Last year, UCLA's defense was its weakness. If you talk to anyone close to the situation, the defense's inability to stop opposing offenses impacted the team's overall approach and strategy for each game. It changed UCLA's offense philosophically; UCLA's offensive game plans emphasized possession, running the ball and throwing short more often to try to keep possession longer so that UCLA's defense wouldn't have to take the field.
Every week UCLA's defensive coaches were trying to tinker with different alignments, blitzing schemes and such to try to find something that could possibly give them a little relief.
UCLA's offensive players lost confidence in its defensive counterparts.
Overall, it wasn't a good situation. This year will have to be different if UCLA is going to be successful and have a winning season.
Looking at its personnel, you'd have to guess that UCLA's defense in 2005 will be more successful than in 2004, based on the talent and experience on the roster.
The basic question, though, about the defense last season was: Can the defensive line stop anyone from running the ball? The question might shift this season to: Can the cornerbacks stop anyone from passing the ball? UCLA's inexperience has shifted from its defensive line to its cornerbacks, which any good football coach will tell you, might be the most critical position on defense.
Just because the defensive line is a year older, more mature and has last year under its belt doesn't mean that the defensive line isn't a worry. The DL wasn't very good last year, giving up a ton of yardage on the ground and not being very good at pressuring the quarterback. You'd have to hope that their collective inexperience (with only one senior in its two-deep last year, and he was a converted OL) was the main reason UCLA's DL was so poor. We've maintained for a long time that experience and maturity has a much bigger influence on success in college football than talent, so hopefully the experience the DL gained last season will be enormously productive. Bottom line: You have to concede that the more experience the DL has this year will definitely contribute to an improved DL, but given last season, and how poorly the DL performed, it is still very unproven.
DE: William Snead (SO, 6-4, 253)
DT: Kevin Brown (JR, 6-2, 297)
DT: Brigham Harwell (SO, 6-1, 274)
DE: Justin Hickman (JR, 6-1, 261)
There are a couple of things that jump out at you in this projected starters list: 1) Man, they must have been really inexperienced last season because they're still pretty inexperienced this season. There still isn't a senior starter in this group, and every one of them are really just beginning their second season of significant playing time on the defensive line. 2) Physically they've all changed significantly. Snead was listed at 228 last season so, doing the math, he's put on 25 pounds. Brown has added 12 pounds, Brigham Harwell 15 pounds and Hickman has lost probably nine pounds.
That's what happens when youngsters grow up, right?
All four of these guys have shown flashes of great potential, but they still have quite a bit to prove. Brown is perhaps the most accomplished in the group and, by the end of the season, was perhaps UCLA's best defensive player. He had a big game against USC, dominating his blocker and getting into the offensive backfield quite often. He's expected to pick up where he left off at the end of last year, and that will be greatly needed if this DL is to be at the very least solid this season.
What has taken a bite out of the DL is the loss of two potential contributors. C.J. Niusulu, who was a starter for two years at defensive tackle, and Kevin Harbour, who would have made the two-deep at defensive end, have both left the program. That's two of probably the top eight DLs. There are some close to the situation that would say, off the record, that the DL is better off without them, for various reasons. Regardless, they were two more bodies who would have contributed, and their loss puts the UCLA DL back into a familiar state of being fairly thin in talent and experience.
With the loss of Niusulu, Harwell will step into the other starting d-tackle spot. Harwell, we know, is very talented, and showed it at various times last season. He made the transition to tackle from end in the spring, and his explosiveness and athleticism brings a new element to the interior d-line. But he is just a true sophomore, a converted d-end, and he is a bit undersized. Hopefully quickness will overcome size (didn't some wise basketball coach once assert that?).
On the outside, UCLA has high hopes for Hickman. He emerged as UCLA's best defensive end last season, which isn't exactly saying much, given last year's d-line performance. But in the off-season he also was impressive, looking particularly good at Pro Day at UCLA, where NFL scouts check out UCLA players. And the word is that he's stronger and quicker, and has continued to improve his pass rushing moves.
Snead has legitimately added 25 pounds, and looks like a different person walking around campus from a year ago. Snead always had quickness and agility, but just wasn't big, strong or bulky enough to play off his blocker. Hopefully the added 25 pounds will make an impact in that department.
Again, with the loss of Niusulu and Harbour, the two-deep looks thin. Kyle Morgan (SR, 6-3, 264) and Nikola Dragovic (SO, 6-3, 252) look to fill out the two-deep at defensive end. Morgan started much of last season, but never excelled. Some believe he was hampered by an early-season knee injury that required a scoping, and that he'll be a different player this season. Hopefully that's the case. Dragovic is one of the best pass rushers on the d-line, and the coaches have high hopes for him. If he can show this fall he can defend better against the run it would greatly enhance his playing time.
Nathaniel Skaggs (R-FR, 6-4, 275) worked as a defensive end in spring most of the time, but the word is that he could be seeing more time at defensive tackle this fall. He impressed the coaches last season on the scout team, and in spring, with his aggressiveness and quickness.
Freshman Chinonso Anyanwu (FR, 6-4, 210) isn't close to being ready to play physically, looking more like a safety than a defensive end at this point. He is on the William Snead diet plan, though.
At defensive tackle, the two-deep is relatively set, though unproven. Chris Johnson (SO, 6-3, 280) and Kenneth Lombard (R-FR, 6-1, 268) will back up Brown and Harwell, and both present some worries. UCLA might not shuttle in as many players on the d-line as it did a season ago, but it's still going to spell its starters consistently, and Johnson and Lombard have yet to prove they can play at this level. Johnson, who wasn't heralded much out of high school, was a bit of a surprise last season, when he showed signs of being able to play. It was a matter of strength for Johnson and reportedly he's improved that in the off-season significantly. Lombard is still the little engine that could, just not physically looking like a Pac-10 scholarship defensive lineman. But last year the coaches swore that he looked good before going down to a shoulder injury in the third game of the season, and was subsequently granted a substitute year of eligibility for medical hardship. He has done a lot of work to change his body, but he still has to prove he can be a significant contributor. Again, Skaggs will probably also be competing to make the d-tackle two-deep.
UCLA has two incoming freshmen defensive tackles in Jess Ward (FR, 6-4, 260) and Chase Moline (FR, 6-1, 245). Ward was somewhat of a recruiting sleeper when he committed to UCLA, but then received some Pac-10 offers. The coaches would love it if he showed the ability to compete for the two-deep as a true freshman. Talking about the little engine that could, Moline embodies it. He was passed over by many schools in recruiting because of his size, but he gets raves from everyone who has ever coached him – saying that he is the exception to the size rule because of his inherent talent and athleticism. It's unlikely, though, that he'll be able to come in and compete for the two-deep, but Moline has earned a reputation for opening eyes and going beyond expectation.
Something to definitely watch is the influence of new defensive line coach Thurmond Moore. Moore was on the staff during spring practice, but he's now got his feet wet and will try to further emphasize aggressiveness, pass rushing and beating your man one-on-one compared to previous UCLA defensive lines.
Two of the best players on the team are linebackers, so it's not difficult to say that the linebacking unit is one of the strengths of the squad.
OLB: Bruce Davis (SO, 6-3, 245)
MLB: Justin London (SR, 6-1, 234)
ILB: Spencer Havner (SR, 6-4, 245)
Havner is a three-year starter, led the Pac-10 in tackles last season with 125 and earned first team All-American by a few different sports media outlets. Havner sat out the Wyoming bowl game and spring practice after surgery on his shoulder, but has been cleared physically for some time and has been participating in the off-season seven-on-sevens. He looks to be bigger than last season, and it's hard to tell if that's good or bad weight. He'll be at that inside Will linebacker spot, the glamor spot among the ‘backers, for a second straight year and should be even more comfortable with it. In fall practice, really, the only thing to watch for is whether Havner looks like he's ready to lead the defense in his senior year.
London is probably the defense's natural leader, being very vocal and personable. There are those that assert that London, when he's healthy, is UCLA's best linebacker, having a great combination of speed, quickness, instincts and strength. If you remember how effective London was his sophomore season you could probably make that case. London played hurt most of last season, but he underwent off-season surgery on his annoying foot injury, and has been cleared medically. He says he's feeling completely fine now, and whether he is or not is the issue to watch for with the start of fall camp. If he's healthy, UCLA has the uncommon phenomenon of having two legitimate All-American types in their linebacking unit at one time.
Davis made the switch from defensive end to linebacker in spring, after it was experimented with last season. He looks more like a linebacker, and has good pursuit to the ball and the quarterback. The question will be pass coverage, his ability to stay with tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, and how quickly he can get comfortable at the position. He had his knee scoped recently but is expected to be ready for fall camp.
Wesley Walker (SR, 6-3, 238) started at the outside linebacker spot a year ago, but it's believed he's much more suited inside and will move there permanently this fall. He'll back up Havner primarily at the Will, but could also see time behind London at the middle spot. He has been limited by injury, and wasn't participating in the off-season workouts, and his status is unknown at this time.
Walker and Dan Nelson (JR, 6-1, 225) will be the primary backups at middle linebacker. Nelson struggled last season when he had to play significant minutes after London was hurt, but UCLA is hoping the year of experience will help him be a solid backup.
Also backing up at the Will spot will be Fred Holmes (SO, 6-1, 245). Holmes sat out some of the season and spring due to a contusion on his thigh and bone that was healing strangely. In the off-season he was cleared to play, but he also looks like he's gained some considerable weight, which has probably precipitated the move inside for him. At this point, if UCLA could get a solid contribution out of Holmes, it'd be considered a big plus.
Aaron Whittington (SO, 6-2, 210) will probably see a good amount of playing time backing up Davis at the OLB spot. The coaches have always like Whittington, and he saw some action last season. A nimble athlete, it's always been a matter of size and strength with Whittington. He has gained about 10-12 pounds in the off-season, but still looks undersized for a linebacker.
In other words, the linebacker two-deep looks a little sketchy, so that's why UCLA will definitely look to its incoming freshmen to compete for spots on the two-deep.
Probably the candidate with the best shot is Reggie Carter (FR, 6-1, 225), who projects as a middle linebacker. UCLA coaches would love it if Carter proved in fall camp that he's worthy of some playing time this season at the MLB spot, since someone needs to take over the position next season when London leaves. Carter is aggressive, has good instincts and has the chance to do it. Probably the freshman most likely ready to play from a physical standpoint is John Hale (FR, 6-4, 225). Hale, though, hasn't played linebacker long, and is still pretty raw, but athletic and talented. He projects possibly as the next Will. Trying to get into the two deep at the OLB spot will be Korey Bosworth (FR, 6-2, 218) and Kyle Bosworth (FR, 6-2, 215), the nephews of former Oklahoma linebacker great, Brian Bosworth. They're athletic, but most believe they'll need a redshirt year to bulk up and get stronger.
There is also the possibility that walk-on linebackers Jamel Greer (R-FR, 6-0, 230) and Christian Taylor (SO, 6-0, 220), the transfer from Air Force, could have a chance at playing a bit this season. Both are considered as good as some other scholarshipped linebackers.
Probably most over-looked and under-appreciated of any departing player will be Matt Clark, the senior cornerback who anchored one side of the defensive backfield for the last several years. Most college football defensive coaches will tell you that you can't be effective on defense without effective corners, and Clark's solid play at one corner for the last couple of seasons gave UCLA the ability to feel confident that one half of the field was shut down from the pass.
That isn't the feeling anymore. While the coaches are optimistic about the young cornerbacks on the roster, they are very inexperienced, which can be deadly at cornerback more than just about any other position on the field besides quarterback. If an opposing offense knows their receivers will be able to get open on your cornerbacks, it opens up their offense and changes the outlook of the game entirely.
Trey Brown (SO, 5-10, 189) started the last few games of the season at cornerback, and is really the only corner with any decent amount of game experience. Interestingly enough, though, Brown isn't considered a lock for that left cornerback spot, which is worrisome. If the guy who started last year doesn't look to be the leader for the same starting position – at a highly critical position – that means there must be some real uncertainty at that position. It's believed that Rodney Van (SO, 6-1, 185) is the slight leader going into fall practice to win the starting left corner spot. Van is a superior athlete to Brown, even though Brown stepped up and showed some chops in the actual games. Van's speed and quickness, though, gave him an edge coming out of spring.
On the other side, it looks like Michael Norris (SO, 5-11, 185) is ahead in the race for the starting right cornerback position. He had an edge in spring, showing strength and aggressiveness that set him apart.
Marcus Cassel (SR, 6-0, 189) will also compete on the right side. Cassel is a very good athlete, but in his time at UCLA just hasn't been able to really take control of the position, lacking the competitiveness and aggressiveness to win the position outright. In fact, Byron Velega (R-FR, 5-10, 190) has the talent to surpass him, but will have to show a newfound maturity and dedication this fall. Jebiaus Brown (JR, 6-1, 190) is also another who has the physical and athletic gifts but just hasn't been able to apply himself, also hampered by a series of injuries. Right now, if Brown stepped up and had a chance to compete or contribute it'd be considered a big bonus.
There are some opinions that UCLA could use a four-man rotation at cornerback, utilizing Van, Trey Brown, Norris and Cassel. That very well could be the case until two of them step up and take over the starting positions.
There is enough uncertainty among the cornerbacks that incoming freshman Aaron Ware (FR, 6-0, 190) could possibly have a chance to make the two-deep. The word is he has a chance, at least, to play on special teams.
It's believed another incoming freshman, Robert Kibble (FR, 5-10, 175), could end up at either cornerback or safety.
UCLA got a significant boost when it learned in the off-season that Jarrad Page (SR, 6-2, 220) would not opt to leave early to play pro baseball. Page is a four-year starter at safety and has been among UCLA's best defensive players during those four years. Ranking second on the team in tackles last season, getting Page back was crucial, especially since UCLA is going to be working in three new starters at the other defensive back positions. Take Page out of the scenario and UCLA's secondary is very worrisome.
With the departure of Ben Emanuel, the starting free safety position opens up. Probably having a good shot at winning it is Dennis Keyes (SO, 6-1, 192). Keyes is athletic and aggressive and had some good moments in his limited playing time last season. Chris Horton (SO, 6-1, 200) would probably be the leader for the starting spot, but he could be slow in returning from off-season foot surgery. He is, though, a playmaker and a hitter.
The coaches repeatedly say that the two safety positions in UCLA's defense are interchangeable, so Eric McNeal (JR, 6-2, 209), who is more of a strong safety, could also see time at free. McNeal really blossomed last season in a backup role and then played really well in the Silicon Valley Bowl. He'll get quite a bit of time at either safety position and also in the nickel back set that utilizes that fifth defensive back essentially as a linebacker.
With Horton healthy and able to play, that's four very solid players to round out the two-deep. But we're hearing that incoming freshman Bret Lockett (FR, 6-2, 195) has been very impressive in the workouts and seven-on-sevens. If Horton can't contribute, at least early on, Lockett could be the fourth safety in the two-deep. Shawn Oatis (FR, 5-11, 203) will also try to break into the rotation, and he could be competing with Lockett for that two-deep spot if Horton is slow in recovering.
Walk-on safety Charlie Shuh (SO, 6-1, 198) is good enough to push the scholarship players, and has a chance during his UCLA career to see some action. He is an option the UCLA coaches will definitely use if the safeties are beset by injury.