How UCLA's Secondary Improved Drastically

The UCLA secondary improved a great deal in 2013, despite starting four new players, and much of that improvement is thanks to obviously improved fundamentals...

Over the next couple of months until spring practice, we'll take a deeper look at a specific aspects of the 2013 season. Today, we'll go over the improvement in the secondary from 2012.

One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2013 season concerned the secondary. After the 2012 season, UCLA lost all four of its starters in the defensive backfield, three to graduation and one to expulsion, leaving the Bruins with a variety of inexperienced, albeit talented, players to fill the holes.

Rather than merely tread water, though, the secondary thrived, improving drastically from the year before despite starting four players with a combined five starts between them—all by Randall Goforth. The way the secondary was able to play this year also leads to the inescapable conclusion that Demetrice Martin might be one of the most valuable coaches on staff.

We should say that it's very difficult to judge a specific unit on a defense via traditional statistical metrics. Generally speaking, too much that goes on during any individual play involves all 11 players on the team. If a team gives up few yards through the air, it might be that it has a good pass defense…or it could be that its run defense is so bad that teams elect to run the ball 75% of the time.

With UCLA's pass defense the last two years, we've attempted to look at some metrics that at least make some sort of sense in determining whether or not the unit improved from year-to-year. After a little internal debate, we settled on a few that seemed obvious: yards per pass play against (when the opposing team throws the ball, how many yards are they averaging), big play percentage against (how often, as a percentage of total plays, does a team get a 20+ yard gain against your team), and red zone touchdown percentage against (in the red zone, how often does your team give up a touchdown).

Fabian Moreau.
We settled on these three statistics because they paint at least a partial picture of what a pass defense is designed to do: keep big plays from happening. Because yards per pass play against factor in incomplete passes, we figured that was a good statistic for measuring how well UCLA's corners and safeties do in pure coverage. With big play percentage against, we figured this was the best metric for figuring out what kind of angles the safeties and corners are taking on ball carriers, and how often they're breaking up big pass plays deep. Red zone touchdown percentage against is probably the least significant of the three, only because run plays that result in touchdowns from 5 yards and in have very little to do with the secondary, but we wanted to include something to judge the secondary on covering the end zone.

In every one of these areas, UCLA's pass defense was drastically improved than the year before. In 2012, the Bruins gave up 63 big plays in 1040 total plays over the year, for a big play percentage against of just over 6%. In 2013, UCLA cut that number drastically, giving up just 45 big plays in 990 total plays, for a percentage of 4.5%. It was even obvious to naked eye observation this year that the secondary was much more fundamentally sound in terms of taking good paths to ball carriers, wrapping up on impact, and playing the ball in the air on long throws.

In yards per pass play allowed, the Bruins improved by almost a full yard, giving up 6.5 yards per play in 2013 as opposed to 7.3 in 2012, which is a particularly shocking statistic because the number of pass breakups and passes defended actually decreased in 2013, which would lead you to at least one conclusion that many teams elected to pass underneath more because of much improved coverage downfield.

Randall Goforth.
And then, in terms of red zone scoring percentage, teams scored touchdowns on 69% of red zone opportunities in 2012, which decreased to 62% in 2013. Again, because we're just drawing the raw statistics rather than delving into the game-by-game play-by-play from each game the last two years, this isn't a hugely significant measure, but it does lend at least some more credence to the idea that the pass defense was improved.

Obviously, in the traditional metrics, UCLA improved a great deal as well, ranking third in the Pac-12 in passing defense per game (217.6), touchdowns passed against (16), and third down percentage defense (34.9%) after ranking 8th in passing defense (250.6), 10th in touchdown passes allowed (27), and 4th in 3rd down defense (32.8%) in 2012.

Martin clearly improved the defense a great deal from his first year to his second year and, again, the shocking thing is that it improved so much with so little experience. Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester, Andrew Abbott, and Tevin McDonald were multi-year starters, yet when Martin plugged in his own guys that he had been working with for two years, the secondary improved by leaps and bounds.

Particularly when you factor in that the secondary comprised a guy who was in his first full year—ever-- playing the position (Fabian Moreau), a guy coming off season ending shoulder surgery (Ishmael Adams), and a guy who has virtually never been healthy at UCLA (Anthony Jefferson), the job Martin did is even more astonishing.

With the talent that UCLA brought in last year, and the class that Martin is getting ready to sign in 2014, there's every reason to expect that the unit will continue to improve over the next several years—in large part thanks to the recruiting efforts and coaching acumen of Martin.

Martin with UCLA commit Denzel Fisher last summer.


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