When the defense loses six starters, plus three more seniors from the two-deep that saw a good amount of time, there is worry.
You add it up, that's a whole lot of missing talent to overcome.
Easily the unit that took the biggest hit was the defensive line. It loses six linemen, all four starters, and the first player off the bench.
There is very little way to spin that.
Then, on top of that, one projected starter, defensive end Kevin Harbour, tears an anterior cruciated ligament in his left knee in spring and is out indefinitely. The good news is that recently it was thought he could return by October, but it will be questionable just how effective he will be coming off such a serious injury.
So, where does that leave the DL? With a great deal of question marks and unknowns.
Let's begin with the knowns, though. The biggest known factor on the defensive line is defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu (JR, 6-2, 285). Niusulu has gotten solid back-up minutes in the last two years and has shown flashes of greatness with his quickness and knack for getting to the ball. The other known factor on the line is the other defensive tackle, Kevin Brown (SO, 6-2, 290). Because Brown was probably the best all-around young lineman on the team last year he played offensive guard to help a depleted OL. This year he's exclusively the property of the defense. He's talented, with very good quickness and strength, but is still very inexperienced.
After that, the defensive line is a mystery. Probably the best bet after Niusulu and Brown is JC transfer Kyle Morgan (JR, 6-3, 260) at one of the defensive end positions. He was the most-sought of the JC transfer UCLA brought in, offered scholarships by the likes of Alabama and others. Physically he looks ready to play at this level too. At the other side of the line, really the most viable returning player is Bruce Davis (R-FR, 6-3, 240). Davis is clearly talented, looking dominating at times playing for the scout team last season. But the knock on him has been size and strength. Last spring the coaches questioned whether he was ready physically to play significant minutes as a back-up, let alone now as a starter. He does have great quickness and pass-rushing ability.
The door, though, is a bit open for the best opportunity for any incoming true freshman. Brigham Harwell (FR, 6-1, 255) is probably the most talented of the incoming freshmen and he's coming into a position that's very thin. Sounds like a great fit. He's very quick and has great instincts, but there is always a question of how effective a true freshman can be –at any position, much less one that demands some considerably physical development. Regardless of probably how ready Harwell is, he's going to almost certainly get time at the one defensive end position. Watch for him to battle it out with Bruce Davis even for the starting position.
Another to keep an eye on is Justin Hickman (SO. 6-1, 270), another JC transfer, and probably, after Morgan, the JC guy who came into the program in spring with the most talent. Hickman, though, the word is, could switch to defensive tackle with the ranks so thin after the loss of Junior Lemau'u and Thomas Patton. The thought is that he's better suited for tackle. Right now, the thinnest position on the team is defensive tackle, so defensive line coach Don Johnson will have to use his most talented players to fill out the two-deep, regardless of position.
The depth at tackle is, to be understated, worrisome. Backing up Niusulu and Brown, two new starters as a true junior and a true sophomore, is no one who has played a down. Noah Sutherland (R-FR, 6-4, 265) is a converted defensive end. The coaches generally liked his production and effort in his redshirt year, but he'll have to prove that he can play at this level. Nikola Dragovic (R-FR, 6-3, 245) came to the program as an offensive lineman, was moved to fullback, and then moved to defensive end. He could stay at defensive end, or make the move to defensive tackle, depending on how he performs this fall.
After that, there are only walk-ons or true freshmen for back-ups at end and tackle. One of the walk-ons with a chance to make the two deep, reportedly, is Nikola Dragovic's older brother, Marko Dragovic (JR, 6-2, 260), who transferred into the program last spring from a JC. He's slated as a defensive end, but like his younger brother, could possibly end up at defensive tackle if that's where UCLA needs him. Tackle Robert Garcia (SO, 5-11, 265) has been in the program for a couple of years and knows the system. He might very well have to play.
The true freshmen are Kenneth Lombard (FR, 6-1, 270) and Chris Johnson (FR, 6-3, 270). Both would have to really surprise this fall if they were going to be able to contribute as true freshmen this season.
Another walk-on, Phillip Rauscher, (R-FR, 6-4, 265) apparently has a chance to be a contributor down the road.
So, the defensive line is frighteningly thin, in every aspect that matters – talent, experience and amount of bodies. It is easily the most vulnerable unit on the team. Hope for the likes of Morgan, Davis and Harwell to step up and Harbour to be able to play effectively when he returns. But the reality here is – there just isn't much talent, and what is there is unproven, young and inexperienced.
The linebacking situation is a matter of some very good talent at the top – and then some more worry.
Middle linebacker Justin London (JR, 6-1, 235) and inside linebacker Spencer Havner (JR, 6-4, 240) make for one of the best 1-2 linebacking combinations in the Pac-10. London emerged last year as a potential star and Havner has been very good for two years. London and Havner are the two players returning with the most tackles from last season's defense, the #2 and #3 tacklers on the team for the season, respectively.
The problem is that there are three linebacking positions, and then you also need some back-ups.
The third spot, the outside linebacker position, has Wesley Walker (JR, 6-3, 230) slated to take it over. Walker has gotten some good minutes as a back-up the last two years, but he was a bit disappointing this spring. The coaches are trying to challenge him and get him to step this fall.
Behind Walker is Aaron Whittington (R-FR, 6-2, 205). Whittington had some good moments in spring, but still his size and strength are an issue. He's probably going to have to play, since the linebacking group is pretty thin, but most consider him a couple of years – and probably at least 20 pounds – away from significant minutes.
William Snead (R-FR, 6-4, 230) is also listed among the outside linebackers. While he might be better suited as an inside guy, he's there to push Walker in the fall. Heck, if Snead can beat out Walker, the coaches will play him. There was talk that Snead could be moved to tight end this fall, but with the return of Keith Carter at tight end Snead will stay with the linebackers.
Backing up Havner at his inside position is Benjamin Lorier (SR, 5-11, 220). The former walk-on earned a scholarship last year and will get playing time, since there isn't much else in terms of depth.
At the middle linebacker spot, behind London, is Tim Warfield (SR, 6-2, 240) and JC transfer Dan Nelson (SO, 6-1, 240). It's critical that Warfield can play solidly, since if something happened to London he's needed. Even if something happened to Havner, London could probably move to the other inside position and either Warfield or Nelson could take over the middle position.
UCLA is definitely in need of a third starter to step up this fall and prove he's worthy. It would also be good to find some quality back-ups, at least a couple, who can give the linebackers some quality relief. Like at many positions, UCLA is thin at linebacker and one injury could be devastating.
It's difficult to say "what if," but you tend to do that quite a bit when you look at the defensive backfield for this season.
What if Matt Ware had returned for his senior year? Yeah, it's not fair to Ware. He has every right to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him. But if he returns, you have one of the best defensive backfields in the Pac-10, if not the best. Without him, it's like a domino effect of how it weakened your secondary. With him, you have three very proven players, and your boundary corner that takes away half the field. Without him, to be honest, you have two cornerback positions that could be vulnerabilities.
Matt Clark (SR, 5-9, 190) will begin his second season as a starter and he's been okay, but has shown some weaknesses at times. Without Ware, he's now not the one cornerback you might have to compensate for in the backfield, but the one you have to rely on. Clark needs to have a very solid season, where he's the lock-down corner, or UCLA could have a hard time defending against the pass this season.
The other corner position will be probably the biggest battle for a starting spot on the team this fall. There are a number of candidates, but not one who really distinguished himself this spring. Going into spring, Nnamdi Ohaeri (JR, 5-10, 200) was thought to be the guy, but he missed spring practice due to off-season knee surgery. One of the biggest curiosities of the fall will be how Ohaeri, who played well as the nickel back last season, will look at corner. He'll get competition from Marcus Cassel (JR, 6-0, 185), Mil'Von James (SO, 6-0, 200), and Jebiaus Brown (SO, 6-1, 190). All three have looked good at times. Cassel was thought to be the one expected to take over the spot, but Brown and James had better springs. James, in fact, has impressed many close to the program in the off-season. He got playing time last year on special teams. Brown, who sat out most of last season due to concussion-related symptons, looked like the light was turning on a bit this spring.
It might be too early for Trey Brown (R-FR, 5-10, 190) but he impressed the coaches with his coverage abilities and aggressiveness. Joe Garcia (SO, 6-0, 185) has yet to deliver on his high school potential.
At safety, UCLA has some talent, experience and depth. It's led by free safety Ben Emanuel (SR, 6-3, 220), who has always been on the verge of stardom but hasn't gone over the top yet. He has great physical ability but sometimes has lost focus on the field. Hopefully his senior year he'll shore up some of the small issues and finally get over that hump. No matter what, though, he brings talent and experience (24 starts) to the position. At strong safety is Jarrad Page (JR, 6-2, 215), who has shown flashes of exceptional talent while starting for his first two seasons. This spring, though, he opted to play baseball and not participate in spring practice, and was hurt. The feeling right now is that Page will have to earn back his spot in fall, but most have no doubt he will.
Page would have to earn back his spot since UCLA has some talent waiting in the wings at the safety positions. At strong is Eric McNeal (SO, 6-2, 215), who in a back-up role looked good last year toward the end of the season. There was some talk that McNeal could move to linebacker, to try to fill the whole of the third linebacker there, but he's still slated at strong safety for fall. Behind McNeal is one of the better young players on the roster, Chris Horton (R-FR, 6-1, 195). Horton showed great instincts, quickness and hitting ability in spring and is thought to be too good to keep off the field.
At the free safety position behind Emanuel is another talented youngster, Dennis Keyes (R-FR, 6-1, 195). Keyes, like Horton, is considered one of the best young talents on the team, and looked good in practice all last season.
Three true freshmen come into the program and it will be interesting to see where the defensive coaches plug them in. Probably the most heralded is Rodney Van (FR, 6-1, 185), who has the quickness to play corner, but needs to get bigger and stronger, and could end up a safety. Byron Velega (FR, 5-10, 180), Van's teammate at Long Beach Poly, was considered a good cover corner during his senior year. Michael Norris (FR, 5-11, 175) is fairly unknown, but from what we know, he is a corner prospect with good speed. Van could have a chance to maybe crack the two-deep and play on special teams, but more than likely all three will redshirt.
Last year the defense carried the team while the offense sputtered. It should be a bit more balanced this year, with more than likely the offense improved and the defense not as productive as it was a season ago. Last year, though, with such an exceptional defense, they did wear down by the end of the season. So hopefully if the offense can stay on the field it will help the young, inexperienced and thin defense.
You can probably get past the lack of a third linebacker and the lack of depth at linebacking, and even the need for a previously inexperienced cornerback to step up and be solid to replace Ware. But it's tough to get past the challenges the defensive line faces this season. Niusulu and Brown are good, but still inexperienced, and will be going through a learning process. They've never played more than about 20 downs in a game. Then there's the mystery at defensive end and depth at all four positions. It includes unproven, young and inexperienced players, and not many of them.
Right there with the importance of the quarterback staying healthy and the offensive line being more productive is the development of the defensive line. If opposing offenses can run on the front seven, eat the clock and score points, you might not be able to see UCLA's new and improved offense much. UCLA really needs the likes of Kyle Morgan, Bruce Davis and Brigham Harwell to be able to be effective defensive ends. They will definitely be a different version of UCLA defensive end than what we've been used to seeing for the last several years – replacing the bigger, slower types like the Balls with quicker, speedier (but weaker) types like Davis, Morgan and Harwell. The question isn't really whether the new faces are less talented, but really how much inexperience they combine for is alarming. And all along the defensive line, they can't afford injury, being just one injury away from a walk-on having to get major minutes.
So, overall, you can expect this UCLA team to look a bit different than last year. UCLA's offense will be better at moving the ball and scoring points, and UCLA's defense will probably be worse at preventing the ball being moved and having points scored on them. There probably won't be too many 6-3 final scores.
Coming up: Special Teams and a Final Analysis, including a look at the schedule...