UCLA's secondary was one of the best-performing units in the country last year, statistically speaking. The Bruins allowed a minuscule 5.7 yards per pass attempt all year, which was good for fourth in the country and second in the conference behind Washington. And it wasn't like UCLA was just bending and breaking -- the Bruins also were top 30 in the country in completion percentage allowed.
Much of that effort, of course, was led by Fabian Moreau, the senior cornerback who finally put everything together for an elite senior year. We had long talked about Moreau's ball skills being the one fly in the ointment for him, but he was much better with the ball in the air last year than he'd ever been at UCLA. Coupled with that, his elite athleticism and recovery ability made him one of the best corners in the league last year. He has graduated now, and that absolutely leaves a void. Marcus Rios is also gone, and he, too, brought a great deal of valuable experience to the secondary as a backup corner.
Randall Goforth is also gone, and his versatility and depth of experience is something that will not be easily replaced. His absence at safety will be a void, but it will be interesting to see if UCLA is able to get a little bigger at that position in his absence. That could serve to help the run defense, even if there is some drop off in terms of pass defense. Tahaan Goodman has also exhausted his eligibility after tantalizing us over the years with his potential. He was starting to put it together last year, it seemed, and if he'd managed to find a redshirt year at some point over the last three years, it would have been fun to see what he would have looked like this coming season.
Other than those four, though, the secondary returns mostly intact from last year, and that's a very good thing. While some guys will need to step up, this unit, as with the defensive line, has been recruited so well over the years by Demetrice Martin that there are plenty of very talented options to fill the shoes of the departed.
A Look at Spring
First, we know with relative certainty that Nathan Meadors will start at one corner position and that Jaleel Wadood, at least in the base defense, will start at one safety spot (we wouldn't rule out Wadood moving to nickel when UCLA goes with five defensive backs). Meadors was very good last year in his first full year of starting -- not quite at Moreau's level, but he showed nice anticipation and instincts for the position, and the reps he got last year should serve him well now that he'll be, likely, the No. 1 guy this year. Wadood also had a solid year, and we're excited to see what he can do when he's paired with a bigger safety next to him.
That bigger safety is likely going to be Adarius Pickett. Pickett made a big impact last year as a backup, looking like he was always around the ball ready to make a play, and we've heard rumblings from within the program that he's made another leap this offseason. His progress has been fun to watch over the year -- starting as a corner his freshman year, he didn't look comfortable at all, but beginning in fall camp in 2015 and then continuing through last year, his trajectory as a prospect has skyrocketed. There was an argument to be made that he was worthy of starting last year, even over Wadood or the senior Goforth. His combo of size and athleticism makes him an ideal two-way player at safety, with the physicality to bring the wood in the box but also the ability to cover deep.
The other corner spot is a bit of a mystery still, but it should be a fun competition to watch. First, in terms of returning guys, we've heard some nice things about Denzel Fisher this offseason, that things have really started to click for him, which would be good to see. We've also heard a lot of rumbling within the program that Keyon Riley is one to watch. The long cornerback has apparently been matching up against Adewale Omotosho (who has also reportedly looked very good) all offseason in informal workouts and the match-ups have been really fun and even ones. We haven't heard much about Colin Samuel this offseason, but we heard good things about him during his redshirt year, so we'll see what he looks like this spring. And then there's Johnny Johnson, who was able to make it back to the field last year for some time after ending his 2015 season with another shoulder injury. If UCLA can get even a little out of him, that would be a win.
But, obviously, you're not sitting here trying to read about a bunch of guys you already know about -- Darnay Holmes is here! And the early returns we've heard are that he's a true freak, the kind that UCLA really hasn't had at the skill positions in a long, long time. His athleticism has already shone in offseason workouts, and it's a fair bet he'll get a good shot to win the starting job at corner. The only thing we've heard at this point that's a slight negative is that he'll need some time to really hone his technique at corner, as he's been able to rely on his excellent athleticism to a greater extent at the high school level. Perhaps the biggest question then is whether so much of his time in spring will be spent really getting the technique down at corner that he doesn't get a chance to moonlight on offense. It should be interesting to see, but the competition for the open corner spot certainly seems like it could be his for the taking.
The final "starting" spot is whoever comes in when UCLA goes to nickel. Looking at the roster, the best nickel-type that we see is probably Wadood, so that would mean likely bringing in a safety when UCLA goes with five defensive backs. We could absolutely see Brandon Burton filling that role; we heard great things about him last year, and he did some nice work on special teams as well. Octavius Spencer or William Lockett could also fill that role, with Spencer obviously having the most experience of the bunch. Spencer is probably the most versatile defensive back on the team now that Goforth is gone, with the ability to play each of safety, nickel, and corner.
Looking at the depth chart, there are two at least decent guys at every position -- and there are four more talented freshmen arriving in fall camp. The job Martin has done restocking the shelves in the secondary has been superb.
Projected Spring Two-Deep
CB: Meadors, Riley
S: Wadood, Burton
S: Pickett, Spencer
Nickel: Wadood, Spencer
CB: Holmes, Fisher