Spring Football Preview: Defense

With only two returning senior starters, UCLA's defense heading into spring practice has a great many questions to answer. First things first, it has to replace its four starters on the defensive line...

DEFENSIVE LINE

Here's an eye-opener: Among UCLA's defensive front seven, there isn't one projected senior starter, and not one senior who you would project as a major contributor in the two-deep.

The defensive line, as we know, lost six seniors to graduation, including four starters.

C.J. Niusulu (JR, 6-2, 285) will be the veteran of the group at one defensive tackle position, and he's never really started. He did look good last year, bringing explosion and quickness to the position, but it will be a transition for him playing a full game rather than just 20 downs.

Projected to start at the other tackle position will be Kevin Brown (SO, 6-2, 290) who also brings more athleticism to the line, but quite a bit of inexperience also.

But comparatively to the defensive ends, the tackles are old war horses. On the depth chart going into practice at defensive end there is only one player among the six who has D-1 experience, and very little of that. Among the other five, two are JC transfers, one will be a redshirt freshman, and two are walk-ons.

The one with experience is Kevin Harbour (SO, 6-4, 260), who played very limited minutes in five games last season. Harbour has continued to develop physically and appears ready for a starting role. Listed as a starter right now at the other defensive end position is JC transfer Kyle Morgan (JR, 6-3, 260). Morgan has, at least, the rep for being able to compete for a starting position among those vying for it, being recruited by various big-named schools and having gone to Miami out of high school. One of the biggest draws for spring is seeing just how good Morgan is.

Behind those projected starters, at defensive end is promising Bruce Davis (R-FR, 6-3, 240), who looked very impressive on the scout team last season, being the quick-off-the-end type UCLA hasn't seemed to have had recently. The question is how strong and big he is, at 240, which could limit him to being only a rush specialist. This spring will determine if he's ready for more. One of the JC transfers, Justin Hickman (SO, 6-1, 270), is listed behind Davis, and Hickman is thought to be good enough, and physically developed enough, to make at least the two-deep. He'll be trying to prove it over the next few weeks. Nikola Dragovic (R-FR, 6-3, 245) will take a shot at his third position since arriving at UCLA less than a year ago. He came in as a center prospect, but his body is the type that can't put on more bulk, being pretty muscled as he is. He tried his hand as a fullback last season, but now has made the change to defensive end. He moved to defensive end because it suited him better, while UCLA also needed some more bodies at the thin position. The walk-on Phillip Rauscher (R-FR, 6-4, 265) has gotten quite a bit bigger and stronger, and could be good enough down the line to add solid depth at end.

At tackle, Junior Lemau'u (SO, 6-3, 270) makes the switch from end, now weighing in at 270. It could be his better position, with more straight-ahead ability than lateral quickness. With the loss of Thomas Patton to academics, it's critical UCLA gets a third defensive tackle for next season, so Lemau'u's performance this spring will be watched closely. Noah Sutherland (R-FR, 6-4, 265) also made the move inside. The general feeling is that Sutherland has a good chance to be a solid contributor, and the coaches would like to see that happen sooner (as in spring) rather than later.

LINEBACKER

A couple of months ago the coaches thought they'd move Justin London (JR, 6-1, 235) to the outside linebacker position and move Wesley Walker (JR, 6-3, 230) inside. But initially for spring practice London will start off at his starting position from last season, middle linebacker, and Walker will try his hand at outside linebacker, stepping in for the departed Brandon Chillar. London, after a very good sophomore season, will be looking to step up into star status, and will take over the reigns as the natural leader of the defense starting this spring. After being the first linebacker off the bench last season, Walker will become a starter, and this spring will try to solidify it. The third starter is Spencer Havner (JR, 6-4, 240), who, as a two-year starter, will also try to take on a leadership role this spring.

The projected back-ups are a mysterious group. After Xavier Burgess was suspended from the team, it leaves just William Snead (R-FR, 6-4, 230) the only back-up at the outside backer position. Snead looked good on the scout team, but we'll see if he has the speed and quickness for the position this spring; he might be an under-weight defensive end. At the MLB position, Tim Warfield (SR, 6-2, 240) has yet to really prove he can play significant minutes, which he'll try to do this spring. It will be interesting in the next month to see if JC transfer Dan Nelson (SO, 6-1, 240) has the capability to overtake Warfield. Backing up Havner is a former walk-on in Ben Lorier (SR, 5-11, 220) and an underweight redshirt freshman, Aaron Whittington (R-FR, 6-2, 205), as well as Patrick Pierre-Louis (SR, 6-0, 225), a senior who has yet to show this staff he can play. Whittington will be a player to watch this spring, to see if he can compete with Lorier for the two-deep.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

With Matt Ware, you would say this would be a strength of the team. Without Matt Ware, the outlook is quite a bit more cloudy. Matt Clark (SR, 5-9, 190) seems a lot more reliable when he's opposite Ware, not when he's the returning veteran. The word is that he has gotten quite a bit stronger in the off-season, trying to become a more physical corner, which would help. Slated as the guy who would step in to Ware's position is Nnamdi Ohaeri (JR, 5-10, 200). Watching Ohaeri at corner would have been one of the most compelling aspects of the spring, but he'll sit out at least the majority of it, just coming off recent surgery. On the other hand, it opens up an opportunity for someone else to step up and showcase what they can do. Trey Brown (R-FR, 5-10, 195) had a good year on the scout team last season. Jebiaus Brown (SO, 6-1, 190) spent last season on the sideline with a very prolonged concussion, but he reportedly has looked very good in the off-season. Marcus Cassel (JR, 6-0, 185) has always had the athletic tools, but just not the aggressiveness, so it'd be good if he found it this spring. Mil'Von James (SO, 6-0, 200) saw time on special teams because of his aggressiveness, even though he could be a long ways away technically at corner. It would also be good if the light went on for Joe Garcia (SO, 6-0, 185) this spring.

Spring will be a time when Ben Emanuel (SR, 6-3. 220) should step up and become a leader of the offense. Jarrad Page (JR, 6-2, 215) will be splitting time with baseball, and was just recently injured, which should limit his time even more this spring.

At safety, probably one of the best second stringers on the team is Eric McNeal (SO, 6-2, 215). He played very well toward the end of the season last year, and had a good bowl game. It will be fun to see how much better and confident he'll get this spring. It will also be interesting to get our real first true looks at heralded safeties Dennis Keyes (R-FR, 6-1, 195) and Chris Horton (R-FR, 6-1, 195) who had good years on the scout team.

SPECIAL TEAMS

UCLA returns its kicking specialists in punter Chris Kluwe (SR, 6-5, 215) and place kicker Justin Medlock (SO, 6-0, 195). Both Kluwe and Medlock had solid seasons in 2003, so they should provide UCLA very good kicking if they just continue to develop and improve their consistency.

At longsnapper, UCLA has practically an entire team of its own. Riley Jondle (SO, 6-3, 205) carried most of the duties last season and did a good job. Joe Tomasello (JR, 6-0, 220) came to UCLA last fall as a longsnapper on scholarship, but sat out the entire year due to academics. He's now straightened out academically, so it will be good to see him for the first time this spring. Head Coach Karl Dorrell said that Tomasello could also get a look at fullback, a position he played at the JC before transferring to UCLA.

OVERALL

The defense has only two senior starters returning from a season ago, the loss to graduation turning the defensive line from the strength of the team to perhaps its weakest link. At least, at this point. UCLA desperately needs at least Kyle Morgan to show this spring that he'll be a strong starter at one of the defensive end positions. The cornerback situation is up for grabs, so it will be interesting to watch the competition. Overall defensively, there is some strong returning talent at a few positions, but then some considerable holes that need to be filled at many others. UCLA needs to get those holes more or less filled by the end of April.


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