UCLA Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

Aug. 3 -- UCLA has a talented starting group of defensive backs, but the depth could rely on some true freshmen...

Accentuated or not by the lack of a pass rush, it was apparent to most that UCLA's defensive backs, as a group, didn't have a great year in 2014. Fabian Moreau, who was the preseason darling of the media and certainly BRO, didn't have the dominant year that many expected. Ishmael Adams, who earned All Pac-12 honors, didn't seem to play at that level last year, at least on defense. The safeties, Anthony Jefferson and Jaleel Wadood, had some nice moments, but without very good corner play, Jefferson was often called on to play pressed to the line of scrimmage.

As we said above, though, some of that was due to the lack of pressure that UCLA put on quarterbacks throughout the year. Too often, the defensive backs were asked to cover for extended periods of time, which is typically not a good thing for a defense. So much is dependent on a pass rush when judging a defense, so we're always a little reluctant to direct too much blame at the defensive backfield.

UCLA does return three starters from last year, and four players with plenty of starting experience (Randall Goforth returns after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury toward the beginning of last season). There's plenty of talent in the defensive backfield, and our guess is that this unit is the one that will look the most improved with the addition of a new, experienced defensive coordinator.

Injury/Personnel Updates

***Priest Willis -- the former five-star cornerback transferred from UCLA shortly after spring practice, in a move that wasn't particularly surprising. Willis never found a role at UCLA, struggling to play cornerback and never really finding a fit at safety. He'll move on to Texas A&M, where it'll be interesting to see where he fits in an SEC defense.

***Jalen Ortiz -- Ortiz also elected to transfer after spring practice. Ortiz switched to corner two years ago, but originally came in as a running back/slot receiver. Ortiz has moved on to Wyoming.

***Justin Combs -- Combs' status is still unknown, but when asked specifically about his status on the team, Jim Mora was a little opaque, saying "we've had no changes to our roster." If you'll remember, that was the response Mora had to any questions about Zach Whitley, from the minute we reported the Whitley news at the end of the season until the beginning of January, when he left school. Combs, of course, had some level of involvement in the kerfuffle between his dad and Sal Alosi earlier this year.

***Randall Goforth -- Goforth was in red most of the spring, but it was mostly precaution after the shoulder injuries. He should be fully ready for fall camp.

***Johnny Johnson -- Johnson went through spring practice and didn't suffer a setback, which was a good sign. He wasn't quite fully healthy during spring, looking a little bit slower than before and he wasn't able to use his arms much in coverage, which limited him. If he can get through fall camp without any more setbacks, we could see him getting some time this year.

Incoming Freshmen

CB Dechaun Holiday
CB Octavius Spencer
CB Colin Samuel
CB William Lockett
S Nathan Meadors

This is a pretty diverse group of incoming freshmen with plenty of versatility. Holiday and Samuel are both very long defensive backs, and both will initially get a look at cornerback, though Holiday might play safety or even receiver down the road. Spencer, as we've said for a while, is very similar to Mossi Johnson as a prospect out of high school, and could play corner, safety, or receiver. We've heard he could actually get his first look at safety. William Lockett was ranked as a corner, but he too might make more sense as a safety. It'll be interesting to see how this whole class shakes out position-wise, as each player has plenty of versatility.

Starters

Marcus Rios

Despite returning plenty of starting experience at the two corner spots and the two safety spots, UCLA actually had a little bit of a shakeup this spring, with a new first-string cornerback emerging by the end of spring: Marcus Rios. By the final week of April, Rios had pushed Ishmael Adams to mostly nickelback, thanks to Rios' excellent play all of spring. Rios has come a very long way in the last two years, going from right around 130 pounds soon after his illness to a rocked out 185 pounds this spring. His athleticism has returned completely, and he looked like the best cover corner on the team this spring. If he can carry that play into August, he should secure a starting position.

Opposite Rios, Fabian Moreau will return as a three-year starter at corner. As we talked about above, Moreau wasn't the elite corner that many expected him to be entering the year last year. His coverage skills actually translated from practice to games fairly well, but he showed poor awareness and ball skills during games, frequently running right with a receiver up to the point of the catch but then looking unable to make any sort of play on the ball. That aspect of his game seemed better this spring in practice, but the operative words there are "in practice." Until we see Moreau string together a series of solid performances in games, it's hard for us to project based on his practice performances.

Between those two, UCLA returns Randall Goforth, who's effectively the leader of the unit. Goforth had an excellent spring despite wearing a red jersey throughout, and looked like he put his extended offseason to good use. Physically, he looks great, and he was moving very well. In addition to that, he looked much more instinctual than he did before the injury, almost as if he spent the entire offseason studying the defense and how to diagnose offensive plays. Having him at the back of the defense should help to steady this unit.

Jaleel Wadood, who replaced Goforth in the starting lineup last year, will line up alongside him this year. Wadood had a nice spring, looking a little bit bigger than last year. He's a very good tackler for a smaller safety, and he does pretty well in coverage. The big thing for him is just improving his awareness and understanding of where he needs to be at all times, and he showed progress in that department this spring. Again, having Goforth next to him should help this fall.

Since UCLA is in nickel so often, we'll also throw Ishmael Adams into the starting group. We've always thought that Adams projects best as a nickelback on defense, since his height makes him vulnerable to some of the bigger outside receivers like, say, Jaelen Strong. He's a better fit covering slot receivers, and that's probably how he'll be used this year.

Depth

Adarius Pickett

Behind those five, there isn't a whole lot of proven depth at either corner or safety. There are plenty of possibilities, but many of them are completely untested freshmen. Those that aren't freshmen have, rather than a lack of experience, different sorts of questions surrounding them.

Johnson, as we talked about above, still wasn't fully healthy this spring, and there's still a little uncertainty surrounding his shoulder. Probably more concerning is that he just didn't look as quick as he did before his shoulder injuries. Some of that may have just been him looking a little tentative in his first spring back, though. Hopefully he can see the field this year for the first time in his UCLA career.

Denzel Fisher has now been in the program a year, and he had a decent enough spring. He's still the long, tall corner he was when he arrived, though he's probably put on about ten pounds or so since arriving on campus. He had some nice battles with Jordan Lasley during the early days of spring. We thought this spring that he still could probably use another year of seasoning before being thrown into the fire, but we'll see how he looks this fall.

At safety, UCLA returns Tahaan Goodman for his third year. Goodman has flashed huge potential at times, but has also been prone to some pretty inexcusable mental errors, most noticeably in a few breakdowns against Stanford last year. He didn't have a very good spring, and will probably have to have a big camp to keep from being eclipsed by a variety of freshmen.

One of those freshmen is Nathan Meadors. Meadors came in early and was probably one of the biggest surprises of the spring. He looked very comfortable going against college-level players and actually reminded us a little bit of Goforth from his first practices during his freshman year. He has great natural instincts, and seemed to have a great feel for knowing where the ball was going to go on any given play. We'd guess there's a pretty good chance that Meadors ends up the third safety this year, assuming he can put together a similar fall camp.

Adarius Pickett and Dwight Williams round out the returners at safety. Pickett, as we've long maintained, looks more like a running back than anything, and he just doesn't seem to have the back pedal and flexibility to be a great cover guy. He has a role as a box safety, perhaps, and we'll see if UCLA's defense under Tom Bradley uses that sort of position. Williams has the athleticism to be a safety down the road, but he's really just learning the position at this point, and has a long way to go.

And then there are the freshmen who, outside of Meadors, are all coming in this fall. We'd already say Meadors is a shoe-in to play this year, and beyond him, there's probably room for at least two other freshmen to play this season. Cornerback in particular could use some instant-impact players, and between Holiday, Spencer, Samuel, and Lockett, UCLA has to hope that there are at least one or two potential long-term starters. Outside of watching how Chris Clark and Sotonye Jamabo fit into the offense, this is probably the area of the team where we're most interested in seeing the new freshmen.

Probably the most interesting thing to keep an eye on is how the early weeks of fall camp affect Stephen Johnson. If UCLA doesn't see a lot of corner potential among that group of freshmen, Johnson could quickly find himself switching to defense, where he has very good potential at cornerback. It's pretty much essential for the long-term health of the program for the 2015 class to produce at least one starting cornerback and, depending on how fall camp goes, Johnson could be it.


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