Depth Chart Analysis for 2002: Defense

It's two months before spring practice, but not too early to speculate about the team's depth chart. Here's a look at how the roster might shake out, including a look at what redshirt and true freshmen could contribute next year...

There are a few reasons why it's almost impossible to project who's going to be the starters on next year's Bruin football team. First, it's extremely early – almost two months before spring practice even starts. But also, there is quite a bit of turnover on the roster because of the good number of seniors leaving the team. And with some lack of depth at some positions, it makes it only really speculative as to who would be the favorites to start at certain positions. Not only is it speculative on my part, it's pretty speculative on the coaches' part at this point.

So much will become clearer after spring practice, for us and for the coaches.

But right now, since everyone has demanded a roster breakdown of the football team this early, much of this report will be speculative. Included, of course, will be the general results, feedback and status of the redshirt freshmen from last season, and how the true freshmen next fall could then play into the equation.

It's probably best to break it down by unit, since so many of the starting positions will be determined by many different factors within the unit. All class levels are for next season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defensive tackles are probably the most secure and deepest positions on the entire team. Rod Leisle (JR, 6-4, 300), is the clear-cut star, so much so that speculation has him very possibily leaving for the NFL after next season. Either Sean Phillips (SR, 6-6, 300) or Steve Morgan (SR, 6-3, 290) will more than likely be the starter at the other tackle position, but as we've seen in recent years, you practically count UCLA's top three tackles as starters. Saia Makakaufaki (SR, 6-3, 290) played solidly in the minutes he had last year and will be a strong backup. David Tautofi, (JR, 6-3, 280) is a bit of a question mark. It was difficult to really assess him in practice. Generally the feeling was that he played more like an end, but looked more like a tackle. If he gets stronger in the off-season that will be key. As of now, providing good depth would be a good expectation for him. JC transfer Ryan Boschetti (JR, 6-3, 275) is already enrolled and will be out for spring practice. If he is good, good enough to play ahead of Phillips or Morgan, the coaches won't hesitate to use him and burn his redshirt year. If it's borderline, he'll be earmarked to redshirt and get bigger and stronger. Reports are that he's very talented and might be able to immediately contribute. With this kind of depth, it's entirely expected that true freshman C.J. Niusulu (FR, 6-2, 280), will spend next season as a redshirt.

After the defensive tackle situation, everything gets pretty hazy from there. There is a hole to fill at defensive end with the departure of Kenyon Coleman. On the other side, Dave Ball (JR, 6-6, 270) will return to start. But to replace Coleman, the possibilities are Rusty Williams (SR, 6-4, 275), Asi Faoa (JR, 6-5, 270) or even Mat Ball (JR 6-6, 265), who could return to the line after spending most of last year at strongside linebacker. Also, it's not entirely out of the question that Phillips moves back to defensive end, his original position. As always, UCLA will want to get its best players on the field, and if that means Phillips playing defensive end, then so be it. There is also some speculation that Faoa could end up moving inside and playing tackle. They could need that depth there if Phillips moves to defensive end. Faoa keeps getting bigger and bigger, and he could become more suited as a tackle by next fall. Obviously, though, heading into spring, the one defensive end spot is really wide open. The two true freshmen, Kevin Harbour (FR, 6-3, 260) and Thomas Patton (6-3, 250), are planned to redshirt. If either, though, looks like they could contribute, one of them might not redshirt. The other wildcard factor here is the utilization of such a talent as Marcedes Lewis (FR, 6-7, 250). With Lewis, anything is possible next year; He could be used as a tight end, wide receiver, or even a rush end. He'll get a try out at various positions next fall and UCLA will see how best to utilize him, and that could mean possibly playing as a rush end on passing situations. Greg Biggins of Student Sports said that Lewis would have been considered the #1 defensive end in the country if he had been ranked there.

LINEBACKERS

This is another unit with some considerable holes to fill, especially the one vacated by All-American middle linebacker, Robert Thomas. The favorite to replace him is Marcus Reese (SR, 6-2, 215), the talented backer who's played all three backer positions since he's been at UCLA. More than likely the UCLA coaches will give Reese the middle linebacker spot, pretty confident that he'll be able to anchor the middle in his senior season. That, though, leaves the weakside backer position pretty wide open. Audie Attar (SR, 6-0, 205) will be given every chance to earn the starting position. Attar is a great hitter, but doesn't have great lateral mobility. He's been working on his flexibility and lateral quickness and perhaps he'll come into spring practice improved. Patrick Pierre-Louis (JR, 6-0, 215) will have the chance to step right in and get a lot of immediate playing time at the weakside spot. Pierre-Louis will be out for spring practice, so one of the biggest issues of the spring will be just how good he is and who between him and Attar will emerge as the leading candidate for the starting position at weakside linebacker. Spencer Havner (R-FR, 6-3, 220), could also step in and contribute next year at the weakside. The coaches were very pleased with Havner last fall in practice, liking his quickness and nose for the ball. He came into UCLA at about 210 pounds and, reports are, he's put on about 10 pounds of much-needed muscle. If he had been 220 pounds last fall he more than likely would have played as a true freshman.

Behind Reese at middle linebacker will be Dennis Link (JR, 6-2, 220). Link has finally gotten a little bigger, after three years of not putting on much weight. He has shown signs of being a player who could contribute. Spring practice will be a good test to see if the coaches' can rely on Link to be a solid backup.

At strongside backer, Brandon Chillar (JR, 6-3, 230) returns after starting last season. He's a star in the making, and looked to get better and better as the season progressed last year. There was some speculation that Chillar could move to middle linebacker, but he looks set at strongside for now. If the coaches are confident that Reese can get it done at middle linebacker, Chillar will stay at strongside. Behind him is Tim Warfield (SO, 6-2, 240). Warfield showed some flashes of being a guy who could definitely be good at this position last year. It's just a question of whether the light will turn on permanently and if he'll be able to play focused and with maximum effort on every down.

The true freshmen linebackers are going to be one of the most interesting aspects of fall practice. UCLA is leaving it open that any one among Xavier Burgess (FR, 6-2, 220), Justin London (FR, 6-2, 232), Kirby Joseph (FR, 6-2, 230), or Wesley Walker (FR, 6-2, 215), could come to UCLA next fall and be ready to contribute. Burgess, London and Joseph are probably the best bets, but there are some who believe you shouldn't count out Walker by any means either. Burgess and London look headed for middle or weakside linebacker, while Joseph possibly is headed to strongside. More than likely, at least one of them doesn't redshirt and joins the linebacker rotation.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is the unit that's most up in the air and the biggest mystery on the team. So, really, nothing has changed from the last several years.

The one true constant is Ricky Manning (SR, 5-9, 180) at one cornerback position. Manning will be in his money year as a senior so you can expect him to have a big season.

After that, the next most certain aspect of the defensive backfield is that Matt Ware (SO, 6-3, 205) will start, it's just a question of where. Ware has gotten bigger and stronger already since the end of last season, and reports are he's prematurely starting to get into that freakish realm of talent level. So what do you do with such a freak? Do you keep him at one cornerback position, where he gives you the needed matchup of a big cornerback against the big wide receivers in the Pac-10, or do you return him to his more natural position of free safety? Can't we just have him play both positions simultaneously? Ware is being prepared to play two positions, corner and free safety. More than likely Ware's position next year won't be determined by himself but by the players around him. If a player really steps up and looks like he's ready to take over a cornerback position, Ware moves to free safety. If someone owns the free safety position, Ware stays at corner. Again, it's a case of UCLA wanting to get its best players on the field and then allowing for the positions to sort themselves out.

The problem is that, without Ware at free safety, you really need two players to step up at the safety positions. Ben Emanuel (SO, 6-3, 205) was forced into duty last year because of injuries and rose to the challenge. He played most strong safety, though. Also at strong safety is Jibril Raymo (SO, 6-3, 200). Raymo played some mop-up duty and on special teams last year. He also looked good in practice, just needing more time at the position to learn his assignments. If Raymo's light turns on this spring, it's possible that Emanuel could then be moved to free safety, which would enable Ware to stay at corner. Kevin Brant (JR, 6-0, 195) really can't be expected to provide more than a backup role at free safety. Even with Emanuel and Raymo stepping up, though, the safety positions are thin and that could still dictate Ware be moved to safety. The incoming true freshmen could have a chance to contribute immediately, at least on the two-deep. Eric McNeal (FR, 6-2, 200), has probably the best chance. But don't ever count out Mike Nixon (FR, 6-2, 200) who is a gamer. Jarrad Page (FR, 6-0, 200) is also a very talented kid. All three, the word is, are being prepared by Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow to come in and contribute next year. There is room at safety for at least one of these prospects to see time as a true freshman, even if Ware does move back to safety. It sounds so much more secure if Ware is the free safety, with Emanuel, Raymo and possibly McNeal rounding out the other safeties.

The odds are that someone steps up at cornerback rather than safety, since, logically, there is one less player that has to step up at corner to move Ware to safety. And the cornerback position has more experience. There are two guys who could very easily make the corner position their own, Joe Hunter (SR, 5-11, 175), or Matt Clark (SO, 5-9, 170). Hunter has the experience and would naturally be the guy to step into the starting role next season. He didn't participate in spring practice last year, running track instead, which got him in the doghouse for quite a while. When he emerged, he played fairly well last season as a junior, and it's expected that he'll be a solid contributor as a senior. He'll be out for spring practice this season and be very focused about getting that starting cornerback position. Many close to the program thought that Clark was a three-year starter in the making last season. He has very good feet and good quickness. His drawback is his obvious inexperience, and it'd be tough to play two 5-9 corners (he and Manning) at the same time. There is also a darkhorse in the cornerback race. Marcus Cassell (R-FR, 6-0, 175) was slowed by an injury early in the season, but as the season went on, he recovered and impressed the coaches in practice. He's expected to compete at least for the two-deep. Keith Short (JR, 5-9, 170) has been a good special teams player but didn't show much that he was capable of starting at a corner position last year in practice. Again, like at just about every position, the depth chart has room for a true freshman to contribute early. If Ware plays safety and Hunter starts at corner, backing them up are Short and redshirt freshman Cassell. A true freshman who stays healthy and picks up the assignments quickly would have a chance to make the two-deep. Probably the best candidate might be Idris Moss (FR, 5-11, 170). He's pretty skinny and needs to get bigger, but Moss is extremely quick, with great feet and great athleticism. Joe Garcia (FR, 6-1, 185) and Jebiaus Brown (FR, 6-0, 185) are thought by UCLA to have been under-rated by the various recruiting services, especially Brown. More than likely, though, you wouldn't see more than one true freshman not redshirt.

Generally, though, the lineup at defensive back will depend upon whether Emanuel, Raymo, Hunter or Clark steps up. The odds are that Hunter, because of his experience, gets the nod. But it's not a longshot at all that Raymo and Emanuel could prove they're the guys in spring, and that McNeal or another true freshman safety proves he's worthy in fall.

Matt Ware will be waiting, basically, to see where he plays next year. The word is that logically you can see how he'd make the move to free safety. But it's just so darn tempting to keep him at corner, being 6-3 and as talented as he is. If a couple safeties even come close to stepping up, Snow could give in to temptation and keep Ware at cornerback next season.


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