It needed to; it lacked talent and just plain bodies, enough to get through a season.
But things have changed.
Going into Jim Mora's third season, the depth chart doesn't just have bodies, but talented ones. In just two years Mora has miraculously changed UCLA from a program that, in recent years, struggled to field enough players in spring practice and was looking down the bench even in fall, to a program that is pretty deeply talented.
Here's a sign that things have changed in Los Angeles: USC is telling recruits that UCLA has too much talent and that they should come to USC for a better chance at immediate playing time.
If you could time travel, and the 2011 version of yourself could travel to spring 2014 and you read this on BRO, you would think you were completely in an alternate universe.
We have occasionally done stories of this kind in spring before – projecting what incoming freshmen would probably play in fall. It used to consist of a pretty sizeable list, even just recently. But it's probably pretty safe to say that Mora has built some talent and depth into the UCLA football program, to the point that for the 2014 season true freshmen might not be played at the rate they have been.
Coming away from Spring Practice, we have a better grasp of UCLA's talent and depth chart heading into the 2014 season, and we can more easily project what 2014 incoming recruits have the best chances of playing this fall.
Those With the Best Chance to Play
Zach Whitley, Linebacker – Yeah, this is a bit of a cheat since he enrolled early and participated in spring practice. The door is ajar for a true freshman linebacker to play, since there is a little a question mark at linebacker depth. It will be more than just ajar if Aaron Wallace, the redshirt sophomore who didn't participate in spring practice due to what we've heard was an academic issue, doesn't return for fall (We've heard he most likely will). Whitley looked overwhelmed for most of spring practice, but he also flashed the athleticism and physical maturity that would give him an edge in being able to carve out some playing time in 2014. It also matters what formation UCLA uses as its base defense – the 4-2-5 or the 3-4-4 because, you would think, he'd have more chance of playing time in the 3-4-4. The coaches used him inside and outside during spring, just to see where he might fit, and he was clearly more suited to play inside. That could help him, or hurt him (again depending on the formation), but we think it will probably help him. Even if UCLA does utilize the 4-2-5 quite a bit, it's going to need depth among its two linebackers, especially with the health of Eric Kendricks having been a consistent issue. Even if there isn't a great deal of time at linebacker for 2014, and UCLA stays incredibly healthy, we foresee Whitley not redshirting, with Mora wanting to get him on the field, at least in special teams, to get him a feel for the game, so he's well-prepared to step into a bigger role as a sophomore. Having participated in spring practice gives Whitley a huge advantage toward playing this fall.
Matt Dickerson, Defensive End. There is some room for playing time along UCLA's defensive line, especially with the way the defense is going to such a specialist approach. There was some available playing time at defensive end in spring, mostly because Eddie Vanderdoes sat out with an injury, but he's expected to be 100% by fall (actually he's supposed to be cleared by June). Still, with how many guys Defensive Line Coach Angus McClure likes to use for specific roles, there is still a chance for a newcomer to get some PT. Dickerson is our choice since he's the most physically ready, even though he'd have to be fully recovered from a back injury that kept him out for some of his senior season. There is also a very real chance that Zach Vinci, the walk-on transfer from Colgate, will see time, looking solid in spring. UCLA experimented with Owamagbe Odighizuwa at the stand-up DE/LB, the Anthony Barr spot, which can drop into coverage, and if he actually does play that for a portion of the time in the fall, there would be a need for more guys on the defensive line who can play with their hand down.
Najee Toran, Offensive Guard. Toran, like his high school teammate Whitley, enrolled early and participated in spring practice. He really flashed early, but we think the rigors of spring got to him by the second half of April. Still, Toran looked good for coming in and playing in spring as a high school senior; he looked especially aggressive and violent. If UCLA gets Simon Goines back at right tackle, and moves Malcolm Bunche to starting left guard, that will move Toran down the depth chart. But even if that doesn't happen, we think Toran makes the two-deep. That might not mean he would be the first off the bench at left guard, but it probably puts him among the top two back-up options at guard, and in recent years that would be good enough to get you playing time on UCLA's offensive line due to injuries.
Austin Roberts, Receiver. We had previously thought back in February that Roberts, because of his physical development, would be the most likely receiver to play in 2014. We changed our opinion a bit after watching spring practice, thinking Lasley might have a slightly better chance since it's clear UCLA is looking for guys to fill the speed/elusiveness role and has less of a need in 2014 for the bigger, possession type. Roberts still, though, might have the best chance to slot in as the #2 Y behind Duarte, even though Johnson was being used as a Y exclusively. Roberts will have to prove that he's that type of receiver in fall, and we think he is. In fact, we think the comparison to Duarte might prove to be very apt.
Close, but Not Quite There
Kenny Young, Linebacker. Before Zach Whitley did the whirlwind quick commitment in January, we would have pegged Kenny Young as the linebacker most likely to immediately contribute. We still think he has a chance, but will guess that he'll probably slot in behind Whitley on the depth chart now. We saw him at spring practice in April and, although he looks good physically, he still looks a bit young compared to the college players on Spaulding Field and could benefit from a year in weight training.
Alex Van Dyke, Receiver. At 6-5, Van Dyke offers a change-up at the wide receiver spot that no one else on the roster can. The question will be whether he strong enough to stand the rigors of playing receiver as a true freshman. We've heard he's up to about 215, but that's still not a great deal of weight distributed across a 6-5 frame. We'll guess he'll redshirt, but leave open the possibility that he shows he can play immediately and the UCLA coaches want to utilize him for his mismatch potential.
Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Defensive End. Tuioti-Mariner might be the steal of the 2014 class, especially if you listen to Scout.com's Scott Kennedy, who is effusive in his praise and projection of the defensive end from St. John Bosco. He is a very good athlete, and even though we think he's going to be at a handicap physically as a true freshman, as most would be at defensive end, that athleticism might flash in fall practice to the point that Angus McClure finds a role for him. UCLA is looking for pass rushers, and Tuioti-Mariner might be able to fulfill the role that Keenan Graham did last year as a situational pass rush specialist.
Most Likely Will Redshirt
Aaron Sharp, Quarterback. Someone on the message board wrote that Sharp is kind of the forgotten man of the 2014 recruiting class, mostly because 2015 QB commit Josh Rosen has taken up so much of the spotlight and Sharp is from Texas, so we don't know him very well. But those who do know him say Sharp is an exceptional athlete at about 6-3, who can really run. Like with all true freshman quarterbacks in recent years (Devin Fuller, T.J. Millweard, Asiantii Woulard), we'll probably be able to determine whether he has a chance at quarterback after watching him throw in one practice at San Bernardino. Even if it's a longshot, we think Sharp is going to be given a complete chance to be a quarterback, at least the 2014 season, which means he's almost certainly redshirting. In fact, he might be the incoming freshman most destined for a redshirt. For this not to happen a couple of things would have to happen: This fall, Sharp would have to choose to make a change to, say, wide receiver, and he'd have to be good enough to make the pretty deep receiver rotation in 2014. If we had to guess, we think that's probably where his eventual future is at UCLA, as with Fuller, but like we said, we don't know Sharp, and it would be a very pleasant surprise if he shows in fall he can really throw the ball and has the potential to play quarterback at UCLA.
Kolton Miller, Offensive Lineman. Miller came to watch UCLA's spring practice and physically he was impressive. Most impressive is that he looked a legit 6-8, and the fact he had a good frame and wasn't sloppy. But he looked like he'd need some time developing in the weight room. With the depth at tackle for 2014, it'd take a huge outbreak of injuries for Miller to see the field most likely – unless of course he's stunningly good in San Bernardino.
Nathan Starks, Running Back. Starks has a chance to play, since physically he's pretty developed, and is considered a talented tailback, so there's always a chance he comes in and makes an impact. But there is so much experience at the tailback spot for fall, we think it would take someone falling out of the current depth chart to give him a shot.
Ainuu Taua, Defensive Tackle. We thought in February that Taua would have a pretty good shot at playing in 2014, and it's not out of the question. UCLA has decent depth on the DL, but there is a little opportunity. Taua, though, we think is going to need to do some work on his body, looking like he's added some bad weight in the last couple of months, and we think that will hold him back from playing in 2014.
Cameron Griffin, Linebacker. Griffin is physically and athletically gifted, but coming from a small school you'd have to expect he'll experience perhaps the most culture shock of any true freshman. He's pretty raw, and just beginning to learn the game so combine that with the jump to college and Griffin probably is a year away from contributing.
Ron Robinson, Safety. Robinson also participated in spring practice. On one hand, he didn't look like he'd be close to contributing as a true freshman this fall. On the other, he performed better than we would have thought, being able to run well for his size (6-2, 200). We still think he ends up a linebacker, though, over the course of his UCLA career.
Denzel Fisher, Defensive Back. It's pretty easy to conclude that Fisher will probably need some work in the weight room, and the film room, before he's ready to play. But we really like Fisher – like the length and instincts, and think he has a real chance to be a good one at UCLA. Like we said, depth might be an issue at cornerback if Rios and Johnson can't play this fall, and Fisher would have a remote chance to then be pressed into service in the two-deep.