Spring Practice Review: Defense

The defense looked good in spring, particularly a potentially dominating defensive line led by Rod Leisle, Sean Phillips and a potentially emerging star in Asi Faoa. The linebackers and defensive backs still have some lingering issues...

After watching spring practice, the defense looks to be the strength of the team, for a second year in a row. And the defensive line is the heart and soul of the defense. You start with Rod Leisle, who had a very good spring. It's even more impressive taking into consideration that Leisle was going to miss spring practice because he needs surgery on his wrist. This is a guy who didn't need to prove anything by coming out for spring practice, but because of his competitiveness, and the fact he just plainly likes to play football, he put off the surgery so he could participate. Leisle showed in spring that he is at least All Pac-10 potential, and will more than likely make some All-American teams.

Emerging as the other starting tackle in spring was Sean Phillips, the fifth year senior who has been hampered in the past by injury. If Leisle were the best defensive lineman on the team during spring, Phillips was a close second. He looked dominating physically, and very quick.

UCLA could have the best 1-2 tandem of starting defensive tackles in the Pac-10 and one of the best in the country.

And the two-deep at defensive tackle looks very, very solid, at the very least. Fifth-year senior Steve Morgan is a mainstay. He actually looked good enough at times and made some plays where you could see him starting in place of Phillips. Making a name for himself and easily making the two-deep was JC transfer Ryan Boschetti. Boschetti showed the potential to be a star in spring, with great quickness and a motor that keeps running. He's shooting to try to move into the starting lineup by the first game next fall, which is good – it keeps Phillips and Leisle working hard.

After those four, there isn't much more depth for fall. In a pinch, more than likely one of the defensive ends would move over to play tackle. And more than likely, the incoming freshman DLs will be redshirted.

The defensive ends aren't as proven as the defensive tackles and don't have the experience, but spring showed that there is some considerable talent there, and some potential stardom. Dave Ball had a good spring at the one defensive end spot where he started last season. He looked more comfortable this spring, and more physical. At the other defensive end position, Mat Ball and Asi Faoa were pretty much neck and neck by the end of spring for that starting position. Perhaps Faoa had an edge, since he had one of the best springs among any player on the team, almost looking unblockable on passing situations. But Mat Ball also looked very good. So, having both competing for the position is a great luxury to have. Rusty Williams, before he was hurt, was having a good spring. His experience will be a good resource. Among those four, that's a very good to excellent two-deep, and then you throw in David Tautofi, who surprised some people by turning in a good spring. Tautofi looked in better shape and quite a bit quicker.

Unless there is some considerable injuries, it doesn't appear that there would be any time for the incoming freshmen at DE.

And watch for Faoa to start at one defensive end position and potentially emerge as a star next fall.

At linebacker, there are still some unanswered questions after spring. Marcus Reese stepped into the middle linebacker position to replace Robert Thomas. Reese had a good spring, but nothing particularly spectacular. The word is that he's still getting accustomed to the position. Brandon Chillar, while he was hurt for most of the spring, is probably the most solid and reliable force on the linebacking unit. He said he's up to 240 pounds, but still looks lean and quick. He's a potential star at the strongside backer position. Nothing really happened during the spring that cemented down the weakside starter. Audit Attar made some big plays, but also showed he still lacks great lateral quickness. When there's a seam to run straight through, Audie's your man. While Spencer Havner had a solid spring, it would have been nice if he had really stepped up and took over the starting position. He just doesn't look like he's quite there yet, physically or otherwise. But there's still quite a bit of time before next fall – and he's still just a baby. Patrick Pierre-Louis is a wildcard here. He needs to learn the position, and he'll be doing that over the off-season. The coaches were encouraged by what they saw of him before he sprained his ankle and missed the last two weeks of practice, but it wasn't enough to make any real determination on how he'll contribute next fall.

It was hard to get a good assessment of Dennis Link since he also missed quite a bit of practice. Before he went out, he looked big and improved at middle linebacker. Good minutes from him next fall are vastly needed. Tim Warfield showed in spring that he's very capable of contributing in his role as the backup strongside backer, showing newfound aggressiveness.

Unlike at defensive line, there is definitely room here for a true freshman to get some time next fall. With four freshmen linebackers coming in, and all of them fairly well-developed physically already, if any of the four – Xavier Burgess, Kirby Joseph, Justin London and Wesley Walker – really make an impact in fall practice, watch for them to move into the rotation at middle or weakside linebacker. Probably the best bet is Justin London, who is physically developed and probably furthest along in knowing how to play linebacker.

In the defensive backfield the questions going into spring practice still linger: Will someone be able to step up and be a solid starter at the one corner position and will someone step up at strong safety?

Concerning the question at cornerback, Joe Hunter made some advances in spring and, unless something dramatic happens in fall, he'll be the starting cornerback for the first game in September. He's getting more consistent, but there is still a problem with Hunter making mistakes, which he'll hopefully cut down on by next season. With the lack of safeties in camp, and forseeably on the squad next year, it looks like Matt Ware is needed to stay at free safety. So, UCLA needs Hunter to be the man. Luckily, though, if Hunter falters, spring practice showed that there is someone else who might be able to step up to the challenge in Matt Clark. Clark showed some of the most improvement of anyone on the squad this spring. He's physically so much bigger than he was last year, and his coverage skills have improved quite a bit. His emergence in spring did a lot to making the coaches feel better about the question at cornerback. Marcus Cassel also showed some nice things. While he's still a ways away from being a major contributor, he showed that there is potential there, which also alleviated the coaches of some worries. Keith Short looked improved, but it's still questionable whether he'll be able to play cornerback at this level.

So, with Ricky Manning at one corner, Matt Ware at free safety, and Hunter, Clark and Cassel enough to hold down the fort at the other corner, the real question is at strong safety. The biggest problem of the entire spring was that Ben Emanuel missed practice. If he had been healthy he more than likely would have filled in the hole at strong safety, which would have made the entire defensive backfield seem so much more set and solid. With the question at cornerback, with the loss of Emanuel for the spring, it made the DBs seem so much more indefinite. But if Emanuel can step up in fall and own the starting position, which everyone is expecting him to do, the coaches will be feeling quite a bit better. Jibril Raymo has all the potential to be a player, and he flashed that potential in spring, but he's not quite ready to be a starter. Maybe by fall. But, he at least is good enough now to provide strong backup minutes. Kevin Brant will more than likely play ahead of Raymo merely because he knows the position better, but Brant is only good for backup minutes. One of the biggest blows to the team recently was the loss of Chad Rogers, the walk on free safety. The first couple of weeks of spring practice, he made a definite impact, and it was a pleasant surprise that the team might actually get a walk-on player who would be a significant contributor, maybe as early as next year. But he was dismissed from the team for leaving practice for two days to watch his girlfriend compete in the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Georgia. It's all a pretty odd situation really – that Rogers, who appeared to be a straight, by-the-book kind of kid, would do this, especially when it was pretty evident he had a strong chance to contribute.

What will the incoming freshmen DBs be able to contribute? That's a big question. Among all of them, you can probably expect Eric McNeal to have the best chance not to redshirt. He is physically the furthest along, and he plays the position of need, strong safety. But many have said not to count out Mike Nixon. Jarrad Page is more than likely a free safety and, without Rogers, he could conceivably not redshirt. He'd have to show that he was considerably better than Brant, who might end up behind Ware at free safety.  The cornerbacks, Joe Garcia and Jebiaus Brown, would have to be really exceptional in fall to not redshirt. As in, on par with Matt Clark.


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