We'll continue our unit previews today with the defensive backs...
**Fabian Moreau, from what we've heard, should be fully cleared for practice after sitting out the spring recovering from a Lisfranc fracture suffered last year.
**Johnny Johnson, who has had multiple shoulder injuries now in his UCLA career, should be relatively healthy for fall camp, but he too sat out spring. There's always a vague sense of concern around Johnson, since he's had so many shoulder injuries over the years. Hopefully, he's 100% ready to go, because he was arguably UCLA's best cover corner last year when healthy.
**Leni Toailoa, as we pointed out in the linebacker piece, has moved to linebacker.
DB Keyon Riley
It's going to be interesting to see where Riley ends up. Despite being listed primarily as a safety coming out of high school, we've heard that the initial plan is to try Riley out as a big corner. He's a very good athlete, and is long and rangy physically, but, based on what we saw in high school, he's still fairly raw and will probably need some time before becoming a significant contributor. There's a lot of upside there, though.
It seems like we've been covering Burton for four or five years now, since he emerged as a legitimate Pac-12 recruit as basically a freshman in high school. He had a nice senior year, where he showed good leadership and toughness, and it's easy to imagine him becoming a leader on the defense within a couple of years. He has some versatility, position-wise, having played receiver and safety as well as a little bit of quarterback in high school. At this stage, we're projecting him as a safety, but looking at the depth chart, he's going to have to show a good amount to play much in his first year in the program.
There's really only one guy we know for sure is going to be in the starting lineup this year -- Jaleel Wadood. The junior was with the first string at safety for virtually the entirety of spring practice, and we can probably safely pencil him into the starting lineup at one of the two safety spots.
The remaining four starting spots (including nickel) are in relative stages of undecided, both due to uncertain health and legitimate position battles. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- assuming everyone is healthy, UCLA has plenty of options at both cornerback and safety, it's just a question of who rises to the top.
We'll go ahead and say that the most likely scenario probably has Moreau and Marcus Rios emerging as the starting outside corners. We're just too uncertain of Johnson's shoulders to be completely comfortable projecting him to start at corner this year, and while we really like Nathan Meadors, we could see the experience of Moreau and Rios ultimately trumping Meadors's instincts and savvy for a younger player. Rios and Moreau also bring some good size to the cornerback positions, and we know there was an overall emphasis on the team getting bigger this year, so that would certainly help with that cause.
The interesting case is what will happen at the remaining safety spot, as well as nickel. Like we just wrote about Moreau and Rios, there was a major emphasis heading into the offseason on the team getting bigger and tougher overall. One obvious area where that could happen would be safety. Wadood, like we said, probably has his spot locked up, but, while he's a good tackler, he's undersized. Pairing him with another undersized player like Randall Goforth maybe wouldn't fit the new stated ethos for the defense. While he is a savvy, intelligent player who's a leader of the defense, Goforth struggled at times last year to finish tackles. Getting someone in at safety who's a little bigger and a little more of a sure tackler would perhaps improve the defense as a whole.
We liked what we saw this spring out of a few different options, but if we were picking a starter at safety, we'd probably opt for Tahaan Goodman, based on his performance this spring. The light seemed to come on for him in a pretty big way, and we heard that he was showing more dedication in the film room. He definitely provides that bigger, more physical enforcer-type presence at safety, and he's a good athlete who can, in theory, hang with all but the fastest and quickest receivers in man coverage. You'd probably give up something in coverage, compared to Goforth, but tackling and run defense could be much improved.
Again, if we were assigning roles, we wouldn't want to take Goforth completely off the field. He has tremendous value as a leader of the secondary, and he has familiarity with both corner and safety, so fitting in at nickel, which can often act as a hybrid of the two positions, could be a nice fit for him. He played corner quite a bit in spring, but it didn't look like a perfect fit, and as we just pointed out, safety might not be ideal for him if the goal is for the team to get bigger on defense. But if he plays nickel, he'll still be on the field for probably 70 or 80% of defensive snaps, given the amount of nickel UCLA plays, so UCLA wouldn't lose his leadership on the field.
That said, all of those competitions are still open, and as we'll get to, UCLA has multiple legitimate contenders at each spot.
Again, assuming everyone is healthy, cornerback depth is fairly good. Behind Moreau and Rios, UCLA has both Nathan Meadors and Johnny Johnson, who you could make an easy argument were UCLA's best two cover corners last year. Johnson was very good in relief of Moreau, looking like that natural player we remembered from high school, back before the shoulder injuries. He couldn't even use his arms much last year to body up receivers, but he was still very effective.
Meadors, for his part, had, quietly, a very impressive season. First, he was a true freshman starting games on defense in the Pac-12, which isn't easy. Second, he started out the year at safety, but then was pressed into duty as a corner about halfway through the season after the injury bug hit -- and looked like a complete natural. We aren't as crazy about guys not looking back for the ball as some on BRO, but Meadors did it naturally, displaying ball skills and awareness that a physical specimen like Moreau would covet. Meadors played like a college junior last year rather than a freshman, and we wouldn't be shocked at all if he won a staring job this fall -- especially given the questions Moreau, Johnson, and Rios have all had regarding their health.
Behind those two, Denzel Fisher now has a reasonable amount of playing time under his belt, and he looked somewhat improved this spring. He probably still has some developing to do to make a real run at starting or even becoming the primary backup at corner, but it has to help him some that he was thrown into the fire a bit last year. Colin Samuel didn't have a standout spring, but we heard some good reports about him on the Scout team last year, so it'll be interesting to see if he's made some progress over the last few months. Riley, as we said, should probably take the year to continue to refine his technique, but he gives UCLA an athletic body with some versatility, should he be pressed into duty.
At safety, UCLA has more and better options than we thought heading into the spring. Adarius Pickett, who started to look better at safety during fall camp last year, really came on this spring, and even ran with the first-string for a time. Like Goodman, he brings a little more size and physicality to the safety position, and he has an aggressive mentality on defense that few can match. His man coverage skills can still use some refinement, but as a run-oriented box safety, he definitely has a role in this defense.
We were also impressed with William Lockett, who, to be perfectly blunt, we weren't expecting much from this spring. Like Pickett, he unveiled a new, heretofore unseen aggression that made him a lot of fun to watch in practice. In terms of being in and around the ball on every play, he was effectively the Jayon Brown of the second unit at times. We really hadn't heard much about him from last year, and we were expecting him to probably be a special teams player this year, but given what we saw in the spring, he could be a key part of the defense.
And then, beyond those two, Octavius Spencer, who has been compared to Meadors by many both within and outside of the program, could fit in at either safety or corner. He didn't have an incredibly impressive spring, but we liked what we saw out of him last year, and he got some valuable experience on special teams. Burton, as we said above, could compete to crack the two-deep this year, but with solid depth ahead of him, it wouldn't be a shock if he didn't play this season.
It'll be interesting to see what happens with Dechaun Holiday. The redshirt freshman bounced to safety this spring after he got up to about 220 pounds, but Jim Mora said at Pac-12 Media Day that he's now back to about 208. The move to safety might work, but we still think, based on what we saw of him in high school, that receiver might be his best position at the college level.
What to Watch in Fall Camp
-- Who's healthy? To really maximize the potential of this secondary, UCLA needs good health from at least two of Moreau, Rios, and Johnson, and ideally all three. By any real measure, those are three of the top four corners on the team, and as they go, so could the secondary.
-- Goforth...but where? Goforth has been a starter for two years, but if the goal is truly to get bigger and tougher against the run this year, his days could be numbered at safety. Will he switch to corner or nickel, or will he stay at safety?
-- Can Holiday find a role? Holiday has plenty of talent and coverage skills, but size is proving to be an obstacle, as he has more or less outgrown cornerback. Can he make it work at safety?
-- Can Goodman keep up the good play from spring? The light has flickered on for Goodman before, only to turn right back off. Will it stay on this time?