UCLA is now 3-5 and 1-4 in conference. There is virtually no chance that the Bruins would win the Pac-12 South even if they won out (UCLA would have to win out, beating Colorado and USC, Colorado would have to lose every game but Utah, Utah would have to lose out, and USC would have to take at least one other loss besides UCLA, probably against Washington). And without a realistic chance at the Pac-12 South, there really isn't a major remaining goal for the season aside from those that have carried over since the Lost Decade: make a bowl game and beat USC.
So, given that there isn't much left to play for aside from pride, these final four games can be used as an opportunity to develop the kind of team UCLA will want to have next year, whether that means defining the schemes a little better, switching things up, or changing rotations of players. Since it's a bye week, we're going to take some time the next couple of days to go through what we'd like to see from the team over these final four games.
We covered the offense yesterday, and today we'll look at the defense and special teams.
http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1721297-approach-for-the-final-4... Figure Out Your Base Defense
UCLA subtly adjusted things after the UNLV game this year, going much more toward a 4-3/Cover 1 look as its base defense, which has allowed UCLA to be more aggressive up front while taking advantage of the Bruins' excellent cornerback play. It was a nice reaction to what strengths UCLA showed as a defense, and it helped UCLA shore up the run defense and also develop more of a pass rush as the season has gone on.
The question is what defense is going to work next year. While we think Cover 1 makes sense, since the secondary still projects as a strength for UCLA's defense even without Fabian Moreau, Marcus Rios, and Randall Goforth, what front UCLA decides to run is slightly more questionable. UCLA loses McKinley this offseason, and he's the only really dynamic defensive end UCLA has. We like Rick Wade, but his body type is designed more to be a 3-4 end in the Stanford mold. Keisean Lucier-South is still pretty undersized, and both Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner are best suited to play inside in a 4-3 or maybe end in a 3-4. So, you project UCLA having Wade as a potential defensive end and then...true freshman Jaelan Phillips? Maybe Breland Brandt flips to defensive line?
In any case, the major thing we'd like to see from UCLA over the next four games is sticking with the Cover 1 that has made the secondary so tough to deal with. It'd be unrealistic for UCLA to change front alignments this late in the season, but it might be worth starting to contemplate the move back to a 3-4, since the quality of ends on the roster seems to dictate that switch.
Adjust Playing Time in Secondary
First, and foremost, before we start talking about changes in the secondary, we have to acknowledge that the secondary, on the whole, has been quite good this year. Cornerback play especially, at least until the recent injury to Nathan Meadors, has been excellent, with near blanket coverage making UCLA one of the top teams in the country in terms of yards per attempt. Simply put, UCLA's starting corners do not get beaten to anywhere near the extent that has been true in the past.
If there is a weakness in this group, we'd say it is the same one that came to light toward the end of last year, and that is its undersized safeties. While we love the experience of both Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth, there is an element where they are just too undersized to play the position as effectively as is needed against the run. In Goforth's case, he also hasn't been lock down in coverage this year, and it might make more sense to start working in some younger guys a bit more to prepare for next year.
Adarius Pickett is an obvious one of those guys. He's already playing a lot, but given how well he has played, there's an argument that he shouldn't leave the field. We're not sure of Brandon Burton's current health, but if he's ready to go, he's already played this year and it would be worthwhile to see what he can do out there. Pickett, though, is the obvious future at one of the safety spots, and he should absolutely be playing as much as humanly possible given the quality of his play this year.
Give Younger Players More Time in the Front Seven
We don't want to overreact to one game, but it was disconcerting to see UCLA's middle linebacker Kenny Young revert once again to his major issues from last year and the early part of this year: indecision, tentative play, and an inability to read where a play was headed. Young is now a junior, and while he's shown some progress this year at times, he's still far too inconsistent and it's difficult to count on him to hold down that spot next year when, again, UCLA is in a must-win season in 2017.
Given that, we'd like to see UCLA experiment a bit over the remainder of this season with Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes, who have both already burned their redshirts playing on special teams. Toailoa in particular impressed us in spring and fall camp, and he already has almost a year of being immersed in this system -- in other words, he probably wouldn't be completely swimming in terms of knowing the scheme. It might be worth whatever drop-off there is in performance, if there is one, to give Toailoa some real time in the defense and get him ready for next year when he presumably will compete for the starting job.
Additionally, while this already seems to be happening to an extent, we'd like to see Josh Woods get even more time. It's clear the game is still a bit fast to him, but it's equally clear that he has immense untapped physical ability. More experience can only help. On the defensive line, the only real note is that we'd like to see more Rick Wade, since he'll have to take on a bigger role next year no matter what defense UCLA ends up running since Takkarist McKinley will no longer be at UCLA.
Experiment at Kick Returner
We love what Ishmael Adams brought to the table as a kick returner in 2014 when he first started at that position, but he really hasn't been very good since then, and this year he has been actively below average. He doesn't make consistently good decisions on when to return and when to fair catch, his vision doesn't seem to be as good, and, most importantly, he looks very much like he's lost a step. In any case, he's also a senior, and won't be returning. Time to give other people a shot.
One of those other people is Pickett. While, again, he had some issues in one game catching punts, he's also shown considerable explosion at times, giving us memories of that fall camp he spent at running back during his freshman year (when he looked like a stud, for those who are relatively new to BRO). We'll chalk up that one game of bad hands as an anomaly until we see that more often, and in any case, Adams has been no sure thing catching the ball either.
We'd also like to see Jordan Lasley and Theo Howard get shots as well. Lasley was a pretty good kick returner in high school, and has deceptively good speed for a guy his size. Howard, obviously, can be electric with the ball in his hands, and this could be an easy way to get him on the field more without theoretically sacrificing any theoretical blocking. Use more guys too -- we'd love to get a look at everyone. If we remember, no one had any idea that Adams would be able to do it until desperation struck and he was thrust back there. Make it an open competition and have tryouts in practice.
Exhibit Patience with the Freshman Specialists
We get the frustration with both J.J. Molson and Austin Kent thus far this year, but benching both at this point strikes us as a little short-sighted, especially now that the season is effectively over from a realistic goal standpoint. There's little to be lost by sticking with both of them and allowing them to get more reps in live games, where they can learn to deal with the pressure of the moment a little bit more. If they continue to struggle, then UCLA will know it needs to prioritize a real kicking competition in the offseason. And if they do well, then UCLA will have gotten them through a rough patch and have them poised for a good sophomore season. Some combination of Adam Searl, Stefan Flintoft, and Andrew Strauch is probably not the long term future at either kicker or punter.