Spring Football: What to Watch

It's a month away, but time to think about spring football practice and what to watch for. We start with the defense...

With spring practice a little less than a month away, it's time to start thinking about football again.

As if you stopped thinking about it.

Spring practice begins Tuesday, April 2nd. It goes for four weeks, Monday through Thursday of each week (except the first week, obviously, which begins on Tuesday). It culminates with the spring scrimmage, Saturday, April 27th, at Drake Field at 1:00 p.m.  The first two days of practice (April 2 & 3rd) are in shorts. To my knowledge, and until further notice, spring practice is open to the public.

Here are some of the biggest issues to look for in each defensive unit for spring practice:

DEFENSIVE LINE

Of course, Rod Leisle (JR, 6-4, 300) is considered the star at one defensive tackle position. But who will be the starter at the other position? The primary candidates are veterans Sean Phillps (SR, 6-6, 300) and Steve Morgan (6-3, 290). Whoever ends up the literal starter, all three primary tackles will see a great deal of playing time. There's also JC newcomer Ryan Boschetti (JR, 6-4, 275) to contend with. He has impressed many in the program since he enrolled in January. There's a good chance he might not redshirt (he has three years to play two) and be in the rotation. Also, will the JC transfer from last season who redshirted, David Tautofi (JR, 6-3, 280) be able to contribute? With the word being that Saia Makakaufaki (SR, 6-3, 265) possibly has moved to TE, it's particularly key that Tautofi or Boschett is ready to contribute. After the depth UCLA enjoyed at tackle last year, the ranks seem thin. Spring will go a long way to prove whether Tautofi or Boschetti can be solid contributors to the two-deep this season. At least one of them will definitely be needed and, the way injuries go, probably both. It will be interesting to see in spring ball just how good Boschetti is – whether he's good enough to even compete for the starting DT position that's up for grabs.

At defensive end, the hole left by departing Kenyon Coleman is a big one to fill. Dave Ball (JR, 6-6, 270) returns on one side, and but spring should probably determine which candidate steps up and has the #1 position for the other postion in fall. Perhaps the leading candidate is Mat Ball (JR, 6-6, 265). Mat has the athleticism that UCLA wants at the position (plus it's fun to have to matching Balls, right?). Rusty Williams (SR, 6-4, 275) started as a sophomore and Asi Faoa (JR, 6-5, 270) has long been touted by the coaches as a guy who will make a big impact. The time is spring. The open defensive end position is truly wide open. Regardless of who wins the actually starting position, it's safe to say that all of these guys will see considerable playing time next fall. Again, compared to last season, the DE positions seem a bit thin, with only four players combined for both positions. You wouldn't want to burn a redshirt year on one of the incoming freshmen Des (Kevin Harbour, Thomas Patton) unless you have to. But if there is a perceived vulnerability at defensive end this spring, with a perceived lack of quality depth, the coaches might have to go to one of the true freshman for depth. It does present, though, an interesting situation concerning Marcedes Lewis, the incoming freshman who is projected as a sometimes-DE but will almost certainly not redshirt as a tight end and wide receiver. If there is a perceived lack of pash rush among the DEs in spring, it could open the door wider for Lewis to contribute at DE next fall in pass rushing situations. And it could possibly help the depth at DE and allow UCLA to not burn a redshirt on Harbour or Patton just for depth.

LINEBACKER

It's probably one of the biggest spotlights of spring ball: Who will emerge as the #1 weakside linebacker? Right now, Audie Attar (SR, 6-0, 218), is the leading candidate. But he could very well be challenged by JC newcomer Patrick Pierre-Louis (JR, 6-0, 215). It's really a mystery as to how good Pierre-Louis is and if he's good enough to give Attar some competition. Also, the other wildcard here is Spencer Havner (R-FR, 6-3, 220). Havner, reportedly, has really been hitting the weights and has filled out. The UCLA coaches loved his talent last year in practice. It will be interesting to see if Havner is ready to step up this spring. If he does, he could also compete for the weakside position.

What will also be key to watch for in spring is if backup backers Tim Warfield (SO, 6-2, 240), and Dennis Link (JR, 6-2, 220) are ready to step up. Their ability to make contributions are a big factor in the effectiveness of the linebacking unit next year. If neither really asserts himself, it could be making the possibility of at least one of the true freshmen (Xavier Burgess, Kirby Joseph, Wesley Walker, or Justin London) not redshirting more probable. Probably the one most ready won't redshirt anyway, but if Warfield or Link don't both prove themselves in spring, it could open the door wider for that one freshman, and even open it wide enough for two freshmen to not redshirt next year.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Probably after the question of how Cory Paus will bounce back this spring, the next biggest question heading into spring practice is: Who will step up in the defensive backfield?

Ricky Manning (SR, 5-9, 190) is about the only certainty at one corner. It's certain Matt Ware (SO, 6-3, 205), will start also, but who among the other defensive backs steps up will more than likely determine where Matt Ware plays.

Matt Ware will move to free safety if Joe Hunter (SR, 5-11, 175) steps up at the other corner position. He didn't come out for spring practice last year and was trying to get himself out of the doghouse all last season because of it. He'll be out for spring practice this year. Competing with him, though, will be Matt Clark (SO, 5-9, 170), Keith Short (JR, 5-9, 170) and Marcus Cassell (R-FR, 6-0, 175). Spring will prove if any among these three will be able to compete with Hunter, and then actually be able to step up enough to the point they'd be considered strong enough to start at the open corner position.

Matt Ware will stay at corner if the safety positions become stabilized this spring. But an injury might put the question of stability at safety on hold for a while – at least until fall. Ben Emanuel (SO, 6-3, 205), who would be considered the leading candidate for one of the safety positions, is out for spring, recovering from shoulder surgery. Without him, the safety positions are going to look particularly thin this spring, with only young and inexperienced Jibril Raymo (SO, 6-3, 200) and backup Kevin Brant (JR, 6-0, 195) left to man the two safety positions. It looks like, because of attrition, Ware might be forced to spend more time at safety this spring, even though he prefers to stay at corner. What to look for in spring is how Raymo responds to the opportunity of more reps due to Emanuel being out.

When it comes to considering the incoming freshmen in regards to what the coaches might do this spring, the coaches have to prepare for next season with the assumption that none of the true freshmen will really be able to break into the starting lineup. It's pretty certain that the coaches are telling incoming freshmen safeties Eric McNeal and Mike Nixon to be prepared to not redshirt and contribute, but it's unlikely that either would be good enough – or advanced enough – to come in and really compete to start at either safety position.


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