Like with the offense, the biggest change for UCLA's defense this winter practice is in its coaching staff. Three of the four defensive coaches have been replaced, and there is a new Defensive Coordinator in town, DeWayne Walker.
The word out of the program is that the defense will really return to basics this winter, with a great emphasis on fundamentals. It's also thought that the new defensive coaches will go into fall practice with the approach that just about every position is up for grabs and that many players will get a look at multiple positions, trying to find the right fit for each individual, and within the scheme of the defense.
One of the most exciting things to watch for this winter is how Walker - and his new assistants, DL coach Todd Howard, linebackers coach Chuck Bullough, and returnee, cornerbacks coach Gary DeLoach - will try to resurrect the UCLA defense. It might be difficut this winter to really get a good feel for specifics of Walker's scheme, since the coaches haven't been together long, they need to get some looks at their players, and, like we stated, there will be a concentrated effort to return to fundamentals. But in 15 practices we should be able to get some sense of the scheme, and anything that appears to be aggressive will be welcomed by defensive-starved UCLA fans.
The early word also is that these defensive coaches have already brought a tough, butt-kicking, no-nonsense approach to the program in just the few weeks they've been in the offices. It's expected that you're going to hear more coaches yelling on the defensive side of Spaulding from now on. You kind of feel a bit sorry for the defensive players, but on the other hand, they'll probably greatly benefit from what many feel will be a new emphasis on toughness.
Out for winter practice is defensive end Nikola Dragovic, who is still recovering from his knee injury and surgery. Also out is linebacker Fred Holmes, who had hip surgery in January and can't run for 12 weeks. Both are expected to be cleared by summer.
The first thing that stands out when looking at the DL depth chart for winter is how good the name "Kevin Brown" looks. Brown, as we all know, was considered a star in the making heading into the 2005 season after emerging in 2004, and was looking like just that in fall practice until he suffered a serious ankle injury in the fall scrimmage and sat out the season as a result. The loss of Brown was thought to be the lynch pin that UCLA's defense lost for the season, and very obviously made its interior DL as vulnerable as it was.
Brown is back, and the reports are he's feeling completely healthy and is in great shape. He won't participate in full contact this winter, thankfully.
All of the interior defensive linemen play both the nose and the three-technique positions. Brown will be the primary nose, and behind him will be true sophomore Chase Moline, who was a very interesting story in 2005. UCLA wasn't even sure they were going to offer him a scholarship when he was being recruited, then considered grey-shirting him. With all the injuries and lack of depth he went on to start 9 games at defensive tackle and made many freshman All-American teams. He made those teams because, well, first he was pressed into service and got a lot of playing time. But Moline clearly emerged as the one young, inexperienced option in the interior DL that actually fared well at times. Yes, he generally got beat quite a bit, but the word is that he's gotten stronger and has improved his body while putting on good weight in the off-season. If Brown can stay healthy, and UCLA can get solid back-up minutes from Moline next season, that position would could be very solid.
At the three-technique is Harwell, who had a consistently disappointing sophomore season in 2005, due in some part to injury. The word is that Harwell is also in good shape heading into winter and has a very good attitude about delivering on the promise he had coming out of high school.
Jess Ward sat out a great deal of the season with a foot injury. It's difficult to get a sense of just how good Ward is, or how much potential he has. In fall of last year, he looked like he didn't have good balance and lacked explosiveness, but we later heard that he might have been limited by his injury at the time. Some reports out of the scout team was that Ward was doing very well when he was healthy by the last third of the season, and there was some consideration of taking him out of his redshirt year. So, this winter, Ward will be one of the guys we'll be watching pretty closely, since it's imperative UCLA gets a solid two-deep on its DL next season after last year's DL debacle.
Walk-on Brian Ruziecki is considered someone who could contribute, with good size and strength.
The interior DL is probably the spot on the team that will most be helped next season by incoming true freshmen. The primary candidate expected to lend immediate help to the two-deep is Darius Savage, the 6-3, 330-pounder from San Diego Morse, who has the strength to probably be able to come in and provide help. Jerzy Siewierski, the 6-3, 300-pounder from Nevada, also could find himself not redshirting and at least getting some back-up minutes.
One of the biggest objectives of the winter practice has to be to not to get any of the interior DL hurt.
At end, Hickman had surgery for a small meniscus tear in the off-season but he'll be practicing this winter. You'd really want to see a strong winter from him leading into a all Pac-10 type of senior season.
Moving from the interior to end is Lombard. It's a good move, since he just doesn't have the strength, center of gravity or bulk to play at tackle. It will be interesting to see if he has the quickness or balance to play outside. Peddie, a walk-on and former tight end, showed some promise on the scout team. He was good on the edge but struggled some against strength at offensive tackle.
At the other end, without Dragovic, Snead will get first team reps, and he's gotten bigger in the offseason. He's shown flashes in his career but it's now time, this winter, he proves he's a solid option. After getting experimented with at linebacker, it looks like Bruce Davis will permanently settle into a rush defensive end. If he gets stronger and is able to hold his ground he'll be able to be used more often in more situations that aren't just cleary rush situations. Anyanwu is still a question mark, topping out at about 210 pounds. He has gained some weight, since when he came to UCLA he was probably 190, but it's still not enough bulk and strength for him to be able to play defensive end at this level, and he doesn't have the lateral quickness to play linebacker. He's looking more like a guy who will have to work to get up to about 240 as a junior or senior and then hope to contribute.
Dragovic and Hickman will be your projected starters, and hopefully Snead a solid back-up, and Davis a rush end. But like with the DTs, it does present an opportunity for the incoming freshmen - like Reginald Stokes, Jeff Miller or David Carter -- to possibly crack the two deep.
After last season's severe problems on the defensive line, many are looking to this winter practice for the DL to show some improvement, especially with the return of Kevin Brown, and the new blood coming from the new coaches.
Except for Hale, you wouldn't say that this is a unit with much size - and overall much experience. It's easily the biggest question mark on the entire team, offense or defense. And the scary thing is - there is only one linebacker coming in this fall, Tobi Umodu, who is an undersized, converted high school defensive end.
The linebackers have to be one of the biggest curiosities of winter practice. And perhaps the biggest will be Carter, who was getting raves from the coaches last year on the scout team. It was actually considered a few times to take him out of his redshirt year. He started out slow last fall, still getting acclimated to the scheme and the reads, so at the beginning of the season he was limited. But by mid-season, on the scout team he was looking so good there were some observers who believed he was the most talented linebacker on the roster. Taylor will start out as the #1 middle linebacker, but it's believed that Carter will probably take over by the end of winter practice.
Taylor, a walk-on who will almost certainly earn a scholarship (if one is available - and he had one last season), proved toward the end of last year that he can play solidly at this level. Korey Bosworth, who the coaches liked, will also try to crack the middle for playing time, so competition at the middle linebacker spot this winter will be good to watch.
The strongside linebacker position is now what was called the weak inside linebacker spot last season. So, essentially, Hale takes over Spencer Havner's old position, a move we anticipated would happen. Hale proved physically and athletically ready to play last season when he was pressed into duty because of injuries, but now he's got to get up to speed mentally. His progress this winter will something to definitely note. Kyle Bosworth will be at the strongside spot, too, and the coaches liked his potential, particularly his nose for the ball.
At the weakside position, which was the outside spot last year, former safety Eric McNeal will line up as the guy to beat out. He played most of last season essentially at linebacker, as the fifth defensive back many times, so the transition won't be tough for him. McNeal plays bigger than his 209 pounds, with a good hitting ability and toughness, and he should bring good quickness to the edge to rush the passer. Whittington has been languishing some in the program, never really able to put on enough weight or strength that would enable to him make a major contribution. Oatis is another safety who will make a move to the rush linebacker spot, since he's continued to put on weight - good weight. With the new coaches experimenting quite a bit this winter with players and positions, you could very well see Oatis line up at strong safety also.
Despite losing just players to graduation, the secondary looks considerably changed. First, there is the move of McNeal and Oatis to linebacker. Horton then moves over to strong safety to take over Page's spot. Rodney Van moves to right corner, and Norris moves to left. And add former receiver Matt Slater to the mix at cornerback.
Brown has gone beyond expectation as the starting cornerback, having a solid year starting as a sophomore last season. Norris had an iffy season at cornerback, while being stellar on special teams. He's still having mental lapses at corner and it actually has moved him down the cornerback hierarchy. Van, who easily has the most talent, will get a shot at starting at the right corner. He has the speed and the quickness, it's just a matter of the mental game for him. Velega had a solid year, both as a back-up and in practice and the coaches think that Van and Velega are probably the second and third-best corners at this point and want them to fight it out for the starting right corner position. Slater will try to make the transition from receiver, which should be interesting to watch this spring. The move was made at his request.
A guy to be excited about is Aaron Ware. He looked very good at left corner on the scout team last year and it's believed he could move up that cornerback hierarchy when on an even playing field with the other cornerbacks. He'll also get a look at free safety.
At the safety positions, you have two good, experienced players projected as the starters in Horton and Keyes. Horton moves to the strong, which is the position he's most suited for, being able to fly up and stop the run. Keyes started much of the season at free safety and was solid. The coaches are excited about both Lockett and Kibble, two very good athletes that physically are ready to play. There has been talk about Kibble also getting a look at cornerback.
Brian Malette (SO, 5-11, 180) OR
Jimmy Rotstein (SO, 6-0, 160)
Aaron Perez (SO, 6-2, 220)
Riley Jondle (SR, 6-3, 213)
Chris Markey (JR, 5-11, 203)
Chris Markey (JR, 5-11, 203)
Kahlil Bell (SO, 5-11, 206)
UCLA will approach it in winter ball like Justin Medlock doesn't exist, since it has to. Medlock, of course, is UCLA's place-kicker who was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated with injury, which is a felony, in December. He was suspended from the team indefinitely, and doesn't appear on any pre-winter practice rosters or depth charts. Medlock, though, wasn't charged with a hit and run, and we're hearing that there is a decent chance that the felony charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor, which would probably enable him to be re-instated to the team for next season. Medlock is currently in school.
But in the meantime, during winter practice, the two walk-ons, Malette and Rotstein, will battle for supremacy. Neither was named the true starter for the Sun Bowl, with Rotstein doing the place-kicking and Malette the kick-offs. Of course, if Medlock isn't re-instated by fall, incoming freshman Kai Forbath, the #1 prep kicker in the country, would probably vault ahead of both Malette and Rotstein. The two walk-ons aren't All-American kickers, but they aren't slackers either, by any means.
It will be interesting to see if Perez has improved by this winter, since he had a pretty spotty season in 2005.
Overall, looking at the depth charts for winter, the first thing you're truly struck by is how young the team will be next fall. Looking at this defensive preview and the <a href= http://ucla.scout.com/2/500504.html>offensive preview</a>, projecting that all injured players return in time for fall, UCLA would start only two seniors on defense and three or four on offense. In fact there are very few seniors on the two-deep. There are quite a few juniors, which bodes well for the 2007 season. But for 2006, the overall development of the team's youth will be a major aspect to watch in winter practice, particularly at linebacker, the unit that seems to be the biggest question mark.