Fall Camp Preview: Defense

It's the second installment to get you up to speed on the football program heading into Fall Camp '06 starting Monday. The defense has a lot to prove, and disprove, like a bad reputation, but a year makes a considerable difference in terms of talent, depth and change in coaching. Here are the players and things to watch...

The defense overall has probably the biggest task - that is, to erase the lingering impressions of last year's defense and the general impression of UCLA's defense.

We've said this before about a few different seasons - but what if UCLA had had just a decent defense a year ago? They ended up 10-2 overall and ranked 13th in the country, and they did it with objectively one of the worst defenses in the country.

How many times in the last 10 years or so have UCLA fans expressed this sentiment? 
And, of course, the one year UCLA had a good defense, 2003, it had one of its most stagnant offenses in history.

It's the college football gods, playing havoc with Bruin fans.

But UCLA fans have the right to ask: When will the Bruins put together a season with two decent units?

You have to give Head Coach Karl Dorrell some credit. He acknowledged that he was gambling every week last season because of his defense.  He recognized that a change had to be made, that he had to fire his friend, Larry Kerr, as defensive coordinator, and find someone, at the very least, to bring in a new attitude and defensive approach.

After spring practice, it was hard to determine whether the scheme of new DC, DeWayne Walker, was that much different.  Most close to the program indicated that Walker didn't do anything too extreme in spring practice, since it was just a few weeks removed from his hire, and he used it as a getting-to-know-you period of time.  From what we've heard, the defense in fall camp might start out a little vanilla, but Walker is preparing to then push and challenge his defensive disciples and institute a far more aggressive, attacking style of defense.

If you're a real football purist, seeing how Walker will be able to transform this defense this fall is truly the biggest curiosity of the camp.

He already has transformed it, to an extent, in the off-season. The work ethic demanded by Walker this summer was new. It could also be an element that all the players are working hard to try to impress the new DC. Whatever the motivation, people close to the program say they sensed a new attitude in the defense in the off-season.

What most sources tied in also say to expect is more aggressive blitz packages, and a far bigger variety.  After Kerr's very limited blitzing, many times feeling that UCLA's defense was just sitting back on its heels doing the old bend-and-not-break routine, Walker has a good environment to blitz. Heck, even if he gets burned on blitzes, most UCLA fans will just be happy because of the new aggressiveness.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Projected Starters:

Left End: Nikola Dragovic (JR, 6-3, 250)
Tackle:  Brigham Harwell (JR, 6-2, 290)
Tackle: Kevin Brown (JR, 6-2, 305)
Right End: Justin Hickman (SR, 6-2, 265)

There are a lot of injuries here to overcome. Kevin Brown is the most significant, having missed all of the 2005 season with a serious ankle injury.  Apparently he's doing well in re-hab, but is still not 100%. It's one of those things where he expects to be 100% by September 2nd, though. 

When healthy, Brown showed in his sophomore year of 2004 that he was a potential star, with great quickness and instincts to get into the backfield.

Dragovic had knee surgery last year, missing a big bulk of the season, and sat our spring camp.  He was also blossoming into a very good player when he went down and physically he looks like a monster these days. He also is saying he's not quite 100% yet.

Hickman's had a number of bumps and bruises over the years, a couple that limited him in spring practice. If he's healthy, as a senior, he possesses the ability to really be a dominant rush DE, running an astounding 4.61 40, which is the speed of a good linebacker.

Harwell missed a game last season because of a sprained ankle and was thought to be hindered by it for a majority of the season.  Harwell, probably the most heralded recruit of the four projected starters, probably needs to prove himself the most, that he can play the interior. If you see him on campus, he looks huge, just about that 290 listed here. Last year he got pushed around a bit, especially on running downs, but the added weight and muscle, and maturity, should help.

Right there, even though there are some injuries to ovecome, UCLA's defense is in a far better situation than it was last year when it started true freshmen, a walk-on and scout team players.

In fact, UCLA's defensive line is easily the deepest since that 2003 defense (coincidence?).  So many defensive football gurus say that your defense is only as good as your defensive line, and perhaps this is the year when they'll be, at least, solid. New DL coach Todd Howard is getting a lot of praise from inside the program, for giving the line a new start. Last year, it was generally believed throughout the program that former DL coach Thurmond Moore was a liability. So, watching how a legit coach like Howard can impact this line should be interesting to watch.

Curious the way it works year to year. Last year, the DL was the weak link of the team, and this year it could one of its best units, and deepest. All four of the projected starters have a good amount of experience, and then you have a solid amount of experience in the two-deep. Bruce Davis (JR, 6-3, 250) will compete for a starting DE spot. Davis has mostly been limited by his tweener status, not quite quick enough to be a linebacker and not quite strong enough to be a defensive end. He has gotten bigger and stronger, but he'll have to prove in fall camp that he's big and strong enough to start over a weight room warrior like Dragovic. More than likely you could see Davis in on passing downs, bringing that speed to the edge.

Williams Snead (JR, 6-5, 265) has steadily gotten bigger - from the 220 pounds he was when he arrived at UCLA.  The bulk has helped him considerably, but he still lacks every-down strength.  Snead will compete for the starting job, and we're sure that UCLA will start its best two DEs, and it will be interesting to see if an even bigger Snead can possibly break the starting lineup.

Sticking with the DEs, Kenneth Lombard (SO, 6-1, 265) will plug in at both DE and D-tackle. Lombard has shown the scrappiness you thought he'd have coming out of high school, and has had to fill in when UCLA's DL was beset by injuries over the last couple of years. Even though he's a hard worker and you want to reward him, it seems with the influx of good talent to the d-line this year that Lombard might get passed over on the depth chart. Most believe he has a better shot at d-end than d-tackle, but he'll fill in where he's needed.

There is Chinonso Anyanwu (R-FR, 6-4, 218). Yeah, those numbers are pretty accurate. Anyanwu is still around 220 pounds and the word is that he's struggling to put on weight. Curiously, though, he can be effective in practice and many of the OLs say he's stronger than you would think.  Will Peddie (SR, 6-6, 280) is a walk-on and converted tight end, who actually has had moments and is somoene to consider in terms of depth.

Here is maybe one of the most exciting aspects of fall practice to watch: The new, young defensive linemen. There are four of them, David Carter (6-4, 255), Jeff Miller (6-5, 240), Dylan Rush (6-3, 250), and Reginald Stokes (6-3, 245). 

Carter came to the Adidas Camp at UCLA fairly unknown and really impressed, with his athleticism and size. He is very long, with long arms and taller than what UCLA listed him at - 6-3. He is probably the most raw of the four, but has natural talent. We've heard he's continuing to get bigger and some have whispered that he could be upward of 265, and some others think he might be on his way to being a d-tackle.  On the other hand, while reports have suggested that Miller has really gotten bigger, he doesn't look vastly bigger when we saw him at B.J.'s in Thousand Oaks this week. He looks to be about 240ish, but still on the thin side.  UCLA coaches are very pleased with his work ethic and potential so far.  Rush has really gotten substantially bigger than when we saw him at the Nike Camp in Palo Alto in the spring of 2005, having put on at least 25 pounds.  He's getting raves about his quickness.  Stokes has definitely filled out since his senior high school season, going from about 225 to about 245.

With the two-deep looking like Dragovic and Davis at left end and Hickman and Snead at right, it would take a huge impact by any of the four freshmen to break into that foursome. But UCLA's coaches are telling them that they should be ready to play, and that possibly one of them, or maybe even two, could get into the rotation and not redshirt.

At tackle, the depth is a little thinner, less experienced and will probably be far more dependent on the incoming freshman.

Chase Moline (SO, 6-0, 285) made some freshman all-american teams when pressed into service. It wasn't so much as he did really exceptionally well, but that he was forced to play. Even so, Moline went far beyond expectation to even hold his own on the field as a true freshman a year ago, after coming to UCLA as somewhat of an after-thought. The knock has always been his size. UCLA is now listing him at 6-2 and 300. First, if he's 6-2, he's then grown two inches in the off-season, and it didn't look like it when we saw him at the 7-on-7. Plus, 300 pounds?  Moline looked like he was carrying too much weight last season when he was probably 250.  Perhaps he's built muscle, but he has a smallish frame, one we're skeptical could hold 300 pounds well.

But still, you have to root for Moline. He's the quintessential underdog - undersized, playing as a defensive tackle against the behemoths of the OL. He'd probably really resent it, but he's Rudy. 

We talked about Lombard giving time at DT, which could happen. Jess Ward (R-FR, 6-3, 300) has generally gotten mixed reviews from insiders. Some have said they think he has a lot of potential, others have expressed a concern with his agility. This fall camp will prove whether he can get into the rotation.  He did have some injury issues last year that could have limited him.

Brian Ruziecki, (SR, 6-4, 300), a walk-on, actually played in eight of ten games a year ago when the d-line was decimated. He actually didn't fare too badly in his playing time, but it's thought that he'll be supplanted by the freshmen.

The freshman d-tackle that most are predicting to get into the rotation and not redshirt is mammoth Darius Savage (6-4, 320). Savage is a mountain of a man, a track thrower extraordinaire, and he's been showing his strength in the weight room so far this summer. Many around the program are stunned.  He's huge, has long arms and is very strong. He has also lost probably 20 pounds.  Savage is good straight ahead, but the question will be his lateral quickness. But you have to like his prospects as a run stopper up the middle.

Another incoming freshman they say will have a chance not to redshirt is Jerzy Siewiersski (6-3, 300). He's a big boy, but many feel he'll need to tighten up a bit and get stronger before he sees the field.

Andy Keane (6-2, 270) is a quick-footed guy who might be a little slight in the frame, but his athleticism could make up for it.

Another walk-on of a mentionable level is Steven Urrutia (JR, 6-3, 290). Urrutia would play if UCLA got hit by injuries.

The UCLA coaches will be looking for at least one, if not maybe two, of these guys to possibly not redshirt, and fall camp will determine it.

One other new face to note is Vachi Sevajian, a former thrower on the UCLA track team who has given up his track scholarship to give football a shot. Sevajian is reportedly about 6-4 and 350 pounds, after having lost some weight. This fall we'll see if he can play any football.

At tackle, the goal for fall camp is to keep Brown and Harwell healthy, and find at least two, if not three, back-ups from among these names. Moline is probably  a pretty safe guess as one of them.

LINEBACKER

As we've said, it's amazing how quickly a unit can go from a weakness to a strength of the team, or vice versa.

Probably the biggest worry on the team right now are the linebackers. There are enough guys, just not anyone proven with much playing experience. 

The thoughts around the program are that there won't be near as much pressure on the LBs this year with an improved defensive line. UCLA is looking for its inexperienced linebackers to just be solid this season, with hopefully a few stepping up when their number is called.

Projected Starters:

Weakside LB:  Eric McNeal (SR, 6-2, 220)
Middle LB:  Christian Taylor (JR, 6-0, 225)
Strongside LB:  John Hale (SO, 6-4, 235)

UCLA lost its three starting linebackers from a year ago - Justin London, Spencer Havner and Wesley Walker - that probably collectively had over 80 starts between them.

Between the three projected starters, they have nine starts at linebacker, and seven of those were by true freshman Hale a year ago.

Hale has some question marks. First, there is the discplinary issue after getting in a fight in his hometown, where he pleaded no contest (along with DT Jess Ward). He'll more than likely have to sit out the opener, which is a real blow to an already questionable linebacking crew. Hale also has questions about his ability, having good size, but he'll have to prove that he can play in front of the tight end and not get manhandled, and have the lateral quickness to get off his blocker. He started seven games last season because he was just about the only body available. 

Taylor is the guy with the brains, who knows the position, with average talent, while Reggie Carter (R-FR, 6-1, 230) is the guy considered to have the high level of talent without a good knowledge of the position.  Taylor is a leader of the defense, having earned respect after transferring from Air Force as a walk-on and earning a scholarship and playing time.  He's almost always in the right place at the right time, and hopefully he'll have the ability to make the play.  The coaches are hoping that Carter's light will go on in fall camp and he'd give them the more pure talent they need at the position.

If questions about Hale's availability aren't enough, there are some about McNeal. It was thought he might be ineligible for fall, depending on how well he did in summer school. McNeal converted to linebacker from safety last season and played well, providing good speed at that outside linebacker spot.

If Hale can't play against Utah, Korey Bosworth (FR, 6-1, 235) could step in and possibly start. Bosworth has gotten considerably bigger during his freshman year and the off-season, going from probably 220 to 235.  He's got very good quickness and runs very well. We'll see if he's able to fill in for Hale, or even give him a run for the starting position.

Fred Holmes (JR, 6-1, 245) is a mystery. We've never really seen him enough in three years to get a good read on him, always hampered by injury. This time it was surgery on his hip that made him miss spring practice. The opinion of most around the program is that he's, at best, a back-up, but it'd be good if he could show he could play the strongside position, especially with Hale's status in a bit of doubt.

Kyle Bosworth (SO, 6-1, 235) will be competing more than likely at the MLB position, but Bosworth who saw time last year on special teams before injuring his thumb, if he's good enough, could plug in somewhere else to get playing time. He's looking very good in the weight room and ran a very fast 4.55 40-yard dash.

At weakside, behind McNeal, another guy who's been around a long time that you'd like to see finally step up is Aaron Whittington (JR, 6-2, 220). He's listed at 209 which, it seems he's been since he came to UCLA, but the word is that he's up around 220 now, which is a considerable feat. He probably has the most game experience (besides McNeal) of any of the linebackers, so he could see some time shuttling in with McNeal.

Chris Horton.

Shawn Oatis (R-FR, 6-0, 225) redshirted a year ago and was switch from safety, where his bulk could be put to more use. He was a little slow for a safety and now might be a little short for a linebacker, and he hasn't been the player that many were anticipating. After a year on the scout team, this fall will be his time to show something.

Incoming freshman Tobi Umodu (5-11, 230) might be the guy that is impressing the most in the off-season weight room besides Savage. His strength has been impressive and now we'll see if his great physical attributes can translate to the field. He's slated to more than liked plug in at weakside LB.

DEFENSIVE BACK

There's a reason why UCLA is trying to take two cornerbacks in the 2007 class when it probably will have only 11 or 12 scholarships to give.

There are so few corners in the program, and they're getting old.

In terms of this year, there still isn't great depth at cornerback. There's some good experience and some talent, but not depth.

Projected Starters:

Left Cornerback:  Trey Brown (JR, 5-9, 190)
Strong Safety:  Chris Horton (JR, 6-1, 210)
Free Safety: Dennis Keyes (JR, 6-2, 208)
Right Cornerback:  Rodney Van (JR, 5-11, 182)

It seems like Brown has been in the program forever, and he's still just a junior. That's good news since Brown is actually pretty good. He's started 17 consecutive games, and seems to be getting better just about every game, with very good instincts and aggressiveness.  What the coaches also like about him is his durability; he just keeps going, with seemingly few injuries. 

Van is the talented one that the coaches have been waiting to mature, and hopefully this is his year. He's one of the fastest and quickest players on the team, and has actually added some weight. It's more about, though, his mental ability, to get his assignment and stay disciplined, and that's what's kept him from truly being a star so far in his Bruin career. The program needs Van to mature into that player this year.

The first back-up at corner is Michael Norris (JR, 5-10, 182), who has had his moments over the last couple of years, both good and bad. Norris was competing for a starting position last year and the staff feels he will again this year, and expect him to step in if Van falters.  Matt Slater (JR, 5-11, 193), the converted receiver,  is one of the few fastest players on the team, but is still trying to make the transition to his new position. He's behind, naturally, for a junior, but the coaches are still holding out hope he'll be able to really be expected to contribute, especially after he gets some game experience.

But those are some unknowns, and that's why freshman Alterraun Verner (5-11, 165) is being told by the coaches to expect to possibly not redshirt. Verner is a great athlete, young for his age (he won't turn 18 until December), and is still developing physically. His speed alone has improved drastically in the last year, while he has very good explosion out of a stance and the ability to change direction.  Jeremy McGee (5-10, 170), the freshman who first might get a look at receiver, could also see himself pretty quickly at cornerback, especially with his exceptional speed.

There are two walk-ons, Olukayode Oredugba (JR, 6-1, 192) and Matt Caldwell (R-FR, 6-3, 186). If UCLA were pressed, Oredugba would play. Caldwell, who is Dorrell's nephew, looks more like a safety.

The depth at safety, in fact, is quite a bit more re-assuring than at corner.  First, you have Keyes at free, who had a decent season a year ago starting for the first time. He began the season fairly strong, but seemed to get fatigued by the end. One of the issues discussed in the off-season was to get Keyes into good physical condition so he can hold up for an entire season.

At strong, it's the long-awaited return of Chris Horton, who, as a sophomore, showed signs of being the big-play, big-hitting safety UCLA hadn't seen in a while, and then he sat out last year with a couple of injuries, particularly a lingering hand frature. He's now back and says he's close to 100%. People in the program say that, when Horton is healthy, UCLA hasn't seen a tough hitter at the safety position like him in a long time.

Bret Lockett (SO, 6-2, 212) is emerging as a real guy to watch at free safety. He's big, quick and likes to hit, and he looks quite a bit bigger than he did a season ago. There has been some speculation he might bulk himself up into a linebacker and that might not be out of the question down the line. But for now, he gives UCLA a viable back-up option to Keyes if he falters.

Aaron Ware (R-FR, 6-0, 195) has many people excited about his potential at strong safety. He has a good nose for the ball and really likes to put a helmet on ballcarriers.

Robert Kibble (SO, 5-10, 195) was looking like a real player in practice last season when his Multiple Scerlosis flared up. He sat out all of spring practice and there was some worry if he could return. He is back, and playing in the 7-on-7s, but it's uncertain as to how effectively. Fall camp will be a critical time for him.

Walk-on Charlie Shuh (JR, 6-1, 204) has had his moments with the 1s and 2s over the last couple of years and is a quality walk-on who UCLA wouldn't hesitate to play if they needed to.

One thing to watch in fall is whether Christian Ramirez (FR, 6-2, 195) remains at running back or makes the switch to safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Projected Starters:

PK:  Justin Medlock (SR, 6-0, 195)
Punter:  Aaron Perez (SO, 6-4, 215)
Long Snapper:  Riley Jondle (SR, 6-3, 220)
Holder: Patrick Cowan
Punt Returner:  Chris Markey
Kick-Off Return: Chris Markey, Kahlil Bell

The Bruins got a very big boost when it found out in the off-season that Justin Medlock would be re-instated to the team. He's a potential All-American place kicker.

Perez had a uninspiring first year as the starting punter.  He doesn't have great distance and tends to shank too many. Not a good combination. 

Incoming freshman kicker Kai Forbath (6-0, 175) was considered by many to be the best place kicking prospect in the country. He'll almost certain redshirt during Medlock's senior year and then be ready to take over the responsibilities next year as a redshirt freshman.

The returner spots are probably pretty up for grabs, with Markey probably having first dibs. Watch for many to be considered, including Ryan Graves, McGee, Van, Brandon Breazell and others.


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