Projected Depth Chart: Defense

Two big injuries in fall camp to starters -- and projected stars -- has put the defense in a bit of disarray, and made it, at certain positions, look thin and inexperienced. Here's how the defensive depth chart might look when UCLA releases it...

With fall camp officially ending Wednesday, here's our estimation of how the defensvie depth chart will shake out when UCLA releases it officially sometime in the next several days.

We did the projected offensive depth chart yesterday.

Injured players are in italics.

Left Defensive End:

Nikola Dragovic (SO, 6-3, 256)
William Snead (SO, 6-4, 253)

Right Defensive End:

Justin Hickman (JR, 6-1, 261)
Kyle Morgan (SR, 6-3, 264)

Redshirting: Chinonso Anyanwu (FR, 6-4, 210)

It just goes to show you how things can change so quickly on a college football teams' depth chart. In spring, the two defensive end positions looked fairly deep. You had Snead, Dragovic and Morgan on one side, and Hickman, Kevin Harbour and Skaggs at the other, and you felt there was good depth there.

One transfer (Harbour left for Grambling State) and one other player changing positions trying to cover injuries, and there you are.

One of the biggest stories of fall camp was Nikola Dragovic probably winning the starting job at the left defensive end position. With Morgan and Snead both sitting out some of fall camp, Dragovic stepped in and showed clearly that he's the most effective player. The critics of Dragovic tend to point out that he's not very big and not good against holding his ground against the run, and that could be true. In practice in fall, he seemed to be able to leverage his speed and quickness to get it done, but it's difficult to judge. It is pretty easy to see, though, that he's a good pass rusher. Going into fall camp, the coaches envisioned Dragovic as a passing-down type of guy, but he proved to be so effective – and improved in defending against the run – it looks like he earned the starting spot. Now it's just a matter of his effectiveness making that transition from the practice field to the game field.

William Snead had a very good spring and looked poised to win that starting position. But while he was nursing an injured ankle for a few days in fall, Dragovic flew by him. Snead struggled for a while, but then regained the form we saw in spring when he looked quick and aggressive in the last week of fall.
The question with the left defensive end position – with both Dragovic and Snead: will they be able to defend against the run?

If Justin Hickman isn't a star on this team, and doesn't contend for Pac-10 honors, the defense is in trouble. Even before Kevin Brown was healthy, Hickman was still probably the most effective defensive lineman. He's lost weight and continued to improve physically, and his quickness and craftiness has been tough to contain this fall.

So, if Hickman isn't considered a star by season's end, that means this defense just isn't very good.

One of the biggest disappointments in the last two years has been Kyle Morgan. He was heralded as one of the best JC defensive lineman in the country, and had the SEC recruiting him when he committed to UCLA. UCLA thought it had gotten its one, big, potential All-American defensive end. Last year he didn't play well, but had the excuse of his lingering knee injury and scope. Seemingly healthy this fall, expectations were high that Morgan would still prove to be that dominant guy, but it didn't come to fruition. In fact, both Dragovic and Snead have virtually beaten him out at the left defensive end position. It looks like Morgan will get most of his time backing up Hickman at right defensive end, since the position lost Nathaniel Skaggs to d-tackle when Brown went down.

UCLA is expecting these four to carry the defensive line with Kevin Brown out and youngsters manning the tackle positions. They're also praying that these four remain injury-free since the depth chart couldn't absorb any significant injury here.

Snead came to UCLA pretty thin, but it's not close to how rail-thin Anyanwu is. He truly looks to be about 200 pounds. You can bet that Anyanwu will be on the William Snead weight-gain plan, and it will be interesting to see if Anyanwu can put on the type of weight and strength that Snead did. If not, he looks like a future linebacker.

Nose Tackle:

Kevin Brown (JR, 6-2, 297)
Kenneth Lombard (R-FR, 6-1, 268)
Chase Moline (FR, 6-1, 274)

Defensive Tackle:

Brigham Harwell (SO, 6-1, 274)
Nathaniel Skaggs (SO, 6-4, 275)

Presumed Out of the Rotation: Chris Johnson (SO, 6-4, 290), Jess Ward (FR, 6-4, 284)

Again, when your depth chart isn't deep, it's amazing how much one loss can resonate throughout the roster. With Kevin Brown going down, UCLA's defensive line went from being a unit with potential stars, with some experience, to being very young with overall little experience.

Without Brown, UCLA fans are having nightmarish flashbacks of the UCLA defense from last season trying to defend against the run. It just feels all-too-familiar – a young, inexperienced defensive line coming out of fall camp with its head coach claiming they're going to be good. Hopefully this sequel ends differently and Karl Dorrell isn't just talking hopefully this time.

The loss to Brown affects your perspective on other players. With him, you think that the combo of him and Harwell are potentially strong. Without him, you start to wonder about Harwell – since it really is his first season starting and he is a true sophomore and a bit under-sized. And there's the nagging ankle injury that has kept him limited the last week in fall camp.

Pretty much it comes down to this: Kenneth Lombard will have to step up and play well.

No pressure on the young man.

It would make for a very dramatic story – an undersized, under-recruited, Rudy-esque kid who puts in the work and dedication and wills himself to be an effective Pac-10 nose guard.

UCLA definitely could use this kind of dramatic story right now.

At this point, it's impossible to determine if this could happen, even after watching all of fall camp. Lombard, overall, looked like he played well, but it's difficult to really judge since he was going up against the same OL every day in practice. What happens when he goes up against an unfamiliar one – like Oklahoma?

And to add to the drama, there is another Rudy-esque story backing him up at nose tackle in Chase Moline, another under-sized, under-recruited kid who has, to this point, proven everyone wrong (Yeah, we know we're in Hollywood, but this is overkill). The question is: Can Moline's under-appreciated talent actually translate to high-level college football? Many college programs, looking at him physically, thought it couldn't last winter when they were offering and signing players. UCLA, always seemingly looking for that Hollywood story, put its faith in him and offered him a scholarship. So far in fall camp, he doesn't look physically like he belongs, with both Moline and Lombard looking like walk-ons. But you can't deny that the true freshman Moline has been effective, consistently. He is so quick, so smart, and has such low leverage, he's been surprisingly good.

Again, though, probably the primary question here is: Even though maybe the quickness of Lombard and Moline can be effective enough rushing the passer, can it defend against a straight-ahead, run-you-over type of running game?

Before Harwell was hurt, he was getting rave reviews from the coaches, showing his great natural ability and quickness at the more glamorous 3-technique position.

Nathaniel Skaggs, the guy who seems to be able to be plugged in wherever UCLA needs him, makes the move from d-end to d-tackle, being the next biggest body. He'll back up Harwell primarily at the more rush-oriented three-technique position. The coaches like Skaggs, and think he's capable.

It's probably the story of the fall for UCLA football. Can these unsung youngsters hold up the middle of UCLA's defensive line? If they can, expect some Hollywood producers to actually make a call. If not, it could actually be the re-make – and not the sequel -- to last seasons.

Chris Johnson has been a disappointment, getting passed on the depth chart by younger, smaller players. He seemingly isn't taking football too seriously. Ward has had an injured ankle and hasn't practice for at least a week and a half. He would normally redshirt but with the lack of depth at d-tackle (and UCLA's love affair with young, untested d-tackles), if he gets healthy, he could see back-up time.

Whether Brown will return can only be speculated about at this point. It is a severe high-ankle sprain, and we've seen those kind before at UCLA. In the past, if a player has returned mid-season, he was never the same for the rest of the season. So in a month and a half probably the primary interest of UCLA fans will be the state of Brown's ankle, and will he be 100%, or return with it not 100%, and will they just say he's 100%, or will he be on his way to a redshirt year.

Weak Inside Linebacker:

Spencer Havner (SR, 6-4, 245)
Christian Taylor (SO, 6-1, 220)
Kyle Bosworth (FR, 6-2, 215)

Middle Linebacker:

Justin London (SR, 6-1, 234)
Dan Nelson (JR, 6-1, 225)
Fred Holmes (SO, 6-1, 245)

Outside Linebacker:

Wesley Walker (SR, 6-3, 238)
Bruce Davis (SO, 6-3, 230)
Aaron Whittington (SO, 6-2, 210)
John Hale (FR, 6-4, 225)

Probably out of Rotation: Reggie Carter (FR, 6-1, 225), Korey Bosworth (FR, 6-2, 218)

Despite Walker's injury, fall camp was generally good for the linebackers.

The most positive news is that Havner and London came through it relatively unscathed.

Right now, the most precious player on UCLA's team is Justin London. With the youth and inexperience up the middle at defensive tackle, his effectiveness at middle linebacker is critical. London had an excellent fall camp, looking like the London from his sophomore year – aggressive, flying to the ball, and making huge hits.

Dan Nelson, who looked completely disoriented last year when he tried to step in for London, looks like he's improved considerably. He had a good fall camp, and probably surpassed Fred Holmes as London's first back-up. Holmes could lose a little excess weight and will have to improve to get any significant playing time.

Another good surprise has been the play of Christian Taylor, backing up Havner at the weak inside linebacker position. The transfer from Air Force has been playing very well when given the chance, which has been often in the last couple of weeks with the coaches not wanting to risk injury to Havner.

It looks like Kyle Bosworth has a chance not to redshirt, earning that distinction by stepping up in fall camp. UCLA will probably use a lot of bodies at linebacker, and need to get them experience for next year when they lose London, Havner and Walker.

Walker looks like he could be recovering from his newest knee injury quicker than expected. It's thought that he'll compete for the outside linebacker spot when he returns, which could be within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the outside linebacker position, at this point, is probably one position that is the most up-for-grabs on the team. As of now, Davis looks like he'll be the starter for the SDSU game, with Whittington getting a good amount of playing time. The coaches will have to pick-and-choose the best defensive situations for each, since each bring such different capabilities to the field. And John Hale, the true freshman, has a chance to edge into all of this himself. He immediately proved he was a player in the first couple of days in fall camp, so the coaches moved him to the spot they needed filled this year – outside linebacker. He has done very well, which is really phenomenal considering he hasn't played linebacker long. He'll get some downs, and if he shows a superior natural talent for it in the game, UCLA wouldn't hesitate to move him to the front of the pack at that position.

Carter and Korey Bosworth actually had good fall camps, but were just the odd men out in terms of numbers of bodies, and will almost assuredly redshirt.

Strong Safety:

Jarrad Page (SR, 6-2, 220)
Eric McNeal (JR, 6-2, 209)
Bret Lockett (FR, 6-2, 204)

Free Safety:

Chris Horton (SO, 6-1, 200)
Dennis Keyes (SO, 6-1, 192)
Robert Kibble (FR, 5-11, 175)

Probably out of the mix: Shawn Oatis (FR, 5-11, 213), Charlie Shuh (SO, 6-1, 198)

The loss of Chris Horton was as tragic – if not moreso – than losing Kevin Brown. Horton worked his way back for about eight months from a foot injury and surgery. On the second day he's back playing in practice, he suffers a wrist injury that looks to have him out for at least several weeks, if not longer.

The loss of Horton is particularly significant for the team, too, since, without him, the all-important free safety position, the quarterback of the defense, remains undetermined somewhat. Dennis Keyes is fairly solid at the position, but didn't truly wow anyone this fall. He'll probably start at free safety against SDSU.

Robert Kibble is a physical stud who has shown he can pick up the defense probably quicker than the other freshmen safeties. With Horton out, he'll play, providing back-up to Keyes.

The strong safety position is just about how you'd ideally want any position to be. It's manned by a returning senior in Page who has shown star quality as a long-time starter. It's backed up by an experienced and talented player in McNeal. And behind those two is a very promising freshman in Lockett. If only every position on the two-deep could be like this.

Left Conerback:

Trey Brown (SO, 5-10, 189)
Rodney Van (SO, 6-1, 178)

Right Cornerback

Marcus Cassel (SR, 6-0, 189)
Michael Norris (SO, 5-11, 185)
Byron Velega (R-FR, 5-10, 177)

Probably out of Rotation: Aaron Ware (FR, 6-0, 190)

The cornerbacks are really a curiosity. In recent years, UCLA has had some pretty good cornerbacks in the likes of Ricky Manning, Matt Ware and Matt Clark. But the young, no-name cornerbacks currently on the roster, collectively, had a better fall camp than any group of cornerbacks in recent memory.

How is that possible? It's hard to determine. Could it be that these young guys are really good? Possibly. Could it be that the wide receivers aren't near as good as in years past? Possibly.

It's probably a bit of a combination of both – that the young corners are pretty good but look even better against an average group of receivers.

The coaches have been hinting that they'll rotate four cornerbacks at the two positions. And that very well could happen, at least until two of them step up and prove worthy of getting most of the starter's minutes.

Early on in fall camp it looked as if Van and Norris were the frontrunners for the two positions, but in the last week or so it appears that Trey Brown and Cassel have maybe pulled ahead.

Van is, though, the most gifted, it's just a matter of him gaining experience and making the right decisions. He's a potential NFL cornerback.

Brown started out a bit slow in fall camp, but came on recently. Norris was the antithesis, starting out hot and then cooling off a bit. Cassel has probably been the most consistent, and the word is that the coaches have really liked his play in the last week and a half or so.

Velega has also come on, and has gotten in the rotation. He's right on the cusp and if any of the other four falter a bit Velega will swiftly get playing time.

With that many bodies, Ware was too raw as a corner to really compete for playing time as a freshman, but he looked good overall in fall camp, showing some aggressiveness, especially in run coverage, that his older brother would admire.

Special Teams:

K: Justin Medlock (JR, 6-0, 186)
P: Aaron Perez (R-FR, 6-2, 220)
LS: Riley Jondle (JR, 6-3, 213)
H: Brian Callahan (JR, 6-0, 194)

Kick Off Return:

Chris Markey (SO, 5-11, 203)
Matt Willis (JR, 6-0, 186)

Punt Return:

Maurice Drew (JR, 5-8. 205)
Ryan Graves (R-FR, 6-1, 164)

Aaron Perez has improved since last spring, but it hasn't been enough to make you rest easy about UCLA's punting. He's shanking less, but still most of his punts are in the 35-40-yard range with short hang times, which are perfect for returning. UCLA has been practicing Justin Medlock at punter recently, but Dorrell says that Medlock will not punt. It will probably be a case where UCLA suffers through a couple of muffed punts by Perez, living with the growing pains until he's a solid punter, which could be another year away.

The return specialists are hard to determine at this point. It appeared that Markey and Willis would be the starters at kick-off return, but Drew could pop in there. There was also an array of guys who tried their hand at punt return. It's thought that Drew will do that. And it's still really a stretch to think that Graves would be the next up, even though UCLA has been using him as the next-up guy. They could go with Jarrad Page, who they've used in the past for security at returning punts.

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