Recruiting Needs #4: Lock-Down Corner

Dec. 10 -- UCLA could really use that shutdown guy of the future to really help take the defense to another level...

We continue with the series that analyzes UCLA's five biggest recruiting needs for 2015. The first two in the series were:

Recruiting Need #3: Offensive Playmakers
Recruiting Need #2: Offensive Line
Recruiting Need #1: Pass Rushers

UCLA has been recruiting well the past three years, stocking up on a very high-level of talent, and it’s definitely been evident on the field. The offensive and defensive lines have been vastly upgraded, as have many of the positions on both sides of the ball.

Now, however, it’s time to raise expectation further in recruiting. While UCLA has clearly upgraded its talent level, it was evident this season that it’s still lacking some elite talent in certain areas. These are the primary areas of need to keep the UCLA program improving and moving forward over the next several seasons.

Shutdown Cover Cornerback

When you have an elite boundary corner your defense changes. If you have a guy who you can match up one-on-one with every opponent’s best wide receiver, and trust him in that situation, then you can leave him by himself most of the time. That means a safety can cheat over and help with the other two-thirds of the field, basically giving the defense an extra main in coverage. A great cover corner can take away the opponent’s best receiver, much the way Myles Jack did with Nelson Agholor against USC. When that happens many times an offense and a quarterback that is so dependent on going to that go-to guy, like USC was with Agholor, struggles to consistently complete passes to its other receivers and can’t move the ball down the field.

There are very few legit lock-down corners in college football – maybe 10 in any given year, so it’s very rare to have one. But this article series is about UCLA taking its recruiting and its program to the next level so we're shooting high. Admittedly, it’s not like offensive line, where you need to recruit well just to get you competitive; the lock-down corner is one transformative player at a position of huge impact that is highly rare.

Fabian Moreau
It’s funny, too, so many lockdown corners in college football have been under-the-radar recruits. In the Pac-12 right now, perhaps the guy who best lives up to the lock-down corner qualifications is Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and he wasn’t a five-star, elite prospect, but ranked the #18 cornerback and #189 in the nation for 2011. Perhaps UCLA’s last great cover corner was Alterraun Verner, who was the 56th-ranked corner in the nation in 2006 and UCLA had to be cojoled into recruiting. While we’re a big advocate that high school evaluations by Scout have been very accurate over the years, it does seem predicting who will be that lockdown corner is a very tough proposition, mostly because a great deal of it is mental and just not physical or athletic.

Speaking of which, UCLA’s best cover man next season will be Fabian Moreau -- a guy who when he came to UCLA as a bit of an afterthought and recruited as a running back you wouldn’t have projected as UCLA’s best cover guy. Last spring and in fall camp, Moreau looked like the best at UCLA since Verner, but then had a tough time of it for the first half of the season. He rebounded for the second half, but he still has a ways to go to get to the level of player we saw in practice, and the potential we think he has. With the confidence he gained this season, though, there’s a good chance he’ll be improved next season and step into the role of best cover guy on the team with the departure of Anthony Jefferson.

Like I said -- it’s tough to project who can be that lock-down guy. Right now, from what we’ve seen of the guys on the roster besides Moreau, and the guys on the roster we haven’t seen that much, there doesn’t appear to be a guy who could potentially fulfill that role (except maybe Jack? Partially kidding). It’d be key that someone younger steps up next season and shows the potential to carry the mantle of “best cover guy” on the team after Moreau graduates.

UCLA also has been recruiting a bit differently in trying to get personnel to fit its coverage schemes. It’s generally been looking for bigger DBs who are versatile, that can play outside as a corner but also play inside at safety and potentially be a nickel. It’s great to have those type of guys, but if you’re looking for size and versatility at DB, it’s really difficult to find players who are good-sized, can play safety but also be a lock-down corner. Those would be elite NFL guys and there just aren’t many of them.

Great cover corners, regardless of size, are one of the toughest to find of all of the positions in football, and you make it even more difficult when you’re looking for them with size.

On the roster right now, besides Moreau, there is Ishmael Adams, who is a decent cover guy, perhaps just limited by his size. Marcos Rios has had a remarkable recovery from his illness and showed some ability this season, and we think has a chance to be a good coverage corner. Priest Willis has struggled a bit in his time at UCLA, not really showing the ability to be a cornerback consistently just yet. Jalen Ortiz has seemed to find a future at cornerback this season, and has some upside as he learns the position. Denzel Fisher had some injuries this season and redshirted, so we haven’t been able to really get a bead on him since he’s been at UCLA. The one guy we thought, even after seeing him in UCLA’s practice, that had a chance to be lockdown was Johnny Johnson. He had the spark, quickness and ball skills, but he’s been set back by two shoulder surgeries and, at this point, it’s probably uncertain whether he’ll be able to sustain a football career. Adarius Pickett has gone from DB to RB and back to DB this season. When we saw him in practice in fall, it appeared one-on-one coverage was his weakness and thought he looked more natural as a safety – and even more natural as a running back.

Stephen Johnson
Among the incoming guys for 2015 that we think has all the tools to be an elite cornerback would be Stephen Johnson. He has great size at about 5-11 and 185, and he's not thin, but with exceptional speed (a 4.41 at Nike) and very good athleticism – and a spark of aggressiveness. However, he’s become such a hot commodity as a UCLA pledge that he’s clearly getting fought over between the UCLA offensive and defensive coaches. He now is being told he’ll first get a shot at receiver when he comes to UCLA, because it might be a case that his speed would be a difference-maker on offense, but we think he ends up at cornerback eventually (get the idea that Johnson is a key recruit for 2015?).

UCLA just got a commitment from Colin Samuel and, for his size, at 6-3 and 200, he has very good coverage skills, and projects to be good in coverage as probably a safety. We probably have to say the same about Dechaun Holiday, who is one of the bigger, versatile types that UCLA Defensive Backs Coach Demetrice Martin has been targeting. It’s tough to say at this point whether Samuel and Holiday, though, are going to be able to play cornerback on the next level because they’re both very big kids who are probably only going to get bigger.

William Lockett is a committed prospect from Texas, and there are local athletes Octavius Spencer and Nathan Meadors that UCLA has a good chance to get. There very well could be a lockdown guy waiting to bust out among these three, and like we said, it’s a difficult thing to predict, but right now we feel that it’d be unlikely if UCLA found that guy among this group.

Of course, the guy you’d project to have the best chance to be that guy is Iman Marshall (pictured above), the five-star prospect from Long Beach Poly, and the #1 prospect in the west for 2015. He is a big kid, probably 6-1 and 190, and he’s a bit raw in his coverage skills, but he displays a very unusual ability for a prospect his size to go one-on-one with quick receivers much smaller than he. Yeah, yeah, the overwhelming word is that Marshall is set to be a Trojan, but there are little whispers out there, some from credible sources, that that might not be the case. We’ll see, we still believe he’s leaning to USC. This is, though, the guy in 2015 we think has the best chance to be that elite corner, and that UCLA needs to get to really give the future UCLA secondary a chance to be elite.

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