Kenny Young & Jayon Brown

UCLA Fall Camp First Week Review: Defense & Special Teams

Aug. 15 -- We take a position-by-position look at how the UCLA defense has shaped up through the first week of fall camp ahead of its move to San Bernardino...

Defensive line

The first two units are basically set and that's put a smile on position coach Angus McClure's face after Week 1. The return of Eddie Vanderdoes from last year's knee injury has been seamless and the star junior has acclimated nicely to the new 4-3 front, telling reporters last week he fits in better in this system. He's been good through the first seven practices, doing well to disrupt the run but also putting pressure on the quarterback in passing situations.

Takkarist McKinley, who said his goal is to be the best defensive end in the country, was slowed for the latter half of the first week after suffering a right shoulder injury Wednesday, but still participated in some walk-through situations and took mental reps alongside McClure. He had been as good as he was in the spring, bringing serious speed off the edge and prepping left tackle Conor McDermott for what he's likely to see in the season opener.

Takkarist McKinley

Defensive tackle Eli Ankou and left end Matt Dickerson also ran with the first unit, with Ankou probably performing a bit better all around. He was stellar in one-on-one matchups going up against center Scott Quessenberry, pushing him back quite a bit to win some reps. Dickerson has struggled to get around Kolton Miller, but his job calls for containment and fighting off tight end blocks more than anything.

The second-team line consisted of defensive ends Deon Hollins and Rick Wade, and defensive tackles Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Nick Terry. Hollins is expected to have a rather important pass-rushing role on this team and he's been decent the first week, doing his part off the edge to force quarterbacks into quick decisions. Wade fits in similarly to Dickerson in that he's had to battle not only tackles, but also tight ends and fullbacks, particularly in live drills. He looks to have put on the weight to contribute in that capacity. Tuioti-Mariner and Terry provide playable depth that shouldn't be overlooked.

Further down on the depth chart are the likes of Keisean Lucier-South, a former five-star, and newcomer Boss Tagaloa, who has gotten some looks with the twos. Lucier-South, like Hollins, appears headed for a situational role, and we'd probably expect Tagaloa to rotate in during the season. Chigozie Nnoruka and Osa Odighizuwa have been running with the threes.

Linebackers

The obvious storyline has been the "excused absence" of star freshman Mique Juarez, who did not attend practices on Friday or Saturday. His departure would be a big blow to the 2016 recruiting class that earned assistant coach Scott White the title of Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year, but it probably won't affect the Bruins on the field much this season given the quality at the position.

Kenny Young and Isaako Savaiinaea have alternated days at middle linebacker with the first team, as they did in the spring. Head coach Jim Mora, in fact, threw in true freshman Lokeni Toailoa into that competition as well, though he has been manning the third-team spot throughout camp. Young has looked better in his reads than he did in spring, but he's always been a solid practice player that hasn't quite taken that next step on Saturdays. Savaiinaea, meanwhile, has looked determined to earn the job, breaking quickly to the football and looking very capable in run support. Toailoa has transformed his body quite a bit from a year ago and should contribute this season.

Kenny Young & Jayon Brown

Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge have been the starting outside linebackers, while Josh Woods has backed them up with the second team. Brown usually makes his presence known in practice, flying all over in coverage and in pursuit of the football. He also has some blitzing capability that probably has defensive coordinator Tom Bradley excited heading into the season. Judge has been a major contributor on special teams in his collegiate career and is getting his first opportunity as an every-down player, and the situations haven't looked too big for him. We would expect Woods to push for that spot, though, simply because of his versatility and physicality.

With Juarez gone, true freshman Breland Brandt ran with the twos opposite of Woods and didn't appear flustered despite playing low-level competition in high school. He, too, has some pass-rushing qualities as a stand-up defender in certain packages. Krys Barnes and Leni Toailoa are two other freshmen that have looked promising in drills, but given the numbers ahead of them, are likely candidates to sit out the year.

Cornerbacks

The return of Fabian Moreau has been key and his health moving forward would be of paramount importance for the potential of this secondary. Through the first week, the senior has essentially shut down his side of the field, matching up well against Eldridge Massington and forcing the quarterbacks to look elsewhere when they scan down field.

Nate Meadors has been the other starting cornerback, but he's being pushed by Marcus Rios and Johnny Johnson for that spot. We would expect all three to play given their experience. Meadors might not have one outstanding trait, but he's done a decent job against the fleet-footed Kenny Walker on the outside. A receiver like Alex Van Dyke, with his overwhelming size, has given him some trouble. Rios and Johnson have also made their share of plays in one-on-one battles, so position coach Demetrice Martin has reason to be excited if all the components are able to stay on the field.

Johnny Johnson (Steve Cheng).

Octavius Spencer and Denzel Fisher have been working with the third unit, and have been carved up quite a bit by former walk-on Mike Fafaul. Spencer in particular has been unable to contain Ishmael Adams in the slot, while Fisher remains an easy target on deeper routes. True freshman Keyon Riley has gotten some work, too, but probably won't see game action in 2016.

Safeties

After exclusively playing cornerback in the spring due to low numbers at the position, fifth-year senior Randall Goforth is back at safety alongside Jaleel Wadood on the first-team defense.

Goforth, interestingly enough, has also been the first choice at nickelback in that five-man package, with Tahaan Goodman sliding into the vacant safety spot. The Bruins would need Goodman to produce closer to the box for that lineup to be effective, and he's laid some big hits this camp to suggest he's ready for that responsibility. Wadood and Goforth also take pride in their tackling abilities closer to the line of scrimmage, but they have room to improve as far as coverage is concerned.

Like other positions on this defense, safety has some really solid depth up and down the chart. Will Lockett and Adarius Pickett have been standouts with the second team and, right now, could be considered interchangeable pieces with those ahead of them on the list. They both play fast and show great instincts.

Newcomer Brandon Burton, a former four-star athlete who many considered to be a better wide receiver in high school, has been one of the bigger surprises of camp, looking mentally and physically ready to contribute. There are quite a few players in front of him but, based on what he's shown through Week 1, it would not be shocking at all if he saw the field at some point this year. Dechaun Holiday, meanwhile, has been rather underwhelming, failing to stay with receivers and unable to make plays on the football. Like Burton, he was a standout receiver in high school and we would not be stunned if a move was explored on that front.

Special Teams

The new kickers started off a bit slowly in fall camp, but then in the last several days have looked solid. Freshman field goal kicker J.J. Molson and redshirt freshman kicker Andrew Strauch combined to go 7 of 8 from distances between 32 and 48 yards on Saturday.  Molson generally did better in spring, and so far this fall both he and Strauch look pretty close, so it's a good thing that UCLA has two capable kickers. You can probably anticipate some newcomer-type issues, though, once they're actually kicking in a game. Perhaps it's just that the field goal game has a range limit of 45-48 yards (It actually might be a good thing -- force UCLA's offense to go for it more on fourth down on the offensive side of the field).  With kick-offs, both look strong, putting just about every kick-off at least 5 yards deep in the endzone consistently in practice.

Austin Kent

There's also a new freshman scholarship punter, Austin Kent, and he's only punted off to the side and not in a live or semi-live team drills yet, at least to our knowledge. He appears to have some explosion off his leg. Late this week, walk-on punter Stefan Flintoft joined practice; Flintoft showed some promise in spring, so it's good to have him back on the roster.  We'll hopefully get to see the punters in team punting drills in San Bernardino.

Even the longsnapper is a newbie freshman, Johnny Den Bleyker.  The biggest adaption to now having Den Bleyker is that his snaps are faster and stronger than those of walk-on linebacker Willie Green, so the process and mechanics of a kick or punt changes a bit.  

Kick-off and punt return has been Ishmael Adams, Stephen Johnson, Jordan Lasley, Mossi Johnson and freshman tailback Brandon Stephens.  That's generally the order they take reps at returning kicks, so it seems like that's the hierarchy.  We know that freshman receiver Theo Howard, when he returns from his hamstring (which should be in San Bernardino), will be part of this also. 


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