UCLA Fall Camp Preview: Position Battles

Aug. 7 -- What positions could be in flux heading into fall camp?

UCLA returns 18 starters from last season, but still there are some position battles to keep in mind heading into fall camp next week. Below, we've laid out the position battles, how strong of a hold the current first-string player has, and what we'll be keeping an eye on during practice.

1. Outside Linebacker

Perceived Starter: Aaron Wallace
Strength of hold on position: Weak

Wallace went through most of spring practice as the first-string outside linebacker opposite Deon Hollins, and he had a solid spring. He is in better shape than he's been at UCLA, and his improved physique made him a little more mobile in coverage and pursuit. He's going to be pushed this fall, though, by a host of linebackers, including primarily Kenny Orjioke (when he gets fully healthy) and Cameron Griffin. Those two players are better overall athletes than Wallace and probably have more upside if they get a significant number of snaps. If pass-rushing is a priority out of that spot, Orjioke or Griffin could end up being a better option.

2. Right Tackle

Perceived Starter: Caleb Benenoch
Strength of hold on position: Medium

Benenoch didn't run with the first string in spring practice, but that was largely because he wasn't fully healthy after offseason knee surgery. From what we did see, though, he looked very impressive, especially in the one-on-one drills he was allowed to do. Now fully healthy, Benenoch will probably slide into the first-string right tackle job at the beginning of fall camp. As Jim Mora alluded to at Media Days, there's still some uncertainty about Simon Goines' health and whether he can hold up, which makes it more likely for Benenoch to win the job. Zach Bateman could be a dark horse here, especially if he's gotten stronger and more comfortable in the offense over the summer.

3. Cornerback

Perceived Starter: Marcus Rios
Strength of hold on position: Strong

Rios supplanted Ishmael Adams as one of the first-string cornerbacks midway through spring practice, and it was pretty justified. Rios was probably the best cornerback this spring, and has clearly come all the way back after having to sit out the 2013 season. As we wrote in the defensive backs preview, Adams also probably makes more sense as a nickel cornerback than as an outside corner because generally he'll match up against smaller receivers in the slot. Also, this move will take him off the field on defense for a few more snaps per game, which will help him keep from wearing down with all of the demands placed on him.

4. Defensive End
Perceived Starter: Takkarist McKinley
Strength of hold on position: Strong

McKinley was with the first string most of spring practice, and he's probably the best pass rusher among the true defensive linemen, so we imagine he'll hold on to that spot heading into the year. The only question is how much Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner have continued to improve this offseason. They both had great springs, and both players have the ability to play McKinley's position. Tuioti-Mariner is a better fit than Dickerson, since he's a little bit more flexible of an athlete and could do some of the pass-rushing, but Dickerson had a better spring. We'd bet on McKinley holding onto the spot, though.

5. Left Guard

Perceived Starter: Kenny Lacy
Strength of hold on position: Medium

Of the players who started games at guard last season, we thought Lacy performed the best. He's not as strong as a typical smash-mouth guard, but he makes up for it by being a pretty good athlete with the ability to move around and get downfield. He was with the first string for virtually all of spring practice, but odd dominos could fall in San Bernardino, particularly if the right tackle battle ends up with Simon Goines rising to the top. Both Bateman and Benenoch would then probably compete at guard with Lacy, and we'd have to guess that Benenoch would have a pretty good chance of winning the job. If Benenoch wins the right tackle job, we think Lacy ends up pretty solidly the starter at guard.

6. Slot Receiver
Perceived Starter: Mossi Johnson
Strength of hold on position: Strong

Like Marcus Rios, Mossi Johnson took the first-string job from an incumbent starter this spring, this time Devin Fuller. Fuller didn't even have a bad spring (in fact, he looked better than he had in a year or two), but Johnson was just so good that it was obvious he needed to be on the field more. We have to imagine Johnson has only continued to improve this offseason, which should strengthen his hold on the slot job, and Jim Mora's cagey response to our question about the possibility of Fuller playing quarterback leads us to believe that he's not going to be the starting slot.

7. Quarterback
Perceived Starter: Josh Rosen
Strength of hold on position: Strong

As we've maintained for a while, this isn't a real battle. It would take a catastrophic performance from Rosen in San Bernardino for Jerry Neuheisel or Mike Fafaul to rise to the top, and we just don't see it. Rosen looked far too polished and poised in spring to succumb to a significant amount of pressure this fall.

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