The DL clearly didn't have a very good season in 2004. It was, in many ways, the weak link on the team. It was so ineffective and so porous that it caused reverberations throughout the team. Since it couldn't stop just about any offense on the ground, Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr had to compensate, experimenting with different blitz schemes and a 4-2-5 nickel. For the most part, it still didn't work. And there are many close to the program that will tell you the reverberations didn't just stop with the defense, but carried over to the offense. The offense became run-oriented because <i>it had</i> to become run-oriented. The best way to keep UCLA's defense off the field was to keep its offense on the field. Because the defensive line couldn't control the line of scrimmage, UCLA's strategy for winning games last season was for its offense to hold on to the ball and keep its defense off the field.
Things will have to change in 2005, and one of the biggest indications of whether they will change we'll be able to witness in winter practice, starting in a week.
You'd have to naturally think that the defensive line will be better, since it didn't start a senior last season, and only lost one senior from among its twelve or so top defensive linemen, and that senior was a converted offensive lineman.
We've always maintained that in college football experience is just about as important as talent. So, UCLA, after the season last year when its defensive line was much too young and inexperienced, now won't have that excuse.
Inside, defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu (SR, 6-2, 280) is now the veteran of the group. Niusulu has had an up and down career, mostly based on potential and flashes of greatness, but he hasn't shown consistently good play. He's also been chronically hurt, with various injuries, over the years. UCLA just needs one more year out of the sewn-together Niusulu, and he needs to prove he can play consistently well, or UCLA very well could skip over him in looking for someone who can.
One of the young players that many fans are the most excited about is the other starting defensive tackle, Kevin Brown (JR, 6-2, 290). Brown was thrust into playing time as a true freshman in 2003, on the offensive line as well. Then, last year as a true sophomore, having played offense as a freshman, it took him some time to get acclimated, but by the end of the season you could easily make the case that Brown was the best defensive player on the team. He strung together some very good games late in the season, especially the USC game, where he was really starting to dominate his blocker with his quickness and leverage. Brown still needs to learn to be focused and bring it on every play.
Now, after Brown and Niusulu, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that the rest of the defensive line is undetermined and up for grabs. You have a few players who will be returning from injuries - injuries that range from year-ending to consistently nagging (UCLA's defensive line had five knee surgeries combined after last fall's camp). You have some guys who should be bigger physically, and how big they are could determine which position they'll slot into on the DL. And you have a converted offensive lineman (a trend?) who redshirted last year.
The mystery starts with the two open starting defensive end positions. Brigham Harwell (SO, 6-1, 260), as a true freshman last season, showed that he is probably the guy on the DL who truly has elite talent. He fought through a knee injury early, which set him back, but he showed the talent at many times during the season that has many program observers expecting him to be one of the starters at defensive end this season. There were times when Harwell was just too quick and nimble to be blocked.
A couple of big mysteries are Kyle Morgan (SR, 6-3, 260), and Kevin Harbour (JR, 6-4, 270). Morgan, the JC transfer, started most of the season at one defensive end position and generally struggled. He also was hampered early by knee surgery, and sometimes Morgan was blamed by casual observers for lapses in the defense that weren't his fault. But admittedly, he didn't have the year many expected of him when he came to UCLA pretty well-heralded. There has been some discussion of Morgan moving to defensive tackle, but the word is that he's pretty well set at defensive end. Defenders of Morgan say he was affected by the knee problem all year and you should expect him to be improved in 2005.
Harbour is one of the biggest mysteries on the team, at this point. He was slated to start at one defensive end position when he blew out his knee last spring practice and subsequently missed all of the 2004 season. He was expected to start since he, at the time, was probably the best defensive end on the team, even though he had never played a down in an actual game, on a squad without many defensive ends. But now, a year later, there is a big backlog of them, and it's difficult to ascertain where Harbour fits in. You couldn't judge by how he practiced late in the season since he was still getting his sea legs back after sitting out for so long. Also, as will be a theme in this write-up about the defensive end, there has been talk that Harbour could be moved to defensive tackle. All of this being-moved-to-defensive-tackle talk concerning various players stems from UCLA having a traffic jam at defensive end and a definite lack of bodies at tackle. Harbour, having gotten much bigger physically (a source said he's about 265 to 270, but he looks bigger than that in person), is thought to be one of the prime candidates, and winter practice will probably determine it.
In fact, winter practice could very well determine many players' positions on the DL. Another player who is a defensive end that could also possibly be moved to defensive tackle is Justin Hickman (JR, 6-1, 265). Hickman started some games at defensive end, and showed some promise. He'll head into winter practice as a defensive end, but he could come out a defensive tackle. In fact, he might be the most likely candidate to make the move to tackle, followed by Harbour.
One young player who looks to not be moved from defensive end is Nikola Dragovic (SO, 6-3, 250), which is ironic since Dragovic is the position vagabond of the team, having gone from offensive lineman to fullback to defensive line. The coaches were generally very pleased with how Dragovic performed as a defensive end last season, getting more playing time as the season wore on, and becoming one of UCLA's designated pass-rush ends. There are many close to all of this that believe Dragovic could end up a starter by fall, if he improves his run defense.
Then there is the tweener mysteries, Bruce Davis (SO, 6-3, 245) and William Snead (SO, 6-4, 235). Both Davis and Snead, because of their bodies, have found themselves stuck a bit in no-position no-man's land, between defensive end and linebacker. Snead started out as a linebacker but was moved to defensive end. He has good agility for the position but was 228 pounds last season. Reports are that Snead has gotten bigger physically, but we have yet to confirm it first-hand. There are also reports that Davis has gotten bigger physically. Davis was given a try-out at linebacker in mid-season, and there is still a lingering possibility he could permanently make that move. But Davis, from what we've heard, is still considered a defensive end, and in the opinion of many, just needing more size and strength to be a good one. It would be huge for the UCLA defensive line if just one of these two emerged this winter as bigger and stronger, and another viable option at defensive end.
Nathaniel Skaggs (R-FR, 6-4, 265), is the latest OL conversion. He and fellow OL Scott Glicksberg were brought over to the thin defensive line mid-season, but Glicksberg will return to the OL for winter practice. Skaggs, however, showed so much promise on defense he's staying. The coaches generally love Skaggs, primarily right now at defensive end, liking his aggressiveness and quickness off the ball, and was named the Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year. There is also a thought that Skaggs might move to defensive tackle, depending on how his body goes.
The two-deep at defensive tackle is quite a bit thinner, as we've said. After Brown and Niusulu, UCLA has just a few very young guys who have yet to truly prove themselves worthy. Most observers came away from the 2004 season surprised that Chris Johnson (SO, 6-3, 300) held his own generally when he played, since he was fairly unheralded out of high school. He was supposed to redshirt last year but was used out of desperation, and the coaches believe he showed promise. He has fairly good quickness for his size and good pad leverage. Johnson's issue is strength, needing to get considerably stronger, and the word is that Doc Kreis has been working him over in the off-season.
Kenneth Lombard (R-FR, 6-1, 280) had the opposite experience of Johnson last season. He was playing early, with no intention of him redshirting, until he injured his shoulder. He sat out the majority of the season and UCLA will petition for him to get the year back, which would make him a redshirt freshman next season. Lombard is still not fully recovered from the shoulder, but is expected to participate in winter practice. He also has done a good job in changing his body. Lombard was a bit rolly-polly, and he's slimmed down some in his lower body and has gained strength.
Noah Sutherland (SO, 6-4, 275) has hopped around from defensive end to defensive tackle, depending on which position was depleted that week. Since defensive tackle is now consistently the most depleted, Sutherland has found a home, it seems. He lacks great quickness off the ball but could end up a good, straight-ahead strength guy for the two-depp on the line if he continues to develop.
UCLA was forced to play walkon Robert Garcia (JR, 5-11, 280) last season. More than likely there will be some players moved to defensive tackle from defensive end and Garcia will move down the hierarchy.
Coming in as a true freshman is defensive tackle Jess Ward (FR, 6-4, 260). Ward was fairly unknown and stashed away by UCLA, playing for Rim of the World High School in Arrowhead. He's pretty impressive-looking physically, and he's been told that he should come to UCLA with the intention of making the two-deep. Nothing against Ward, but if he does, he's either really vastly better than we could imagine, or UCLA's two-deep at defensive tackle would again be in dire straits for a second straight year.
Chinonso Anyanwu (FR, 6-4, 210) is another in the line of Williams Snead and Bruce Davis, of the quick but skinny defensive ends who might spend some time at outside linebacker. So much will depend on which way Anyanwu's body goes, and many who know him believe that he just doesn't have the type of body that can put on 50 pounds (and many of those same individuals think he's closer to about 200 pounds than his listed 210).
Not considering the freshmen coming in, UCLA has 13 defensive linemen. Once the dust settles on exactly who will be the top candidates to fill out the two deep by next fall, it will be interesting to see what happens with the guys toward the bottom of the list of 13. Only a couple of them haven't redshirted and a redshirt could be a possibility for them. Chris Johnson would be the most obvious redshirt candidate but he very well will be needed in the two-deep at defensive tackle, unless UCLA moves a couple of defensive end bodies there. Justin Hickman also has a redshirt year available. Harwell does, but it's unlikely your potentially best defensive lineman will redshirt.
UCLA is so stacked with bodies - and guys that are still unknowns generally - it presents a unique situation. With so many young scholarships dedicated to the defensive line it prevented them from taking many defensive line prospects in the 2005 class. It also unbalances the defensive line in terms of classes, which is how UCLA got into its DL problems in the first place when 6 defensive linemen graduated in 2004.
Winter practice is going to be huge in determining how this all shakes out. Right now, even the UCLA coaches are pretty uncertain as to what will happen in terms of personnel.
And, speaking of personnel moves, as we broke the news yesterday, defensive line coach Don Johnson is considering an offer with the Chicago Bears. He reportedly will announce his decision sometime today.
Projected Defensive Line Depth Chart:
Defensive End: Kyle Morgan (SR), Nikola Dragovic (SO), Kevin Harbour
(JR), William Snead (SO), Nathaniel Skaggs (R-FR)
Defensive Tackle: Kevin Brown (JR), Chris Johnson (SO), Noah Sutherland (SO)
Defensive Tackle: C.J. Niusulu (SR), Kenneth Lombard (R-FR), Robert Garcia (JR)
Defensive End: Brigham Harwell (SO), Justin Hickman (JR), Bruce Davis (SO)
It's really all about the two-deep in terms of UCLA's linebacking unit for 2005. UCLA returns its three starters but has many questions in terms of depth behind them.
All of the players vying for those coveted two-deep spots will have the opportunity for plenty of reps during winter practice since all of UCLA's starting linebackers will sit it out. Middle linebacker Justin London (SR, 6-1, 235) is back on crutches, getting the ankle that plagued him all last season operated on a couple of weeks ago. The ankle wasn't by any means healed when he played on it last season, and the surgery cleaned up the remnants. He'll be on crutches through March but will probably be ready to work out on the ankle by May and is expected back completely in time for fall practice. It turned out the knee injury that kept Spencer Havner (SR, 6-4, 236) out of the Las Vegas Bowl wasn't very serious. But the injury that did continue to linger was to his shoulder, requiring surgery a couple of weeks ago. And Wesley Walker (SR, 6-3, 225) had his knee scoped.
You can bemoan the fact that all three will be out for winter practice, but this is far more desirable, giving them plenty of time to recover and be back in time for fall. In fact, having practice in April, as it has been traditionally, hasn't given players who are injured in spring practice time enough to recover by fall many times, so practicing in February has its injury advantages.
Obviously London and Havner are fixtures at linebackers. Both will get plenty of pre-season attention, particularly Havner, who decided to return for his senior season.
Walker could be pushed at the outside linebacker position by Aaron Whittington (SO, 6-2, 210). Yes, notice that Whittington has gotten bigger since last season when he was probably playing at 195 pounds. The issue with Whittington has always been size and strength, to go along with his quickness and instincts.
After those four, the linebackers are another mystery. Dan Nelson (JR, 6-1, 240), had to fill in at middle linebacker when London was injured last season, and he was overwhelmed. He missed the end of the season with a broken clavicle. He's admired for his leadership qualities, but it's a question whether he can provide adequate back-up reps at middle linebacker.
Fred Holmes (SO, 6-1, 231) played on special teams and linebacker as a freshman. He's been slated to back up Havner at the weak inside position, which is the headlining position among the linebackers. Holmes, though, didn't necessarily exhibit much last season that would lead you to believe he's worthy of taking over the position after Havner leaves. He's one that could really benefit from the extra reps in winter practice but, unfortunately, Holmes could be limited himself. He suffered a deep blow to his thigh in practice in December, which bruised his bone and has had some complications in healing.
There are currently only walk-on linebackers after that on the roster for winter practice. Jamel Greer (R-FR, 6-0, 228) looks to have the best chance among the walkons in garnering some playing time down the line. He has good size and decent quickness, and pleased the coaches on the scout team last season. Christian Taylor (SO, 6-0, 210) is another walkon who will have a chance. Taylor sat out last season after transferring from Air Force, and he's thought to have a shot at getting some actual time at the outside linebacker position.
Even if the incoming freshmen linebackers aren't ready, at least a couple of them are probably going to get a real chance to play next season. Reggie Carter (FR, 6-1, 225) will be the most ready, being physically pretty developed. Carter flew under the radar a bit, but had a huge senior season. He's fast and has great instincts. It's thought he's probably the next UCLA middle linebacker and that's where he'll plug in initially next fall.
With Holmes a question mark, there is a big need for someone to step in and provide some potential back-up minutes at the weak inside position behind Havner. While John Hale (FR, 6-4, 225) might be very raw still, having just played linebacker for a year in high school, there are many that believe he has the physical tools. In high school, he showed great natural ability and instincts, but was just very inexperienced at playing the position. He's physically pretty well-built, and with more strength is probably the heir to the position after Havner, even though there will probably be many growing pains, probably being rushed into it out of necessity. Hale would ideally benefit from a redshirt year, to get another year of experience under his belt.
The two other new linebackers are Korey Miller (FR, 6-1, 218) and Kyle Miller (FR, 6-1, 215), the nephews of Brian Bosworth. In fact, it's been reported that the Millers will change their name to Bosworth. Both weren't considered big-time prospects, and will hopefully prove all the recruiting gurus wrong. They do have good quickness and speed, but are physically a bit narrow. They both project at the outside linebacker position.
While UCLA's starters could be considered one of the best linebacking units to return in the Pac-10 next season, and possibly the nation, it's worrisome that there is a huge drop-off in depth, especially when all three will be coming off injuries. It's key for a couple of these unknown guys to step up in winter and fall, especially for the long-term well-being of the linebacking unit since UCLA loses all three starters after next season.
Projected Linebacker Depth Chart:
Weak Inside Linebacker: Spencer Havner (SR), Fred Holmes (SO), John
Middle Linebacker -- Justin London (SR), Dan Nelson (JR), Reggie Carter (FR), Jamel Greer (R-FR)
Outside Linebacker - Wesley Walker (SR), Aaron Whittington (SO), Christian Taylor (SO), Korey Miller (FR), Kyle Miller (FR)
The success of UCLA's defensive backfield for 2005 could be largely based on the decision of one player. Jarrad Page (SR, 6-2, 220) could very well put his name in the pro baseball draft and leave the program after this school year. He hasn't really put much time into baseball, but there are baseball scouts that believe, if he did, he'd potentially be a first-round pick. He won't participate in winter football practice, playing for the UCLA baseball team. What kind of feedback he gets as a result of his UCLA baseball season could greatly determine whether he goes pro. Being a bit rusty, Page so far hasn't fared well in baseball, batting just .138, striking out 13 times in just 29 at-bats.
If Page does return to football, UCLA's defensive backfield should be in relatively good shape, with some strength up the middle in its safeties, and some weakness at cornerback.
Without him, they could be starting three new players along with a returning sometime-starter at cornerback who will be just a redshirt sophomore. Not good.
Trey Brown (SO, 5-10, 187) is that returning starter. Brown won the cornerback position from Marcus Cassel (SR, 6-0, 182) halfway through the season, showing good instincts and aggressiveness. Brown had a couple of good games toward the end of the season, but then also had some poor ones, which is understandable for a freshman starting at corner.
But cornerback is definitely a concern for UCLA's defense, perhaps the biggest concern among the starting lineup. Not only will Brown still be learning how to play on the job, UCLA has to break in another new starting corner. The word is that Rodney Van (SO, 6-1, 175) is the leading candidate as of right now over Cassel. Van has big-time quickness and speed, and just needs to continue to get bigger and more experienced. Cassel has good size at 6-0, but has never had the aggressiveness light turn on. It'd be good if it did in winter practice, so UCLA had three corners it could rely on.
Why it can't rely on any others at this point is mostly because Jebiaus Brown (JR, 6-1, 185) is believed to be sitting out winter practice due to an injury. Brown, who at one time was thought to be in line to start at the open corner position a year ago, has been dogged by injuries throughout his career, and just hasn't gotten in the right competitive mindset to really compete for a starting job. The corner position is then, relatively thin. Byron Velega (R-FR, 5-10, 180) is thought to be possibly the other guy to compete. Velega showed signs of talent on the scout team last season, but lacked focus, which sometimes is pretty typical on the scout team. Michael Norris (SO, 5-11, 180) got a letter playing on special teams a year ago, and was a good gunner on the punt return team. He jumped between receiver and cornerback in practice, but it looks as though he'll be taking a dedicated shot at cornerback this winter practice. Norris is a bit slight in build, but has good closing speed.
At safety, without Page, things would look pretty unknown. Eric McNeal (JR, 6-2, 210) would probably be the #1 candidate at Page's strong safety spot. NcNeal saw most of his time as UCLA's nickel back a season ago and it could be the same way in the fall. Chris Horton (SO, 6-1, 195) has shown flashes of greatness in backing up at the strong safety spot, while fighting off injury most of last season. He still isn't working out with the team currently, still hampered by his injured foot, and it's unknown if he'll participate in winter practice.
At free safety, Dennis Keyes (SO, 6-1, 195) will get a long look this winter practice, with UCLA trying to fill in the spot vacated by Ben Emanuel. Keyes has good size and a very good nose for the ball.
The two safety positions, while a bit different, are pretty close, though. Any safety could easily play either safety position, and you could see some juggling this winter practice as UCLA tries to fill out its two-deep. Probably one move by fall would be Horton sliding over to see time at free safety if Page stays, or even Page stepping in at free safety with Horton staying at strong.
Mil'Von James (JR, 6-0, 196) has been a curiosity, to a degree. As a true freshman he played on special teams and was getting hyped as a potential impact guy at cornerback. But last season, he was switched to safety, with it being cited that he's probably better suited at the position, and the hype has quieted considerably. Some believe that James hasn't been putting in the work and lacks mental focus. There are still some that think he could move back to cornerback, if need be.
The incoming freshmen might have a chance to play, or at least fill out the two-deep, especially if Page goes pro in baseball. Shawn Oatis (FR, 5-11, 205) will be the most likely candidate for early playing time at one of the safety positions. He's a natural strong safety, with the instincts and pursuit of a linebacker. Robert Kibble (FR, 5-10, 175) played safety in high school but will get his first look at cornerback. Kibble really came on in his senior season, showing great aggressiveness and toughness. Aaron Ware (FR, 6-0, 190) will plug in at cornerback, even though it was uncertain for a while whether he'd be a running back or a corner. Ware has very good size, and very good straight-ahead speed. There is definitely room for a freshman to make the two-deep at cornerback, with so many players on the roster who have yet to prove themselves.
Projected Defensive Backfield Depth Chart:
Left Cornerback: Rodney Van (SO), Byron Velega (SO), Michael Norris
(SO), Robert Kibble (FR)
Strong Safety: Jarrad Page (SR), Eric McNeal (JR), Shawn Oatis (SO)
Free Safety: Chris Horton (SO), Dennis Keyes (SO), Mil'Von James (JR)
Right Cornerback: Trey Brown (SO), Marcus Cassel (SR), Jebiaus Brown (JR), Aaron Ware (FR)
The big hole to fill is Chris Kluwe at punter. UCLA has on its roster Aaron Perez (R-FR, 6-2, 200), who had a shaky first year as a redshirt. He started off practice pretty poorly, but improved as the season went on. He has a fairly good leg, but is still struggling a bit with his drop. How he does in winter practice will be huge in determining whether he takes over the punting duties.
If not, look for placekicker Justin Medlock (JR, 6-0, 185) to also punt. Ideally you don't want your placekicker punting, because you'd rather have him dedicate himself to kicking field goals. But if Perez can't satisfy the coaches that he can do it by next September, Medlock will be doing double duty.
The only other issue with special teams is that Ed Douglas, a back-up longsnapper, has left the program, and UCLA is looking taking auditions to back up Riley Jondle (JR, 6-3, 200).
Also, of course, with the departure of Craig Bragg, the punt returning duties will be up for grabs. Maurice Drew will probably fill the position, but they'll audition for others. Also, Tab Perry returned kicks, so another first-string kick returner will be needed to go alongside Chris Markey.