But first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker instituted a defense last season that was arguably the best UCLA has had in ten years. While there have been some that have said, "Well, yeah, Walker got players that had been in the program a while and had finally matured." But really, Walker didn't have that great of talent to work with, and an average amount of experience. It can't be discounted what a tremendous job he did.
There were some criticisms, of course. It seemed, by the end of the season, that Walker's defense did quite a bit better against a pro-style offense – like USC's – and struggled against college-style offenses – like Florida State's.
But through an almost obsessed emphasis on fundamentals and repetitions, and a good scheme, Walker and his coaches, line coach Todd Howard, linebacker coach Chuck Bullough and safeties coach Gary DeLoach, really had the 2006 defense over-achieving for most of the season.
In 2007, in his second season, it will be interesting to see if opponents will now have UCLA's defense scouted out, or if Walker will stay a step ahead, like he seemed to do for most of the 2006 season.
Expectations, then, for UCLA's defense for 2007, are high, especially since Walker has ten returning starters and nine of them seniors. And the one new starter will probably be a senior. So that makes for 10 senior starters for 2007.
That means 1) UCLA, obviously, will have a great deal of experience on its defense in 2007, and 2) It's going to be losing 10 of 11 starters after the 2007 season.
So, that is, good, on one hand. UCLA should in 2007 easily have the best defense it's had under Karl Dorrell and perhaps in memory.
On the other hand, it's bad, because for the 2008 season UCLA will have a very young and inexperienced defense.
So, looking at the depth chart, there isn't that much to discuss in terms of 2007, but there is quite a bit to discuss for 2008 and beyond.
UCLA lost Justin Hickman, one defensive end to graduation, but it returns its three other starters on the D-line from 2006.
Defensive end Bruce Davis (SR, 6-3, 240) was named to a few All-American lists for his performance in 2006. He'll be plenty hyped going into 2007, and should be one of the best defensive players in the Pac-10 conference next season.
Davis has been a good story at UCLA. He came to Westwood as a tweener – the size of a linebacker but with the game more suited for defensive end. The coaches experimented with him at linebacker for a while, but then he settled into defensive end last fall camp, and he immediately had an impact. Most close to the program said it was a matter of him getting stronger to be able to physically match up with opposing offensive tackles that made the difference. Getting his speed and quickness on the field at the end spot was a huge factor in the success of UCLA's defense for 2006. There were times when opposing offensive lines, late in the season, looked scared at trying to keep up with Davis' quickness.
On the other side is the spot vacated by Hickman, and the most likely candidate to fill it is Nikola Dragovic (SR, 6-3, 256). Dragovic had been a starter for a while in 2005, but was injured, and then lost the spot to Hickman and Davis last season. Dragovic is strong, with good quickness, but lacks some flexibility, which gave Hickman and Davis the advantage last season. He was always good rushing the passer, the issue was against the run, being able to move laterally to fill gaps.
Dragovic will feel a little heat from some youngsters coming up behind him, but more than likely the younger guys are still too green to give him any real competition for the open left end spot.
Talk around the program is that the guy who has the best chance of threatening Dragovic is Jeff Miller (R-FR, 6-6, 260). Miller was thought to be the best in practice last season of the four freshmen D-ends. He is long and has good instincts, and plays tough.
One guy they'd like to see develop in a Bruce-Davis-like way is Chinonso Anyanwu (SO, 6-4, 220). Like Davis, Anyanwu came to UCLA as a tweener, but at least Davis was linebacker size; so far, since being at UCLA, Anyanwu hasn't even been able to put on linebacker-type weight. The word is that he's gotten a bit bigger in the off-season, but nothing overwhelming. Anyanwu is similar to Davis in his quickness and agility. Many times in practice in 2006, Anyanwu would beat OLs in the one-on-one pass-rush drills, but he just can't physically hold up in an every-down type of situation. The word on him, though, is that he's very strong for his weight, and he might not have to get to much more than 235 to be a contributor. But, at this rate, that could take two more years.
UCLA also has on the roster at defensive end David Carter (R-FR, 6-4, 260), Reginald Stokes (R-FR, 6-3, 246) and Dylan Rush (R-FR, 6-2, 245). All three were on the scout team a year ago, while Stokes spent most of the season on the sideline with an injured leg. Carter has good size, but the thought is that he could end up a defensive tackle, since he's getting pretty bulky. Right now, he's probably a long ways from getting on the field, coming to UCLA pretty raw and having a lot to learn. Stokes has a pretty good burst and is aggressive but, with the injury, he's still a big question mark. Rush is another tweener, looking like a linebacker but not having the quickness or flexibility to play the position. Right now there's a great deal of skepticism about whether Rush will be able to play at this level, so hopefully he'll defy the current prevailing sentiment.
A wildcard is the transfer from UC Davis, Tom Blake (JR, 6-4, 275) who was a standout on the scout team and many feel will be good enough to contribute and possibly make the rotation next season.
The incoming freshman, Justin Edison (FR, 6-4, 240), UCLA feels, has a great deal of potential. He's really grown, and has very long arms. He hasn't played much football, so they feel he has a tremendous upside. He'll almost certainly redshirt.
Inside, there are also the two senior starting veterans, and the depth might be a little more certain.
Kevin Brown (SR, 6-2, 295) and Brigham Harwell (SR, 6-2, 290) will be in basically their third year of starting on the interior D-line together. Brown, last season, didn't seem to ever get back to the form he had at the end of the 2004 season. He showed flashes, but wasn't consistent. Brigham Harwell had a pretty strong year in 2006, being able to hold the line much better against the run than in the past and showing very good explosiveness to get in the backfield.
UCLA has some experienced depth behind Brown and Harwell, but it's considered just serviceable. Chase Moline (JR, 6-1, 270) sat out some of 2006 with a back injury, which hampered him for most of the season, even when he was playing. Moline is still trying to make up for being on the smallish side. Also playing with a small-man's chip on his shoulder is Kenneth Lombard (JR, 6-1, 260), who would only get any significant back-up minutes next year if younger DTs fail to develop. Jess Ward (SO, 6-3, 300) played in seven games last year, but he has to prove he can be a real contributor. He's very top heavy, with much of his weight above his waist, which makes him easy to move.
The guy UCLA likes quite a bit is Jerzy Sierwierski (SO, 6-3, 300). Siewieski didn't redshirt, and played in five games. In practice, he was easily the best of the freshman DTs, with a low center of gravity and a good burst making him hard to block. He will almost certainly be on the two deep and, by next September, could be the first D-tackle off the bench.
Most inside the program think that Andy Keane (R-FR, 6-2, 280) looked good on the scout team during the year. He has a smallish frame, and not great length, but he's tough and plays hard. Darius Savage (R-FR, 6-4, 330) looked like a project during his scout team year. He has, of course, great size and strength. When he gets dug in, it's very difficult to dig him out. But he's raw in terms of technique and he doesn't come off the ball really well. Coaches, though, are optimistic about him. He will not be out for spring practice since he's a thrower on the track team, which could delay his development considerably.
True freshman Brian Price (FR, 6-3, 275) is expected to come in and immediately compete for a spot on the two-deep. Price is so explosive and aggressive, and it's thought that he'll leapfrog over many of the guys already on the roster for next season.
Even though UCLA has a good amount of bodies at defensive line, they still don't have many guys they feel can make a big impact. So, they need to continue to bring in more. Defensive tackle is always the toughest position to fill, so you can expect them to always be after them, every year. Expect them to probably bring in two DEs and two DTs with the 2008 class.
UCLA has been, to be candid, very lucky at linebacker. After it lost some high-end talent in Justin London and Spencer Havner in 2005, the cupboard looked bare. And, to top it off, some of the recruits that had come into the program didn't look like they were going to pan out as impact guys.
Going into fall camp last season the linebackers were probably the biggest question mark on the team, and were easily projected as the weakest unit. But a few things developed that kept that from happening.
First, Chuck Bullough came to UCLA as the linebacker coach for the 2006 season, and he had an impact. He drilled his players in fundamentals with endless repetitions, and it worked.
Then, UCLA got very lucky when Christian Taylor (SR, 6-0, 220) came into the program as a walk-on from Air Force and emerged as a viable option. In most cases, you can't call getting a player "lucky," since the coaches are responsible for all recruiting, even getting the ones that surpass expectations. But this one was pure luck. Taylor transferred to UCLA and walked onto the program with no one expected him, a short time later, to be the starting middle linebacker. Not only did UCLA get a starting MLB out of the deal, it got a pretty good one, along with probably the unquestionable leader of the defense. Taylor is the poster boy for the Gutty Little Bruin – undersized, but very intelligent and scrappy, with a great deal of desire and heart. He could be the most-missed senior on defense after the 2006 season.
As we said, you have to give coaches credit for recruiting, but it was still a bit lucky that the light turned on last season for Reggie Carter (SO, 6-1, 220) just in time for him to step in and become the starter at the weakside linebacker spot. Word in the program is that Carter, who had a pretty good season starting as a redshirt freshman, still is a long ways away from knowing what he's doing, which is encouraging.
The strongside position was manned for half the season by Aaron Whittington (SR, 6-2, 220), but he was out for a great deal of the second half of the season with an ankle injury. Whittington had won the starting spot when John Hale (JR, 6-4, 230) was suspended at the beginning of the season and then took a while to get back in the groove. When Whittington was injured, UCLA was, again, fortunate that Hale then stepped up. As of right now, Whittington is still penciled in at the starting spot, but there are those that feel Hale, after his improved play at the end of the 2006 season, will overtake him clearly by September. They are definitely a contrast in styles, with Whittington using quickness to get around blockers and Hale using strength and leverage.
The group of younger linebackers on UCLA's roster, however, is a cause for some concern. Kyle Bosworth (JR, 6-1, 225) is a decent back-up middle linebacker, and could be a solid starter as a senior. But after that, the rest of the group you couldn't even really describe as solid. More like questionable to unknown.
Korey Bosworth (SO, 6-1, 235) is generally thought to not have the ability of his twin brother, and is behind Whittington and Hale at strongside. Also behind them is Fred Holmes (SR, 6-1, 248) who has been hampered by injury since being at UCLA but has never really shown he could compete for a starting position.
At weakside, Shawn Oatis (SO, 6-0, 220) will give Carter support, the role that Eric McNeal did last season. McNeal became a big part of the defense, so going from an experienced starter as your fourth linebacker to an inexperienced guy like Oatis that still hasn't proven himself is a drop-off. Oatis, a converted safety (like McNeal, actually), hasn't shown much since coming to UCLA, and the coaches are hoping this spring will be his wake-up call. Behind him is Tobi Umodu (R-FR, 5-11, 230), who impressed some last season with his strength in the weight room and an occasional flash on the scout team, but there wasn't enough to really get the program excited about him.
Probably among any unit on the team, the linebackers might be the most worrisome after the 2007 season, and even in terms of depth for the 2007 season. It's really a matter of UCLA praying that some of the younger LBs step up this spring and fall.
But it's also a matter, if you might have noticed, that UCLA simply doesn't have many bodies. At other spots, UCLA might have a lot of question marks, but they have a lot of bodies. They're pretty thin in terms of talent and bodies at linebacker.
And most of the guys they do have are all under-sized, too.
That's why UCLA used 20% of its available scholarships on linebackers in the 2007 class, and, really, that still isn't enough.
It would definitely go a long way if the guys coming in, Steve Sloan (FR, 6-3, 230) and Akeem Ayers (FR, 6-3, 230), are impact players when they step foot onto Spaulding Field. If not, UCLA projects to be in for a hard time at linebacker in the future. Sloan is a good bet to be a contributor, with good linebacker size to go with good quickness. He projects as the middle linebacker of the future. Ayers is really the guy who can make the recruiting class. He's definitely a talented player, but it's uncertain if he's a linebacker or not, playing defensive end in high school and playing more like a DE. He'll get a shot at linebacker, since it's where he wants to play and where UCLA would really like him to play. If he shows he could be UCLA's strongside ‘backer of the future, there will be a big sigh of relief go up from the Morgan Center. If not, he could be the next Bruce Davis at defensive end since he is very talented.
There is another guy that UCLA actually thinks has a chance to give them depth at linebacker, the walk-on from UC Davis, Josh Edwards (JR, 6-1 230). Edwards actually passes the eyeball test and reports from the scout team were good on him, at least as good as some of the other back-up, scholarship linebackers.
So, while UCLA may be "solid" for 2007 at linebacker, it needs to catch a little more lightning in a bottle for the future. It needs Sloan and Ayers to be players, and it needs to bring in probably three more impact linebackers with the class of 2008.
Like the rest of the defense, UCLA's secondary is weighted heavily with seniors, which is good for 2007 but, again, worrisome beyond 2007.
Missing on a number of cornerbacks and safeties in the class of 2007 was a pretty substantial blow. After next season, UCLA will have only four cornerbacks and four safeties on its roster. And none will be a returning starter.
Cornerback is one of the biggest need positions on the team, if not the the biggest need. It was very understandable that, with just 10 scholarships to give and having given one of those already to a cornerback, UCLA was still trying to get more right up until signing day.
Next season UCLA will return its two starting corners, both seniors: Trey Brown (SR, 5-9, 185) and Rodney Van (SR, 5-11, 170). Brown will be a three-year starter and, what he lacks in natural talent, he makes up for in experience and toughness. Brown is another guy who epitomizes UCLA's talent in the last couple of years – an undersized, "solid" guy that works hard and has heart. Van is a gifted athlete, on the other hand, but has, at times, lost focus. He had a few considerable lapses this season but, to his credit, re-focused and had a good run down the stretch of the season. UCLA is hoping another year of experience will see Van mature more.
The coaches, of course, are very high on Alterraun Verner (SO, 5-11, 175) who is the youngest player on the team. They call him "the old man" because of his wisdom beyond his years. He's not particularly fast, but he has great instincts and is very smart, and it allowed him to immediately make an impact on the 2006 season, and he made a few freshman All-American teams. Being so young, the staff is looking forward to seeing Verner develop physically even more. They think that, with room for growth, both physically and mentally, Verner could very well push Brown and Van for a starting position in 2007.
Michael Norris (R-JR, 5-10, 176) sat out the entire season with a knee injury, but he had a redshirt year to use, so he'll return as a junior in 2007. Norris had seen a good deal of playing time in his first two years, on special teams, at corner and at the nickel back position. He's expected to be an option at the nickel, after Verner, and back-up Brown on the left side. Norris is viable back-up but it's believed he'd be stretching it as a starter in 2007.
Matt Slater (SR, 5-11, 192), the converted wide receiver, made some nice contributions on special teams and saw very limited action at cornerback. He's fast, so they're hoping that the technique and mental aspect of the game will finally catch up with his athletic gifts.
Courtney Viney (FR, 5-9, 175), the incoming freshman, will immediately get thrown into the mix since Viney is thought to have very good cover skills. It wouldn't necessarily be a stretch to see Viney supplant Slater or Norris in the two-deep. Even though he hasn't even practiced at UCLA yet, he and Verner are expected to be the starting corners in 2008. That's really not saying much since there won't be many other options, actually.
There really aren't many other candidates to move from another position to corner. If they got in a bind, receiver Jeremy McGee would probably be the first option, since he spent time at cornerback last year.
At safety, UCLA might have one of the best tandems in the Pac-10 for 2007 in Chris Horton (SR, 6-1, 210) and Dennis Keyes (SR, 6-2, 195). The coaches love Horton's aggressiveness and hitting ability, but still thought he had room to improve, especially in coverage. Keyes had some lapses in 2006, and lacks focus at times, but he's still big and strong, and can be a playmaker.
Bret Lockett (JR, 6-2, 206) backs up Horton at strong safety, and UCLA loves his size and athleticism, but he still has a long ways to go in knowing how to play. He made quite a few mental mistakes in 2006 and they're hoping another year of experience will eliminate those.
Backing up at free safety is Aaron Ware (SO, 6-0, 192) who hasn't yet taken that step to where the coaches have enough confidence in playing him consistently. There is always talk that Ware could switch back to his old high school position of tailback, but UCLA is deeper at tailback than safety. Christian Ramirez (R-FR, 6-2, 200) is an athlete UCLA feels has a great deal of potential. After trying him out at tailback at the beginning of the 2006 season, he settled in at safety. He's getting bigger and bigger physically; in fact, he and Lockett look bigger than many of UCLA's linebackers.
Glenn Love (FR, 6-4, 200) will enter in the fall. He's a kid who missed all of his high school junior season and then had a big senior year. He moves well for a guy who is 6-4, but he could grow into a linebacker, with a good, wide frame that could easily carry more weight.
Not only will UCLA need to bring in at least four defensive backs, but they'll be able to sell them on the legitimate chance of early playing time, with so few players – and proven players – in the UCLA secondary behind the senior starters.
UCLA will have a new place kicker for the first time in four years, with All-American Just Medlock graduating and being replaced by Kai Forbath (R-FR, 6-0, 190) who, UCLA hopes, will hold down the kicking duties for the next four years. There might actually not be too much of a drop-off, in fact. Medlock was a very accurate kicker, but the word is that Forbath was pretty close in accuracy in practice last season, and Forbath has a bigger foot.
Punter Aaron Perez (JR, 6-4, 219) improved during his sophomore season after a considerably shaky freshman debut. He was more consistent – or, more accurately -- he shanked punts less often. He also, too, had some big contributions in wins last season, where he hit a clutch punt.
With Perez a junior in 2007, UCLA will look to bring in a punter for 2008 to redshirt and then take over the punting duties in 2009.
UCLA loses its long-time longsnapper, Riley Jondle. It's uncertain at this point whether Christian Yount (FR, 6-2, 240) will be in the program as a scholarship player or not. At this time, there isn't a scholarship for him, but then again, as we all know, scholarships tend to open up. Yount graduated from high school in 2006, is attending UCLA this school year, and was a constant fixture at practice.