With 20 returning starters, 10 on each side of the ball, two starting returning quarterbacks, a good defense from last season that you'd think should be even better, a new offensive coordinator who is supposed to bring more energy and dynamics to the O, a returning 1,000-yard rusher, and a pretty favorable schedule, there is much to be excited about for the upcoming season.
With that excitement, you have to admit, there is a feeling, even among some of the biggest Karl Dorrell supporters, that is a make-or-break year in Dorrell's tenure. In four seasons, he's had a single successful one (in 2005, when he went 10-2). Other than that season, he is 19-19 in his three other seasons. Not only is there pressure from a pure win-loss standpoint for him to chalk up a second winning season in five overall, but the fact that there are so many things pointing toward this season as "the one." Dorrell himself has alluded in the past few years that he was building the program, cleaning out the "underbelly," and pointed toward this season as "the one." He doesn't have excuses anymore that the guys on the roster aren't his players, that he doesn't have the coaches he wants, or doesn't have experience on the team (with 25 seniors) that he developed himself.
With all that piled on, it's pretty clear that Dorrell has to have a clearly successful season in 2007. A record of 7-6 isn't going to cut it. Heck, 8-5 probably won't. There are probably some program-watchers that, given everything this season has going for it, would say that 9-4 is borderline. Dorrell will probably have to get to 10 wins for this season to clearly be deemed a successful one.
How vital is it for Dorrell to get that clearly successful season in 2007? His entire program weighs in the balance. If he doesn't, he'd have easily his most disappointing season during his head coaching tenure at UCLA; it'd be his fourth unsuccessful season in five years, which, for many, would be time enough for him to have turned around a program; and all of those 4-star recruits he has verbally committed could start jumping off the boat and, if they did, his future in terms of just mere talent in the program could turn bleak.
So, yeah, it is a make-or-break season. With fall camp just a few days away, and with so many UCLA fans anxious about the most eagerly-anticipated football season in many years, here's a preview of what to look for in fall camp.
The big question concerning the defense is: Can DeWayne Walker do it again?
Dorrell hired Walker a year ago as the new defensive coordinator, a position he had never held, coming from the Washington Redskins as a defensive back coach. Walker inherited one of the worst defenses in UCLA history, and turned it into perhaps one of its ten best of all time last season. He did it with a return to fundamentals and repetition after repetition in practice. He also employed a more aggressive style, one that relied heavily on its cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage to free up blitzers to pressure the quarterback. The defense a season ago, for the first time in a long time, looked well-prepared and well-coached, most of the time looking like they knew what opposing offenses were going to do before they did it.
Now in 2007, Walker is in his sophomore season as DC, and he has to prove that his first year wasn't a fluke. There are natural questions that need to be answered, such as: Was the defense's success in 2006 just a matter of opposing offenses not being familiar with Walker's scheme and, now that they are, it won't be as successful? There is the often-heard theory that Walker struggled against more college-style, spread offenses; will this season bear that out, or will it prove to be a fallacy?
Walker, even though he did inherit a very poor defense, did benefit from the very young defense of 2005 getting better naturally through development and maturity in 2006. You'd have to then think that he'd benefit even moreso in 2007, when the defense again returns almost intact, save one defensive end in Justin Hickman. Even though we're getting ahead of ourselves, the true test for Walker will be in 2008, when he loses 10 senior starters to graduation.
But for now, here's what to look for in fall camp when scouting the defense.
There's been a good amount of position change that took place in the off-season as a result of performances in spring practice on the DL. Overall, while UCLA looked deep at defensive end just a few months ago, because of those changes, it now finds itself relatively thin at the position.
The issue here is the loss of Justin Hickman, the All-American defensive end who is now being replaced by Dragovic. Of course, you still have Davis on the other side, the other All-American end, but how much of Davis' success was dependent on the pressure Hickman supplied on the other side? Will defenses now be able to solely dedicate the tight end in a double team to keeping the undersized Davis in check?
Davis had 12.5 sacks in the 2006 season, good enough for fourth (tied) in the nation and first (tied) in the Pac-10. For the first three years of his Bruin career, the staff wasn't quite sure what to do with him, seemingly not big or strong enough to be an end and not quick enough to be a linebacker. But as Davis matured and got stronger, he became a tough mismatch as a defensive end. Last year, he was strong enough to fend off offensive tackles but far too fast for them. In the USC game, in the fourth quarter, you could see USC's tired offensive line wanting to have no part of having to contain Davis coming around the end. The big challenge this year is if he can do it again given that he's without Hickman. UCLA will try to move around Davis to keep him away from the opposing tight end double-teaming him, but you can still expect Davis to see quite a few double teams.
That leads us to perhaps the biggest key of the defensive line this season: Dragovic. If he can become a threat on the other side of the line, it will make opposing offenses have to honor him and free up Davis to a degree. Dragovic played last season, even though he was hobbled somewhat by a previous knee surgery, one that kept him out of the majority of the 2005 season. Before that surgery, Dragovic had won a starting DE spot. He's very strong and has good straight-ahead speed, but lacks some flexibility. He's shown flashes of being very good in the past two seasons, so watch for more consistency from him in fall practice, and the ability to stay health.
Inside, UCLA has two guys who are returning as starters for a third season, Brown and Harwell. Harwell really developed last season, and had a few performances that were eye-opening. He has a very good first step and lateral quickness, and has consistently gotten better as he's gotten stronger and more capable of holding down the line of scrimmage. He could have an all Pac-10 season. Brown has had an interesting career at UCLA. As a true freshman he played both offense and defense, and then looked very good as a sophomore on the defensive line.. Going into the 2005 season, he looked like he was going to be a beast before suffering a serious ankle injury in the fall camp scrimmage, which made him sit out the entire season. He returned last season and didn't seem to have the explosiveness early on in the season he once had, but he continued to improve throughout 2006 and had gotten back some of the quickness. Reportedly, he and Harwell are in exceptional physical shape and Brown's ankle is feeling the best its felt in two years.
If you then look at the depth chart on the outside, you have to wonder where everyone has gone. Well, first, Kenneth Lombard (6-1, 230) has moved to running back. That's right. Read it again: running back. From what we've heard it was against the coaches wishes but he couldn't be stopped. Apparently he's down to 230 pounds (even though we could facetiously assert he wasn't far off from that weight when he played DL).
Luckily, UCLA got a big help at end when Tom Blake (JR, 6-3, 263) transferred from UC Davis. He sat out last season due to transfer rules, but impressed everyone on the scout team in practice, to the point where he was moved up to the #3 defensive end on the team by spring practice. There are those that think he'll push Dragovic for the starting left end spot. He's bound for a scholarship.
If Blake hadn't fallen into their laps, they'd be in dire trouble at end in terms of depth. There isn't one back-up defensive end on the team with any playing experience, and it's questionable whether the guys listed on the depth chart are capable of playing consistently in a game at this level. Chinonso Anyanwu (SO, 6-4, 211) is the skinniest defensive end in the history of college football (we checked into it). You wouldn't even say he looks like a linebacker; more like a safety. Chinny, though, is very strong for his weight, and the coaches are hoping strong enough to provide some back-up this season after being in the program for two years. There is also converted linebacker Korey Bosworth (SO, 6-1, 230) who, unlike Anyanwu, is the size of a linebacker – probably because he played as one for his first three seasons at UCLA. Bosworth wanted to make the move to defensive end and, since it didn't look like he'd be getting too much time at linebacker, the coaches let it happen. Perhaps he's inspired by Bruce Davis – as an undersized linebacker/defensive end. There is also Reginald Stokes (R-FR, 6-3, 255), who sat out a great deal of last season with an injury. So far, Stokes hasn't caught fire and there's skepticism he'll be able to contribute anytime soon.
Missing from the DE depth is also David Carter (R-FR, 6-5, 270) and Jeff Miller (R-FR, 6-5, 250), both of whom moved from DE to DT, mainly because they just don't have the quickness to be able to play DE in the Pac-10.
What this does is render the DE very thin. There is Davis, Dragovic and Blake, a walk-on. Then there is Anyanwu at 211 pounds, Bosworth (a converted linebacker) and Stokes, a vastly unproven redshirt freshman.
It would be miraculous if they could get some back-up minutes out of the two incoming freshmen, Akeem Ayers (FR, 6-2, 220) and Justin Edison (FR, 6-3, 230). Ayers is a talent but, similar to Bruce Davis, is a tweener. As of right now, he's supposed to line up with the defensive ends when fall practice starts, but there is a push for him to have a shot at linebacker. But, like Davis, he might not have the quickness for linebacker and it could be a case of waiting for his strength to develop to make him viable at defensive end. Edison is bigger and we've heard he's gotten much bigger in the off-season, but he was raw in high school and it'd be very surprising if, even with the lack of depth, could make the two-deep.
Defensive end is, in particular, the one position on the defense you have to hope remains injury-free for the season.
The depth at tackle looks much better. There is Chase Moline (JR, 6-1, 268), who is undersized but proved his freshman year that he had the ability to be a capable back-up. He had back surgery and missed spring practice, so his status is something to watch for this fall. Jerzy Siewierski (SO, 6-2, 290) stepped up to be possibly the best freshman DL last season among many that came into the program. He's got a short, squatty body that is hard to derail and he ended up getting playing time last year in a back-up role. The defensive coaching staff is relying on him to get a lot of playing time in the defensive tackle rotation.
Jess Ward (SO, 6-4, 296) is a big body, who has worked to get himself in a position to play. He'll have to show this fall that he's worthy of getting considerable minutes backing up.
The guy most UCLA observers really want to see again is Darius Savage (R-FR, 6-4, 333). Savage came to UCLA as a pretty heralded recruit, but was very raw last year in practice, and top heavy. He then missed spring practice due to track, which has set him back in the coaches' eyes (football coaches never like it if you miss spring practice for track, regardless of who you are). Reportedly, though, he's really done some work on his body, and become far less top heavy. He is vastly strong and has the potential to be a great interior run stopper.
Probably the guy most UCLA observers want to see for the first time is the jewel of UCLA's recruiting class, Brian Price (FR, 6-2, 270). He's been the guy most have thought would have the chance to play as a freshman, being pretty prepared physically and with a great deal of talent. It's expected that Price will compete seriously for the DT rotation, and could be in the two-deep with Siewierski.
There is also Miller and Carter, who, like it said above, were moved to tackle because they didn't have the quickness for end. So far, both look to be projects, while Miller was thought to have some potential to get on the field.
UCLA returns all three of its starters from a linebacking unit that was very "solid" last season.
Coming into 2006, there were many questions about them, if you might remember. UCLA had lost all three of its starters from a miserable 2005 defense, and it was anticipated that these guys, who were back-ups to the 2005 starters, wouldn't be able to play even at that level.
But you'd have to say that UCLA, overall, probably got as much, if not more, from its linebackers in 2006 as it did in 2005, despite no real "star" in their ranks. A great deal of credit has to go out to linebacker coach Chuck Bullough, who has also made fundamentals and repetitions key components in his coaching.
The first thing that strikes you, as it did all last season (and, if you noticed, is a continuing theme when talking about UCLA's defense), is how undersized the unit is. They average 217 pounds. The "strong"-side linebacker weighs 212. He's outweighed by the weakside linebacker.
Time and time again this was cited last season as a possible detriment to this unit's success, but they kept proving they could play beyond their size.
The guy who embodies the "Gutty Little Bruin" moniker more than just about anyone in a long time is Taylor. The transfer from Air Force and former walk-on is now the heart and soul of the team and, without him last season, this defense isn't near as effective as it was. While other players on the D are getting pre-season hype, mostly because they're probably more NFL-potential types, there are many inside the program that assert Taylor is the guy UCLA's defense can't be without.
Taylor is very intelligence, and being the quarterback of the defense, he's made UCLA's defense intelligent. You also have to give Walker some credit, but Taylor was instrumental in keeping his teammates in position and attending to their assignments. He also made plays himself and has shown the ability to slice through blockers and be a sure tackler, getting 83 tackles on the season in 2006. He was limited in the second half of last season with a lingering ankle sprain, which also kept him out of spring practice, so if you're more than just a casual UCLA football fan, one of your big concerns this fall is the health of Taylor. v At the SAM (strongside spot), Whittington once again beat out John Hale (JR, 6-4, 223) at the end of last season for the starting job. Whittington is definitely a glue type of guy; he's doesn't have a lot of flash, and only made 29 tackles last season, but he's smart and is in position – being a reliable cog in the machinery of the defense.
At the WILL (weakside) spot is Carter, who does have the flash. He was moved from middle to outside since he wasn't cerebral enough to play the MIKE (middle), but the weakside has really suited him, freed him up from having to think too much and just react on the edge. He was named second-team All-Freshman nationally by Scout.com. The coaches are expecting Carter to improve, having been in the program one more year, giving him the experience to limit his occasional mistakes.
Not to continually throw up a red flag, but the back-up situation at linebacker is also a concern. Last season, there was senior Eric McNeal, who gave UCLA that fourth linebacker with a great deal of game experience. This year there really isn't anyone of the capability of McNeal.
There is Hale, who is slated to do time at his old strongside spot but also at middle linebacker. UCLA wants to make sure they have a viable option at the MIKE when Taylor leaves, and is giving Hale the opportunity. Hale could very well be more suited to MLB than strongside, finding seams in the defense rather than always having to fend off the tight end.
After Hale, though, it's a situation where some players will have to prove themselves this year and fall practice is the time where it happens. Kyle Bosworth (JR, 6-1, 227) made the switch from middle to strong, the thought being that he's better at containing a blocker right over him than picking up gaps. Shawn Oatis (R-SO, 6-0, 218) came to UCLA as a safety and then has spent two years on the scout team learning to play weakside linebacker. The light has yet to turn on and the coaches are hoping this fall it will, and give them a back-up option behind Carter, like they had last year with McNeal.
Tobi Umodu (R-FR, 6-0, 230) is now trying his hand at the MIKE, behing Taylor and Hale. Umodu is well-built, having the strength to play the middle spot, and the UCLA coaches are taking a shot to see if he can pick up the position.
Josh Edwards (SO, 6-1, 228) transferred to UCLA from UC Davis with Blake. Physically and athletically, he looks capable of playing at UCLA, and after sitting out last season because of his transfer, he'll plug in at weakside and see if he can earn a spot on the two-deep.
Fred Holmes (SR, 6-2, 226) hasn't seen much time in his career at UCLA, and he'll still be the third-string at the strongside position.
JC transfer Mike Schmitt (SO, 6-0, 228) has been working with the team in the off-season and reports are that, physically, he looks good.
Incoming freshman Steve Sloan (FR, 6-3, 220) had a good amount of hype out of high school, even after recovering from a broken ankle in his senior year. He's projected as a middle linebacker, and he's been following around Christian Taylor the last couple of months, trying to pick up any tips. He might be physically capable of playing as a true freshman, but the hope is others in the program would prove to be capable back-ups to the starters and Sloan could spend the season getting to know the defense.
This is what a depth chart should look like: Some experienced stars and veterans at the starting spots, and some experienced talent backing them up, with some promising young, inexperience talent also waiting in the wings.
UCLA's defensive backfield is easily the most talented and deep of any unit on the depth chart.
There hasn't been a time in the last decade when UCLA's defensive backfield has looked so good going into the season.
Let's start with Brown. While Horton and Keyes are getting some pre-season accolades, what about Trey Brown? He's entering his fourth year as a starter at corner, riding a streak of 30 consecutive starts. There just simply aren't many players ever who can say they started 30 games in a row, and Brown will probably get to 43. He's grown into a very good cover corner, but doesn't get the hype because he's not big, particularly fast or have that NFL-potential stamp. He has, however, proven that he's a very good cornerback and probably the most unsung and under-appreciated player on the team.
At the other corner is Van, the guy who does have the NFL-potential stamp. He has the speed and good size, but has been limited in his achievement by sometimes being mistake-prone. As a senior, you'd have to expect Van to have most of the mistake issues behind him, especially now having been tutored by DeWayne Walker for a season.
At the two safety spots are two seniors being considered among the best safety duos in the country, Keyes and Horton. Keyes might be a little over-hyped, making a rep for a few big hits here and there and having NFL size, even though BROs know he's had some lapses during the course of his career. Overall, though, Keyes has been a solid to very good free safety. Horton perhaps is only limited by his inability to catch due to the one-time injured hand. But other than that, Horton is the prototype strong safety – a big, fast, aggressive hitter with a nose for the ball. He could be the most talented player on the team.
The depth then also looks good. A potential star is waiting in the wings backing up at corner in Alterraun Verner (SO, 5-11, 180). Verner had one of the best freshman seasons by a Bruin in a while, showing an uncanny knack for the ball and great agility. It's pretty exciting to think about Verner as just a sophomore – the youngest guy on the team a year ago now having been in the system and coached for a season. He'll be the guy who comes off the bench in UCLA's nickel package. He'll definitely push Van for starter's minutes.
Then you have a one-time starter and very experienced player in Michael Norris (JR, 5-9, 176) filling out the two-deep at the other corner spot. Norris, who sat out all of last season with a knee injury, is a solid back-up, and also will be seen in the nickel or dime package.
There will also be talented freshman Courtney Viney (FR, 5-9, 160) who has great natural cover skills. He'll more than likely redshirt, but he'll push Norris for a back-up spot.
The depth at safety is also strong, with one of UCLA's best athletes the back-up at strong safety in Bret Lockett (JR, 6-2, 206). Lockett looks bigger than most of UCLA's linebackers, and plays with a physicality and toughness. He has made lapses in coverage, but, without a redshirt year, he's really only in his third year in the program. More than likely, Lockett will be the first off the bench at free or strong if either Keyes or Horton go down. How he has improved this fall will be a major issue for the defense.
Aaron Ware (SO, 6-0, 193) backs up Keyes, and the coaches will be looking for Ware this fall to show more consistency. He's had flashes when he's looked very good, but just needs to do it more consistently.
If that's not enough, there's a guy the coaches are excited about in Christian Ramirez (SO, 6-3, 206) also at strong safety. Like in many cases, it's curious how UCLA burns eligibility for so many guy by playing them on special teams; Ramirez burned a year last season doing just that. He supposedly has improved physically over the off-season.
Veteran Matt Slater (SR, 6-0, 194) seems like he's been here since Terry Donahue. He's gone from receiver to corner and now to free safety, which might be his best spot. If anything, he gives you game-playing experience at the position.
Freshman Glenn Love (FR, 6-4, 205) will almost certainly redshirt. The reports are that he's physically a long ways away, needing to put on some muscle. There are some that believe, once he does, he'll make a move to linebacker.
There is the same theme as there was last year to this defense: quickness over size. The front seven are definitely under-sized. There might be an issue when your safeties look bigger than your linebackers.
But Walker definitely made it work last season, opting for team quickness over bulk. And there were many games where you could see the advantage – with UCLA's quickness being too much for opposing offenses, particularly at the line of scrimmage. The defense could very well struggle against bulldozing types of running games, but there aren't too many of those types on UCLA's schedule this season. As college football has gone more to passing games initiating offenses, UCLA and Walker have shown how to keep pace with speed over bulk. Actually, Walker probably didn't have a choice, since he inherited a defense with a bunch of undersized guys.
Punter Aaron Perez definitely showed improvement last season as a sophomore over his poor season as a freshman. He's shanking less punts, and booming them more often. With a reasonable expectation for improvement, Perez should be good this season.
One of the biggest issues on the team going into fall practice is replacing All-American placekicker Justin Medlock. Forbath came to UCLA as the #1 kicker in the nation his senior season. He has a big foot, but is still getting acclimated to kicking under pressure in a college environment and has shown some inconsistency in practice.
Luckily, UCLA has a pretty good walk-on kicker in Rotstein, who is pretty consistent within 35 yards, if Forbath falters. Rotstein, as of right now, will also do kick-offs.
Yount came to UCLA last season as a greyshirt, and will replace longtime snapper Riley Jondle. Yount is more talented than Jondle, with a quicker snap, but it will be a case of him doing it all in real game conditions.
Terrence Austin (SO, 5-10, 160) looks to be the leading candidate for punt returner, showing some good potential last season. Ryan Graves (JR, 6-1, 170) will probably also be there. For kick-off returns, Ryen Carew (SO, 5-10, 202) looks to be the #1 guy that Dorrell likes there, but there are any number of players who could end up at one of the two spots after this fall, like Verner, or even Lockett.