Some notes:
*Getting Odighizuwa back is huge. While he's not as quick or fast as Marsh, who almost looked like a linebacker at times, he does provide more of that element than the other defensive linemen, who could all, save Taubler, play nose tackle in a pinch. Having a healthy Owa on the edge could give UCLA a pass rusher much like Datone Jones for the Bruins in 2012. If both hips are close to healthy, which we'd assume after watching him do work on the practice field a few times in the last couple of months, his return could prove key for the defensive line maintaining or exceeding what it did this year.
*We've listed three starters, with McCarthy backing up at each spot, but, really, we see each of those top four guys playing pretty evenly, and could see either McCarthy or Vanderdoes starting at the other end spot opposite Owa. McCarthy came on a great deal at the end of the season, and with an added year of weight training, should be in the best shape of his life come the start of the 2014 season. Vanderdoes, who got a slow start to the preseason, should be a force next season after a full offseason without distractions.
*Clark's emergence as a force at nose tackle, to the point where he continued to eat away at the playing time of a returning senior starter in Epenesa, is a potential game changer for UCLA's defense. Clark has versatility at nose tackle, with the kind of short field quickness that allows him to play in more situations than simple run-stuffing. Combined with Myles Jack's versatility at linebacker, you'd have to imagine that Clark's ability to play on both run and passing downs should allow UCLA to play less nickel and more base defense next year.
*Fitts, from what we've heard, didn't re-injure his wrist, which he hurt during his senior year of high school. Instead, the surgery was to remove the plates from his wrist, which were diminishing the mobility of the joint. With an offseason of weight-lifting and further work on his body, combined with the improved wrist mobility, he could be a candidate to break into that four-man rotation next year.
*Tuliaupupu, if you remember, was the first string nose tackle last spring, over Epenesa. He still looks good physically, and hasn't put on bad weight in his year off, so he could also find his way into the rotation.
*As of now, it's difficult to project who UCLA will get in the class of 2014 along the defensive line, but it looks like, going forward, UCLA needs to get more of the quick end types than the big, nose tackle types. On roster, right now, you'd say that UCLA has five guys who can play nose tackle in a pinch (Vanderdoes, McCarthy, Clark, Tuliaupupu, and Ankou), but not much in the way of that Marsh/Graham mold of quicker end. It might simply be the case that UCLA is opting for more bulk on the line, with defensive tackle-types at all three spots, but it bears watching. As of now, though, we'd project UCLA picks up another nose tackle type in Ainuu Taua, who, while a bit undersized, has the talent to compete for playing time early.
Eddie Vanderdoes (6'4, 305) SO
Ellis McCarthy (6'4, 330) JR
Eli Ankou (6'3, 290) RS SO OR
Ian Taubler (6'4, 257) RS SO
Kenny Clark (6'2, 305) SO
Brandon Tuliaupupu (6'1, 286) RS JR
Ainuu Taua FR
Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6'3, 268) RS SR
Kylie Fitts (6'4, 270) SO
Here's where, if you were really inclined to say that UCLA would take a hit, the hit would be taken. The Bruins lose starters Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr, and also lose Aramide Olaniyan (who's graduating early) and Isaiah Bowens, who provided some depth. Barr is obviously a huge loss. With him, UCLA loses its best pass rusher and, probably more importantly, its best weapon for containing running quarterbacks. Barr was generally very good defending the zone read. Zumwalt is a loss, as well, but he faded down the stretch, and UCLA might be able to replace him with a player who plays with a bit more discipline. In the end, though, Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack returning should keep this unit playing at a pretty high level, and the players we project to fill into the other starting roles should be able to provide contributions within shouting distance of Zumwalt and Barr's. Notes:
*As you can see, we don't project Kendricks going into the NFL Draft. While he's a very good college player, and is one of the best tacklers in the Pac-12, he doesn't have the kind of measurables to warrant leaving school early. He could have an All Pac-12 kind of senior season, the likes of which could propel him to possibly being picked higher in the draft than would otherwise be warranted.
*Here's the crazy thing about Jack: he put together one of the freakiest, most athletic freshman seasons in UCLA history, and there's still some work he can do on his body. Looking at him, you could easily see him getting a little bit leaner and stronger, which might even improve his already excellent speed for a linebacker. After a year of learning Pac-12 offenses, how to cover receivers, and learning several different positions on defense, he's almost certainly going to be a better player next year. While he won't replace Barr, because they're not the same kind of player, he provides his own sort of unequalled skillset to the defense. He played both inside and out this year, but with UCLA's depth on the inside, we'll say he sticks at the outside position next year, and adds more of a pass rush to his repertoire.
*The man who we project getting the heavy task of actually replacing Barr will be Kenny Orjioke. Orjioke is, physically, the closest thing to a Barr clone UCLA has. The trick for him has been learning the defense, and learning how to play linebacker after growing up a safety. His athletic tools, though, are tremendous, and if the light bulb comes on, he could be a force off the edge.
*On the inside, we project Isaac Savaiinaea to get the job at Jack linebacker after Jordan Zumwalt's departure. Even though Savaiinaea is being groomed as Kendricks' replacement at Mike linebacker when Kendricks leaves, we have to figure that Savaiinaea's savvy and athleticism will allow him to force his way into the lineup. Unlike Zumwalt, who could be a bit of a wildcard, having Savaiinaea on the field is like having another Kendricks—he's a guy who should be able to help with the calls, and one you can virtually guarantee will be in the right gap at the right time. And, again, with another year removed from ballooning up to 260 pounds, he should be in increasingly good shape.
*After their contributions on special teams, we have to assume that Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge are going to have a chance to break into the rotation at linebacker. It's a funny thing about Brown—after the first day of fall camp, we said in our practice report that he looked more like a linebacker, but heard from the coaching staff that he was a safety and wouldn't be playing linebacker. Sure enough, within a couple of months, Brown was playing linebacker. Not that he's anywhere near that talent level, but Brown is the closest thing, in terms of versatility and body type, that UCLA has to Myles Jack, besides Jack. It'll be interesting to see if he's able to add weight this offseason.
*We're projecting that UCLA will add Cameron Griffin, Dwight Williams, and Kenny Young as their 2014 recruiting class. Griffin looks like he has the physical tools to play at this level, but will probably need at least a year to acclimate to real football after playing in a pretty poor league in high school. We'd project at this point Young will have the talent to crack the two deep at inside linebacker and play a role similar to Savaiinaea's this year.
*Aaron Porter was moved to fullback, and probably wouldn't project very highly in next year's depth chart even if he moved back to linebacker.
Kenny Orjioke (6'4, 240) JR
Aaron Wallace (6'2, 240) RS JR
Cameron Griffin FR
Eric Kendricks (6'0, 228) RS SR
Kenny Young FR
Cameron Judge (6'1, 218) SO
Taylor Lagace (6'0, 208) RS SO Jack Linebacker
Isaac Savaiinaea (6'2, 230) SO
Ryan Hofmeister (6'0, 222) RS SR
Dwight Williams FR
Myles Jack (6'1, 225) SO
Jayon Brown (6'0, 208) SO
Deon Hollins (6'0, 216) SO
After being crushed by departures after last season, the secondary gets off pretty lightly with graduation this season, losing just Brandon Sermons, who played the third corner role most of the year, and Stan McKay, who didn't play much in his final year in the program. UCLA returns its entire starting secondary, the entire talented freshman class from a year ago, a healthy Marcus Rios, and is poised to bring in another talented recruiting class in 2014. With that level of talent in the program, we'll go ahead and say that the secondary should be very good to elite in 2014. Some notes:
*While UCLA returns four starters in the secondary, it's probably safe to say that no one's spot is safe heading into the offseason. That may sound crazy, because you'd have to argue that UCLA's secondary just had its best season in years, but between the talent coming in next year, and the freshmen waiting in the wings this season, the incumbent starters should get a great deal of competition throughout spring and fall next season.
|Ishmael Adams & Anthony Jefferson.|
*In that vein, we could also see Mossi Johnson, who was projected to offense before he grey shirted after injuring his knee, moved to safety to give UCLA more depth there.
*John Plattenburg, Adarius Pickett, Johnny Johnson, and Marcus Rios all have the talent to come in and compete for starting jobs, even to the point where any of them could beat out Ishmael Adams or Fabian Moreau. We'll project that all starters remain the same, but there's a good chance that changes before the start of next year.
*The level of competition in the secondary could be among the best on the entire team next year, and should play a role in elevating the play of whoever winds up on top of the mountain.
*We'll anticipate that Antreal Allen elects to look elsewhere, since it's always up in the air whether a kid from the south eventually makes his way out west.
Fabian Moreau (6'0, 193) JR
John Plattenburg (5'11, 180) FR OR
Denzel Fisher (6'2, 170) FR
Anthony Jefferson (6'1, 185) RS SR
Tyler Foreman (6'2, 198) OR
Priest Willis (6'2, 185) SO
Ron Robinson (6'2, 195) FR
Randall Goforth (5'10, 190) JR
Tahaan Goodman (6'2, 189) SO
Mossi Johnson FR
Jojo McIntosh FR
Ishmael Adams (5'8, 190) RS SO
Adarius Pickett (6'0, 185) OR
Johnny Johnson (5'9, 181) RS FR OR
Marcus Rios (5'11, 180) RS SO
If you're grading the units, based off the early projection, with no big surprises in terms of commitments, you'd have to say the secondary will be improved from a year ago. Even though we think there's a chance that the linebackers are as good as last year with a reasonable amount of development and a further leap from Jack, we'll say the linebackers should be slightly worse. We thing the defensive line, even without Marsh, Graham, and Epenesa, should actually be better, with the improvement among the freshmen. All in all, we'll say that the defense, in general, should be at least as good as last year, when it was the best it has been in quite a long time. Combined with the offense, which should be greatly improved, the combination of both units should give UCLA its best team on both sides of the ball in this century.