Defensive Backs Review
Top Performer: Marcus Rios
Ishmael Adams has been a starter at cornerback for two years now, so it came as a pretty huge shock that, by the end of spring, Marcus Rios was getting reps ahead of him at corner with the first string. But that's how good Rios was this spring. He's clearly fully back physically now, and has progressed beyond where he was when he fell ill at the end of his freshman year. At 185 pounds, he had more than enough strength to be an effective press corner but also flashed more than enough athleticism to keep up with receivers in the open field. He seems to have his confidence completely back, so it's exciting to think about what kind of player he could be this year.
Most Improved/Biggest Surprise: Nathan Meadors
We're cheating here -- in every other review, we've done a "most improved" and it's hard to say a true freshman early entry is the "most improved" player in a position group. We just wanted to make sure to acknowledge how big of a surprise Meadors was this spring. He reminded us an awful lot of Randall Goforth from Goforth's first spring at UCLA; every day, it seemed like Meadors would come out of nowhere to make a great play on a ball. He showed a really natural feel for coverage out of the safety spot, especially in his ability to break on the ball and meet the receiver right when the ball arrived. We didn't have any real expectation for Meadors heading into the spring, but coming out, we'd be a little surprised if he redshirted this year.
We're projecting that Rios will maintain his hold on the starting corner job through fall camp and go into the 2015 season as the starter, which will give the Bruins a starting secondary of Rios, Jaleel Wadood, Randall Goforth, and Fabian Moreau, with Adams in his ideal role as a nickel corner. That's a pretty good starting group -- not overloaded with elite talent, but pretty solid at every one of those positions.
We do still have some questions about the depth chart at defensive back coming out of spring, though (sort of similar to our remaining questions about the pass rush). It's a position group that's short on elite talent, yes, but also short on very playable depth beyond the top five or so. If you were projecting one position where the addition of a bunch of talented true freshmen (we're looking at you Meadors, Dechaun Holiday, Colin Samuel, and maybe Stephen Johnson) could actually have a real impact, it's this one.
Goforth, it should be acknowledged, had an excellent spring, despite being in a red jersey the whole time. The time spent on the sideline appears to have helped him develop in his acumen for the game, and often during practice, it seemed like he knew where the play was going and how it was developing before anyone else on the field, including the quarterback. He seems poised for a big year, as long as he suffers no setbacks with his shoulders. Wadood also had a nice spring, looking a little bit bigger than a year ago, and showing the same innate abilities to defend against the run despite his size.
Moreau is still a little bit of a wildcard. In practice, he goes through periods where he is so excellent in coverage that there isn't a single bit of daylight for the receiver, and he does a good amount of that without getting too handsy. He also showed better ball skills this spring, recording a few interceptions. On the flip side, we saw much of this last year in spring and fall camp, and then he had a pretty miserable start to the season. If he can actually put it together in games, he could be an excellent cornerback, but we'll need to actually see that for a couple of games.
Beyond those five, we liked what we saw from Meadors, as we said above, but the rest of the depth chart is just a series of question marks. Priest Willis, like he usually does, had a couple of nice practices, then a couple of poor ones, and then sat out for a huge portion of spring with a shoulder injury. Tahaan Goodman just hasn't developed much in his time at UCLA, still looking like the raw, but very athletic talent he was as a true freshman. Johnny Johnson, their classmate, still can't really use his arms to press, so it's difficult to get a real read on where he is in his recovery. He still needs to get his legs back under him and regain his quickness.
Dwight Williams switched to safety this spring, and it's going to be a process for him. He has good athleticism, but he's really starting from basically square one in terms of technique and how to cover. Adarius Pickett is probably ideally suited to be a running back, but his effort level is always excellent, and he made enough plays this spring to make us think that he has the chance to at least play a little at safety this year.
Denzel Fisher had some nice battles with Jordan Lasley through the first couple of weeks of spring, but over the last two weeks, Lasley won basically every rep they were in together. It's hard to judge Fisher based on that, though, since Lasley looked very good over the last two weeks. We still think Fisher is probably a year away from threatening for serious playing time. Justin Combs and Jalen Ortiz both look like decent depth guys at this point, but we'd be a little surprise if either got serious playing time this year.
Projected Fall Depth Chart:
Note: it's too difficult to slot Holiday, Samuel, and Johnson in here yet since we haven't been able to compare them in practice to the other defensive backs. Suffice to say that all three have the potential to crack the two-deep with good fall camps, and that's if Johnson even ends up on defense.
Spring Review: Defensive Backs
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