Spring Preview: Defensive Backs

UCLA's secondary was actually one of its best units last year, and the Bruins return every starter, but there's enough talent in the two deep to potentially force some adjustments to the lineup...

Last season, one of the biggest question marks entering the year was the secondary. With four new starters, the expectation was that there would be significant growing pains, and that the more physically talented true freshmen would see more time as the year wore on.

To a large extent, neither thing happened. UCLA's starting secondary did very well for most of the year, and the true freshmen who came in last year rarely played, with Tahaan Goodman seeing the most time, followed by Priest Willis, who saw very little. The starting secondary, despite having only one really experienced player in Randall Goforth, was actually much improved over the previous year, which has to be a credit to the coaching of Demetrice Martin.

A Look at Spring

Every one of the starters from last year returns this year, which is a luxury that UCLA has not often had. Where a year ago it was one of the most uncertain positions on the team, the defensive backfield is now one of the most loaded, with talented players waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

This spring should be very interesting because the incumbent starters, despite having what would easily be considered a solid year, are going to be pressed by the talented players Martin and company have recruited over the last few years. Between Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson, Adarius Pickett, and a host of others, there is plenty of talent to press the starting group and turn these position battles into heated ones.

What to Watch For

-- Can Priest Willis rebound from an underwhelming freshman campaign? Few players came into UCLA as touted as Willis, and by and large, he didn't live up to expectations. Much of that can perhaps be attributed to circumstance – Willis was late getting into training camp due to an academic issue and then dealt with a nagging injury early in the year. Still, he didn't look great in games or practices, and actually didn't show great cover instincts, frequently getting beaten by lower level receivers in practice. It may have simply been a confidence issue, but Willis is clearly a player who's going to come into spring practice with something to prove. If he can recapture the momentum he built during high school, he could be one of the candidates to press Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams for playing time at corner (or, if UCLA chooses, he could compete for time at safety, even though he's a corner).

Randall Goforth.
-- How much more upside does Fabian Moreau have? The answer to this may be "a considerable amount". Moreau has only been playing cornerback for a little over a year and a half now, and at times last year he looked like he might have All Pac-12 potential at the position. With a year of starting under his belt now, Moreau could turn into a lockdown corner. He certainly has the build and athleticism that you would want from a top cornerback.

-- Where does Adarius Pickett fit in? Pickett, like fellow incoming freshman Jaleel Wadood, has a good amount of versatility, and might even fit on the offensive side of the ball in the long run. From what we've heard, he'll get his first shot at corner, but if that doesn't work out, he could try safety, slot receiver, or even running back. He'll be one to watch closely during spring practice just to see where he fits best naturally.

-- Can Johnny Johnson look like Ishmael Adams looked last spring? Johnson, if you'll remember, drew comparisons to Adams before he even set foot in San Bernardino, and then he suffered much the same injury and had much the same surgery. Adams, last spring, looked very good, and more or less secured his starting job by the end of April. If Johnson can put together a similar spring, he could be in line to be the nickel corner or even compete for Adams' spot.

-- How is Marcus Rios doing in his recovery? Rios went through a life-threatening illness last year as he battled an infection. He lost a good deal of weight in the process, and has spent the past six months or so trying to regain the weight. While it might be a tall order to expect him to be ready to compete for a starting role this April, considering this might be his first intense practice in a long time, a good showing in April could set him up to compete for playing time when the team hits San Bernardino in August.

Projected Depth Chart for Spring

Cornerback
Fabian Moreau
Priest Willis
Justin Combs

Safety
Anthony Jefferson
Tyler Foreman

Safety
Randall Goforth
Tahaan Goodman
Ron Robinson

Cornerback
Ishmael Adams
Adarius Pickett OR
Johnny Johnson
Marcus Rios

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