New Defensive Coordinator and cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker answered some questions for us this week at practice.
You like practicing in the rain?
Are there advantages?
"Well, you have to play in it, so it's smart to practice in it."
Were any players whining about it?
"No, shut up and just play football. That's what I was telling (Ben) Olson. He said, 'Hey coach, you're lucky it's raining today.' You have to play in the rain."
How do you define your approach to the defense as defensive coordinator?
"The first thing is attitude. It's playing with an attitude. All the good defensive coaches I've been around, that's the number one thing. Have some swagger. Run to the ball. And hit. That's the number one thing I wanted to get accomplished this winter."
How do you instill swagger?
"You have to have confidence. I really believe that if players believe in you, they'll play for you. My whole thing is, and all of our coaches, I want our players to believe in us as coaches. I think if you can get the players to believe in you, they'll play for you."
Do you earn that kind of respect on and off the field?
"I think it's a combination. I think you definitely want to be good teachers, on the field and off the field as well. We want to show them that we care. And teach them, teach them the game. Like I said, all the guys I've been around have been great teachers, and players buy into that."
And it's obvious so far in winter that you're emphasizing fundamentals...
"No question. To me, it's still about blocking and tackling. Those are the things we've really been stressing. I hate mis-tackles. I hate deep balls. Those are those things that will get you beat on defense. Those are some of the things we're focusing on."
For years UCLA's defense has had a reputation as not being an attacking one. More of a bend-not-break. Do you want to change that perception?
"Well, yeah. I don't want to be known as that. I want to be a defensive school. Will it happen the first year? I don't know. We'll see. I've been around defensive coaches when they've come into a place and they've changed the whole complexion of the defense. I don't want to be a step brother or step sister, I want to turn this into a defensive school."
Tell us about some of the standouts on defense so far this winter, and who you can see developing, starting with the defensive line...
"I think Justin Hickman has really showed up. I'm disappointed that he's a little dinged right now because I think he started out like gangbusters. I think Hickman's done a good job so far. At linebacker, just the speed of Eric McNeal. We're going to have to slow him down a little bit in terms of making sure he doesn't over-run plays, because he's so fast. But I think McNeal has done a decent job..."
Are you worried a bit about the size of your linebackers, and their experience?
"I just think the pressure is going to be on the defensive line. We have to keep guys off the linebackers. Let the linebackers run and make plays. So I think there is going to be some pressure on our defensive line to really be stout and protect those guys as much as possible."
You must have watched a considerable amount of tape of UCLA's defense last year, so you know the defensive line, even though they suffered injuries, were very vulnerable through the middle. Even now, in winter there are still a few defensive linemen out, but how do you correct the play of the defensive line?
"Right now we're correcting with just good technique. Good run-front mechanics. I think (new defensive line coach) Todd Howard has done a good job. He has three starters out right now. So for us to even be able to do what we're doing is a great accomplishment. I think when you get Kevin Brown back, you get Brigham Harwell back, Nikola Dragovic, and then get some of these young guys that are coming in, I think we have the make-up to have a solid defensive line."
How's Jess Ward doing?
"You know what? He's done a decent job. I just think the core of our defensive line, we have the capability to be pretty good. But the jury is still out."
At linebacker, Reggie Carter I believe was the scout team player of the year. They considered taking him out of his redshirt year during the season. How has he done this winter?
"He's still young. It's a new defense for him. He's just young. We have to be patient with him. I don't want to throw him under the bus, and I don't want to praise him yet either. There's a happy medium with him in terms of having to bring him along. He's going to have to play for us."
The secondary, you lost Byron Velega, and then two safeties moved to linebacker. So you're thinner than you might have been this winter...
"I think we're going to be solid. Defensively you don't have to have a bunch of great players. I think you just have to play with good technique, play aggressive and play with good fundamentals and run to the football. With Trey Brown, you have a very instinctive player. I think Rodney Van is a very athletic player. I think Chris Horton has a change to be a very good run stopper. We're just trying to get Dennis Keyes to be more of a playmaker and a sure tackler. And you have Michael Norris at corner. And then we'll have to develop some young guys for depth."
And Aaron Ware. Where do you seem him playing, given your personnel?
"He's playing safety for us right now. He's young, too. I have to put him in the same category as Carter. They flash, but they're young. I think the young guys have to learn the game. It's a fast game, especially going against our offense. I think against the West Coast offense, you have to know what you're doing. I just think the young guys have to pick it up a little bit."
How is Matt Slater doing at cornerback?
"You know, Slater is doing okay. With the transition, it's new for him. He's done some okay things, but I think he's a ways away."
How critical is it for Robert Kibble to return?
"I'll just say this. It's not critical to me, if there is any issue with his health. I wouldn't say a word to him if he's not healthy enough to come back. If the doctors clear him, that's one thing. But I'm not even counting on him right now. His health is more important than playing football."
What are some of the positions where you think you'll need some true freshmen to come in and contribute?
"You don't really have many guys coming in at linebacker, so we have to make our current linebackers better. I think among the d-linemen will be critical, especially the inside technique guys, to help guys like Kevin Brown and Harwell and those guys. Secondary-wise, with Velega leaving, I think Alterraun Verner is going to be a guy we have to take a good look at. I think we have three good corners right now, and we have to keep looking for a fourth guy. Verner could be a guy who can come in and play for us."
Overall, the first few practices, how would you judge the talent you have and the potential of the defense? Even though you're missing some players...
"Again, I think if we have everybody in place, we'll be fine. You don't have to have great talent to have a great defense. You have to have good talent. You can't just have a bunch of guys out there. But you don't have to be great. You just have to be good, and fundamentally sound, and guys tackle and run to the football. I think we have that make-up right now. If we don't do one of those three or four things we could struggle. If we can do those things then I think we'll surprise some people."