Last season's team had six senior defensive linemen, and the depth of the unit after losing those six looked like it would be particularly thin. It looked even thinner – almost emaciated – when Junior Lemau'u, the freshman defensive end was removed from the team.
Things look quite a bit better now, with the recruiting class that the coaching just signed perhaps having its biggest impact on this unit and Lemau'u recently being reinstated to the team.
But it's a unit that is going to be in a rebuilding phase. Losing six veterans, even if you're replacing them with more talented players, is a big blow. And the guys UCLA is replacing – particularly Dave Ball and Rodney Leisle – weren't exactly slackers.
There are more defensive end types on the roster so it's believed that some of the players will develop into defensive tackles, and it looked like it was going that way for some in practice this season.
With the starting spots wide open, competition will come from every conceivable source – returning players, JC transfers and incoming freshmen. The defensive end spots look to be the most competitive with possibly seven players vying for the four spots on the two-deep.
The player that most observers believe has the best chance of becoming a star on either the scout team offense or defense was freshman defensive end Bruce Davis. Lining up against the starting offensive linemen for most of the season on the scout team defensive line, he was clearly difficult to contain. He was very quick off the line, and had great natural pass-rushing moves. He redshirted because he still was pretty lean, at about 220 pounds, and there were those seniors ahead of him. He looked like he got bigger and bulkier as the season progresses, and the word is that he's close to about 240 now. Many close to the situation believe that, among the current defensive linemen on the roster, he has the best chance of stepping into one of the open starting defensive end positions.
The coaches are confident that the JC transfer Kyle Morgan is an impact player. There hasn't been much word about how he looks in the workouts since enrolling at UCLA in January, but nothing to dispel the original assertion that Morgan will compete for one of the open starting defensive end positions.
Lemau'u, after getting playing time last season because he was the best young defensive end on the team that was physically ready to play, could very well be good enough this season to secure one of those starting defensive end spots.
Probably the other leading contender for playing time at defensive end is going to be true freshman Brigham Harwell. While it's a tough leap going from high school to playing defensive end in the Pac-10, if there's anyone who can keep pace with the jump in speed and quickness it's Harwell. It's, of course, near impossible to project how big of an impact Harwell can make as a freshman, but given the wide open situation on the defensive line, and given his talent, it's not farfetched to believe he'll make the two-deep.
Those four would probably be the leading candidates for the two-deep at defensive end.
Kevin Harbour will be a redshirt sophomore, and with the senior depth, didn't get much playing time last season. Harbour had a good year in practice generally. It's been thought that Harbour could maybe move inside, given the potential for more playing time probably at the defensive tackle positions but it's only been speculation.
A scout familiar with Justin Hickman, the other JC transfer, indicated that Hickman isn't someone you'd want to neglect to consider. Hickman has good quickness and feet. Being a sophomore next and with four years to play three, though, it's thought that Hickman, who is kind of a tweener between defensive end and tackle at 6-2 and 260, could be developed at tackle – again where there is less depth.
William Snead will be a redshirt freshman next season, and spent the year on the scout team. While he came to UCLA as a potential strongside linebacker, he lined up most of the season on the scout team at defensive end. A few sources said it wasn't necessarily an indication that Snead would play defensive end but that the scout team needed him to fill the position. It's believed that Snead might have a body better suited to defensive end – being pretty darn tall at 6-4+ and possibly lacking the quickness to play linebacker. He came to UCLA at 215 pounds but is thought to be in the 230-235 range now.
It's pretty well accepted that C.J. Niusulu, who will be a junior, and sophomore-to-be Kevin Brown, are slated for the two starting defensive tackle positions. It would take something particularly unexpected for them to be unseated.
Behind them, the two-deep spots are up for grabs. As stated, it could be a situation where Hickman and/or Harbour move there and get written into the two-deep at defensive tackle. The freshman who redshirted, Noah Sutherland, who is 6-5 and probably 260 now, is another who was first considered a defensive end but many believe will move to tackle next season. The coaches were generally pleased with Sutherland and his all-around toughness, and it's believed he'll compete for a two-deep spot. There is also sophomore-to-be Thomas Patton, who was hampered a bit by injuries last season, and it's hoped that Patton will step up this spring and be a solid back-up at a tackle position.
It would be surprising if the two incoming freshman, Kenneth Lombard and Chris Johnson, didn't redshirt. Both need to mature physically and improve their strength, and don't project as being able to contribute as true freshmen.
The work to be done is to replace Pac-10 tackle champ, departing senior Brandon Chillar at the weakside position.
Junior-to-be Wesley Walker backed up Havner at the stronside position for most of the season, but it's believed he could get first crack at the open starting weakside position. Havner, with pass coverage ability, would probably stay at the strongside position and Walker would make the transition to the weakside.
The coaches like the tenacity of former walk-on Ben Lorier, who will be a senior next year. But after Havner, London and Walker, there isn't much confidence in the back-ups at linebacker. It's the primary reason why many are hoping that JC transfer Dan Nelson, who will be a sophomore, will offer another linebacker option. It's thought that he'll come in and compete with Walker for the open weakside starting position, but he could also end up backing up the other two spots also, wherever there is the biggest need.
UCLA returns senior-to-be Tim Warfield, who was the back-up at middle linebacker for last season, and the hope is that he'll provide solid play there next season. There is also strongside backer Xavier Burgess, who will be a sophomore. He was in and out of the coaches' doghouse last year. The hope is that he can provide some relief for Havner next year. Patrick Pierre-Louis has been the supreme doghouse resident. Fighting off injuries at the beginning of last season, once recovered he never got back on the field or in the rotation at the weakside position and was overtaken by Lorier. One of the reasons UCLA thought it had to go out and get a JC linebacker was the uncertainty concerning the potential contributions of Warfield, Burgess and Pierre-Louis.
Aaron Whittington, who came to UCLA originally as a very slight defensive end, redshirted and spent the year at the weakside linebacker position on the scout team. Generally reviews of Whittington were good. He still looks fairly small, not appearing to weigh more than 215 pounds, but he has good mobility and quickness. It's thought that he'll be in the mix of the competition for the two-deep at weakside linebacker.
While there could be an opportunity on the two deep, incoming freshman Fred Holmes isn't believed to be ready to compete for early playing time.
It's funny how losing one player can change the complexion of an entire defensive backfield.
With Matt Ware, you have four returning starters, a huge anchor to the unit as the boundary cornerback and a potential All-American. Without him, you suddenly lack a reliable cornerback, which, on paper, makes the defensive backfield look far more vulnerable.
With his loss to the NFL, and with the other corner, Matt Clark, being a senior, UCLA needed to bring in some cornerback prospects – and needs some currently on the roster to step up. Even just looking at next year and not further down the line, Clark had a relatively suspect junior season last year, and the time is now for at least one other cornerback to emerge.
Junior-to-be Marcus Cassel, sophomore Mil'Von James and redshirt freshman Trey Brown will be the three most likely to compete for the open starting position. Cassel has shown flashes over the last couple of years but the light hasn't turned on yet, still lacking the aggressiveness. The coaches, on the other hand. liked James enough to not redshirt him and have him play on special teams last year. He's thought to have good natural instincts and aggressiveness, but is still raw in his cornerback skills. Trey Brown, the son of Bruin great Theotis Brown, won the defensive scout team player of the year. Brown, despite having a thick body for a corner, is perhaps the best combined technically and physically.
Jebiaus Brown, who will be a sophomore next year, is a bit of a mystery. He suffered concussive syndrome in fall practice and sat out a few weeks, which set him back considerably. He then was cleared by doctors, but still complained of headaches, and only got mixed into practice late in the season. He has nice physical tools but after such a strange year at this point not much is expected of him.
Joe Garcia will also be a sophomore, and hasn't caught on completely just yet to the speed and physical aspect of playing the position. He has, though, continued to improve, and had moments in practice this year.
Such question marks at cornerback has led many to believe that incoming freshman Rodney Van could have a fairly good chance to make the two-deep. Van's only drawback is his thinness, but he has probably the best ability among anyone on the roster. It's thought that Byron Velega will get a chance to compete but will probably redshirt and that speedster Michael Norris will need at least a year to get bigger physically.
Safety could be the best position on the team, with probably the most talent and the most depth. The two starting positions are set with two very good returning starters in Ben Emanuel and Jarrad Page. They are immediately backed up by junior-to-be Nnamdi Ohaeri and Eric McNeal, who will be a sophomore. Ohaeri is thought to be one of the best all-around football players on the team, and packs the biggest by-pound punch of anyone on the defense. While there hasn't been any real word about it, it would be interesting to see if Ohaeri could potentially be moved to compete for the open starting cornerback position. He was, though, moved to safety because he has more of a mindset and the game of a safety rather than a corner. But there's always the old adage: get your best players on the field. McNeal, who was thought to be a very good talent out of high school, had the light come on this season and looked very good in backing up Page.
So, those four make up the two-deep, but there should be some legitimate competition for playing time from the two redshirt-freshmen-to-be, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes. Horton and Keyes were both generally well-praised for their work on the scout team this season, especially Horton, who earned a rep for having a great burst to the ball and a penchant for hitting, looking very much like a younger version of Jarrad Page. They're both good enough to push the four players that are slotted ahead of them and have a shot at moving up.