Spring Preview: Defensive Backs

Mar. 27 -- UCLA returns much of its depth chart from last year, and the Bruins will be looking toward its younger players for growth and development...

UCLA's defense, for better or worse, put a great deal of pressure on its secondary through the first half of last year thanks to a generally passive scheme that relied mostly on coverage at the expense of blitzing. We understood, to an extent, why the Bruins thought they could use such a strategy; through the entirety of fall camp, we saw the emergence of Fabian Moreau as a potential lockdown corner, as well as the continued growth of Ishmael Adams, Anthony Jefferson, and Randall Goforth. Between the four, we figured UCLA had a good enough starting secondary to run a variety of different schemes.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way. Moreau wasn't nearly as good on game day as he was in practice, Adams had his own struggles in man coverage, and Goforth got hurt early in the year. Anthony Jefferson was good throughout the year, but he's gone to the NFL Draft now, leaving UCLA with some questions to answer on defense. To the Bruins benefit, they have a good deal of experience, and freshman Jaleel Wadood was certainly a bright spot last year filling in for Goforth. But if UCLA is going to have a very good defense in 2015, some of the players in the secondary are going to have to make some strides this spring.

A Look at Spring

In perhaps the best bit of news, we've heard Goforth's recovery is coming along well from shoulder surgery last fall and, while he won't be cleared for full contact this spring, will practice, and should be good to go for fall camp. Goforth turned out to be a critical piece of the puzzle in the last two years with his versatility, and getting him fully back by fall camp will be a real boon to the secondary. In some more good news on Goforth, he was granted a redshirt year for last season, so he'll be a redshirt junior this coming fall rather than a senior.

Ishmael Adams.
At this point, we more or less know what to expect from Ishmael Adams. He has a very tenacious attitude and can be a ballhawk at times. The issue he'll always contend with is his size; certain match-ups just aren't going to be good for him. His perfect, most ideal fit would probably be as a designated nickelback, covering slot receivers almost entirely, but the depth being what it is, we would imagine he'll slot in as a starting corner throughout spring.

We're cautiously optimistic about Fabian Moreau. He didn't have a great year last year, but toward the end of the season, he seemed to be playing better, and showed a few flashes that made us think that we weren't totally crazy for the things we all wrote about him during fall camp. At this point, though, we'll take his practice performances with a grain of salt until we see them translate to games with consistency.

As we mentioned above, Wadood showed us a great deal last year. For a smaller guy, he's a very good tackler, and can actually lay the wood a little bit. He wasn't perfectly consistent, of course, since he was a freshman, but there were full games where he flashed the feel and instincts of a much older player. Now that he's had a year of playing against college offenses, we're excited to see what he looks like this spring and into the fall.

We've heard some interesting things about Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis that give us some hope that the light might be flickering on for both heading into spring. Goodman fell into the doghouse a little bit after the Stanford game last year due to some extraordinary blown coverages, but we've heard he's shown a great deal more dedication to preparation and homework this offseason, perhaps in part due to falling into that doghouse.

We've heard the same of Willis, that perhaps, like with Goodman, having only two years left in the program has refocused him to a degree. There is, of course, the long-standing issue of whether Willis would ever be moved to safety, which might be a better fit for him from a body and athleticism standpoint. One of the reasons he probably hasn't made that move is because he just couldn't process the game that well and the safety position would be an even bigger challenge in that regard. If Willis does, in fact, improve his knowledge of coverages and assignments, we wouldn't be surprised if he gets a look at safety, perhaps this spring.

Denzel Fisher, from what we've heard, should be good to go this spring after sitting out the second half of the year last year with a back injury. His big thing was just to get stronger, and with the back injury setting him back a little bit last year, we wouldn't be shocked if he still has a little way to go in that department. Johnny Johnson, the star-crossed cornerback who hasn't had more than a few healthy moments since entering the program, will give spring practice a try, but it's completely uncertain what he'll be able to do. He's had multiple shoulder injuries in the last two years, and it's really unfortunate, because of that 2013 defensive back class, he was probably our favorite.

Adarius Pickett, who switched from cornerback to running back to safety last season, should slot in at safety to begin spring practice. His best physical fit might be running back, but with the depth there, and the lack of great depth at safety, his best chance to have an on-field impact might be at safety. It's probably a better fit, position-wise, than cornerback, since he's a physical, well-built player who doesn't necessarily have the hips and speed to stay with receivers on the outside.

Marcus Rios, now that he's a full year and change removed from his very serious illness, should get an opportunity to compete at cornerback as well. We've heard he's in some of the best shape of his life and has been exceptionally dedicated to getting stronger over the last few months. He had a few big moments last year, and hopefully he's able to build on that success for a big spring. Jalen Ortiz and Justin Combs will fill out the depth chart, and Ortiz has a chance to get into the two-deep coming out of spring.

Nathan Meadors, the incoming freshman, will be available for spring practice. We anticipate him slotting in at safety to begin with, but he, like several other players in the freshman class, has some versatility, and could end up at a variety of different positions after UCLA gets a look at him.

Just a note: This is an amazingly deep spring depth chart for a UCLA secondary. There were many years when UCLA didn't even have a two-deep in the secondary for spring. Remember, too, this is without the addition of the incoming freshmen this fall.

Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart

RS JR Ishmael Adams
RS JR Marcus Rios
RS FR Denzel Fisher
RS JR Justin Combs

SO Jaleel Wadood
RS FR Adarius Pickett
FR Nate Meadors

RS JR Randall Goforth
JR Tahaan Goodman

SR Fabian Moreau
JR Priest Willis
RS JR Jalen Ortiz
RS SO Johnny Johnson

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