In our defensive line review, we basically gave out the award for the best all-around unit, in terms of talent and depth, to the DL, but the secondary definitely could make an argument.
UCLA defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin has built himself a strong three-deep made up of four-year-type of talent and then NFL-level talent. You could easily make the argument that the secondary over the last couple of years has been the best unit on the field for UCLA and spring practice in April only provided you more confidence that the streak will probably continue.
Positional MVP -- Adarius Pickett
For probably the last year and a half, we've maintained that Adarius Pickett was not only among the best defensive backs, but might have been the best defensive back on the team, and among the best all-around players on the roster. He proved it (again) this spring. With the departure of Randall Goforth, Pickett stepped in to a clear-starting role at safety and had perhaps the best spring of any player on the IM Field. He impacted the practice more consistently than anyone, made big plays, made small plays, and took his game of physical ball hawk to the next level. We didn't go back and count, but he might have had 7 or 8 interceptions in team periods during April. Wearing the head band with an emblazoned "Pick-6" on it, which was made by his mom for him, was absolutely well-deserved. We think that Pickett has the capability of setting the type of tone that the UCLA defense will be in 2017 -- that of a predatory, physically imposing one.
Best Younger Player -- Darnay Holmes
This is easy. Darnay Holmes, the five-star early entrant, absolutely lived up to his five-star hype, coming in early for spring practice and showing an immense level of talent. He started off a bit slowly, but then started flashing, mostly using his difference-making quickness to stay with receivers in coverage. As we've said before, Holmes is still raw in his coverage technique, even, and the coverage ability he displayed in spring practice based mostly on just pure talent was one of the few most impressive elements of UCLA's spring practice. He continued to get better as the month wore on, and it was clear that he had moved up to first-string nickel and had put himself in a position to compete for the opening starting corner spot in fall.
One of the most deflating developments of spring was the elbow injury to Denzel Fisher, the redshirt junior cornerback, that sent him to the sideline for the last two weeks or so. When it comes to player development, the hope of all college coaches everywhere is that you'll recruit a player that has some potential physically and athletically, and that you'll bring him into the program, develop him, and within a couple years he'll develop to the point that he's a starter-level player or even a star. This spring it looked like that was the potential storyline for Fisher, who stepped into the open starting cornerback spot for spring practice with the departure of Fabian Moreau, and before the injury, didn't relinquish it. Fisher showed consistently that he was worthy of the spot, looking like he had taken his game to another level, displaying a Pac-12-level-starting capability to stay with his man in coverage. He looked like he had gained a ton of confidence over the last time we really got to watch him (last fall). His development, on full display in April's first two weeks, was one of the most critical aspects of the defense looking like they'd be able to make up for the loss of some key personnel from last season.
It's a testament to how deep the secondary is now that perhaps the most consistently good defensive back for April, returning starting corner Nathan Meadors, is mentioned just fourth in this review. Meadors went about his business quietly but solidly, showing that he, too, had taken his game to another level after a very solid year as a starting corner in 2016. He, like the rest of the unit, looked more confident, and Meadors appeared to add more physicality to his play.
That's one thing to note: The entire secondary under Martin was exceedingly physical all spring. Sometimes that bordered on pass interference, but most of the time it was a dominating force in both the one-on-ones and team periods. Martin's guys are physical from the first initial bump at the line of scrimmage, move their receiver off their route and then are so good at closing and disrupting at the point of the catch. Not only can you expect UCLA's secondary to be a more physical one because of Pickett taking over the starting safety spot, but because, as a unit, they showed an increased capability of playing physically in spring.
Player Who Most Needs To Step Up -- Jaleel Wadood
Returning starting safety Jaleel Wadood had a solid practice, and while Martin was trying to find some answers at the corner starting spot, the nickel position and his rotation, it was good to know that Wadood's experience was there as an anchor. Only because there were so many guys around him stepping up are we giving the designation of most-needing-to-step-up to Wadood -- since he seemed to hold steady at the level he's been rather than take it to a Pickett-like level. We think there's a chance actually: With so many guys around him playing at a high level and so reliably, we think it provides Wadood a chance to make more plays this fall.
One of the most interesting stories of spring was Mossi Johnson, and how he made the conversion from receiver to safety over the course of practice. The senior started out with the receivers, then dabbled with the DBs. In one practice, in one specific drill, he was actually switching jerseys and hopping from offense to defense and back. Once he shined a couple of days playing safety he settled in with a white jersey. He made some nice breakups, and then both he and Martin admitted that, while Johnson had a good natural instinct to play safety, he had a great deal to learn in terms of scheme and assignments. By the end of April it looked like he had taken a leap in terms of his knowledge of the position. Given the natural ability, the hope is that the position and scheme knowledge will take a leap forward in the off-season and Johnson will be in the rotation by fall.
The rest of the defensive backs also showed that UCLA is going to have a very playable second- and third-string. The obvious development of guys like Colin Samuel and Keyon Riley gave the secondary a completely different level of depth. Samuel, who was hurt for a good portion of fall camp in 2016 (so we couldn't see him), had a good spring, showing that he was capable of still being a cornerback when we might have been suspecting that he was getting too big for the position. He is definitely the press type of corner and not as good at tracking his man in the open field, but he showed some capability of doing both this spring. Riley, in the off-season, had some buzz going, that he was really a guy to watch, and he didn't necessarily blow up in April but he did show that some of the hype was warranted. He also showed the coverage ability to play at corner and looked good the first two weeks, but then looked like he got a little worn down the last two. These two guys -- Samuel, the 6-3 redshirt sophomore, and Riley, the 6-0 redshirt freshman -- are guys that will continue to allow Martin to play the style he likes, which features big, physical corners.
It's crazy to realize that Octavius Spencer is a junior, albeit a true junior. He's been one of the first few guys off the bench for Martin the last couple of seasons, mostly at safety, but he got some time at cornerback this spring after Fisher went down. Martin likes his DBs versatile, and Spencer is probably the No. 1 versatile "swing" guy he has, showing he's capable of playing corner, safety and nickel.
When Wadood was kicked out of practice, William Lockett stepped in with the ones, and that one practice was probably his best day of spring. The redshirt sophomore, after having a noteworthy fall a couple of years ago, has been a bit forgotten as so many other players have stepped up in the secondary, but Lockett had a good spring and showed he, too, is very capable of stepping in and playing in Wadood's spot in a back-up role.
It's a testament to how well Martin has developed the secondary that, in spring, when usually it's difficult for a college football team to fill out a two-deep, even sometimes a one-deep, Martin went 9 players deep. And that was even after Johnny Johnson, who began spring as the starter at corner, left the program, too. And that was even after losing a player, Brandon Burton, to the linebacking crew. And that's even with four more very talented 2017 freshmen poised to come into the program this fall -- Elijah Gates, Jaylan Shaw, Quentin Lake and Morrell Osling.
The defensive backs, for the most part, dominated the receivers in spring. Of course, the chicken-or-the-egg thing applies: Are UCLA's DBs actually that good or are UCLA's receivers just not that good? It could be some of both, but it got to to point in April that you had to recognize it was probably mostly that the DBs were, actually, that good. The takeaway developments from spring were this: Fisher, Samuels and Holmes are guys who are absolutely capable of starting in the Pac-12, and that Pickett might be the best all-around player on the team (Can we see him one more time at running back?). Plug that into Meadors and Wadood and add even more playable depth and the DBs, as a group, are among the two best units on the team.