UCLA Defensive Backs Review
Top Performer: Tahaan Goodman
It's fair to say the light switch flipped pretty firmly to the "on" position for Goodman this spring. There were rumblings that he was thinking about transferring toward the end of last season, but instead of leaving, he pretty clearly dedicated himself to the football field and had probably his best series of practices as a Bruin. He became a mainstay with the first string at safety pretty early on in camp and was a steady, run-stopping force for the back line. When UCLA's defensive backs started to get a bit healthier toward the end of spring, it's a testament to Goodman's improvement that it was Adarius Pickett (who had a good spring in his own right) who was relegated to the second-string rather than Goodman.
Most Improved: William Lockett
This one legitimately came out of nowhere. We didn't really hear much from Lockett on the Scout team last year, and in fall camp last year, he looked like a typical true freshman -- a little over his head. This spring, though, he was a completely different player. He had a great last couple of weeks of spring, and looked especially good against the run, where he was more than willing to get physical. He showed very good instincts overall, and seemed to take good angles at ball carriers. After thinking of him as a potential depth guy in the future, we're now more inclined to think he'll be in the two-deep this year and possibly be a big contributor.
As we mentioned up top, injuries were really the story of the spring. The cornerback depth chart was a mess most of the spring, and it forced a bunch of guys to play out of position. That will probably serve UCLA well in some respects come the fall, but it doesn't exactly give us much to go on in terms of evaluating this unit for the fall.
Marcus Rios was out for a good portion of spring, and Johnny Johnson and Fabian Moreau missed spring in its entirety. In their places, Randall Goforth dropped down to corner, Jaleel Wadood spent time at corner, and there was even a day where Octavius Spencer was a first-string cornerback.
On the bright side, Nathan Meadors was solid all spring, and was basically a mainstay in the first string at cornerback with Rios, Johnson, and Moreau all ailing. As we saw last year, he has very good instincts for the position, and seems to have a good feel for how routes are going to develop and how to position himself. He's not going to blow anyone away with his speed, but his savvy and feel for the game makes up for it. It's going to be interesting to see what happens if/when UCLA has a fully healthy cornerback group this fall, because Meadors certainly showed enough to make us think he'd be a capable starter on the outside.
Goforth, who was also dinged up at times, had some ups and downs at corner, which is understandable since he's spent most of his UCLA career at safety. UCLA loves having his savvy and understanding of the game on the field, so it's going to be interesting to see where he ends up playing. At this point, it looks like safety actually has a few good options, with Pickett, Goodman, Lockett, and Wadood all having very solid springs, so it'd probably make the most sense for Goforth to play either corner or nickel.
Spencer looks solid, sort of like a Meadors clone. He's not super flashy and won't wow you with his speed, but he is solid in coverage and has good instincts. He also looks like he'll have the versatility to play safety or corner, much like Meadors.
Dechaun Holiday, the big defensive back, played safety pretty much exclusively this spring, and it looked like it took him a while to get used to it. By the end of the spring he was making plays, but early on, it just looked like he wasn't comfortable yet. At corner, Colin Samuel looks like he's still some time away from being an impact player. Denzel Fisher, like Holiday, had a slow start to the spring, but seemed to gain confidence over the last week, and had some really fun battles with Jordan Lasley where Fisher won the majority.
At one point, given UCLA's injuries at corner, Stephen Johnson made a switch over to defense, but it didn't come quite as naturally as we speculated it might. Athletically, he has all the tools, but he'll clearly need to put in an offseason of work to get ready to play corner in real games (understandably). For now, it looks like he's moved back to offense, but it'll be interesting to see if he spends some time this summer working on his backpedal.
Leni Toailoa, who we were expecting to look like a baby out there given that he's a year young for his grade, actually didn't look too out of place. It'll be a while before he's counted on to play, but he looked like he belongs physically, and made enough plays that we think he could be a contributor within a year or two.
At this point, we have to think that safety will be a strength for UCLA. With Goodman and Pickett coming on, and Lockett showing up as a player, the Bruins should be much better in run support from the defensive backfield this year. UCLA might give up a little bit in coverage with Goodman instead of Goforth, but it'll make up for it in the improved run support.
The question mark is corner. If everyone returns to full health, then UCLA should be solid at cornerback, but Lisfranc fractures can be tricky, so Moreau can't be counted on a sure thing, and Johnson's had shoulder issues for the last three years, so it's hard to count on him as a sure thing. Keeping Rios healthy is key, but getting one of Moreau or Johnson back to full health is basically critical. Even with the changes to the defense, UCLA is probably going to be forced to go with five defensive backs much of the time, and that requires a good deal of cornerback depth.
Since we have no idea at this point, we're just going to project this depth chart as if everyone is going to be healthy.
Projected Fall Depth Chart
CB: Moreau, Meadors, Fisher, Samuel
S: Wadood, Lockett, Toailoa
S: Goodman, Holiday, Brandon Burton
Nickel: Goforth, Pickett
CB: Johnson, Rios, Spencer, Keyon Rileynull