Roster/Recruiting Analysis: Defense

It's a couple of days after Signing Day, and not too early to start working out how the newbies project into UCLA's plans for the 2008 season and beyond, and what will be UCLA's recruiting needs in the next few years. Here's the rundown on the defense...

Now that UCLA has signed its 2008 recruiting class, which finished at #10 in the nation in Scout.com's rankings, it's time to look how potentially these 23 (or 24) recruits will fit into UCLA's depth chart for next season and project UCLA's future recruiting needs.

UCLA should have about 20 scholarships to give for 2009 but, of course, there are always some that open up, especially with a new staff, so you'd have to anticipate UCLA having close to the limit of 25 to give for 2009.

Of course, this is based on a great deal of speculation, especially given the new coaching staff. But, heck, it's fun.

Defensive Line

While UCLA didn't sign a defensive tackle for the 2008 class, they did get what they sorely needed, defensive ends.

And that's not only a long-term projection, but a very immediate one.

Next season, UCLA's defensive ends look, well, like they need an influx of talent. A probable starter is former walk-on Tom Blake, and the other guy who returns with the most experience is an under-sized former linebacker, who is still the size of a linebacker, Korey Bosworth.

Not very intimidating. And the depth chart goes a bit downhill from there. The next guy with the most experience is an undersized defensive lineman turned fullback turned defensive end, Korey Lombard, who has retained his fullback size.

Oy.

UCLA is in this pickle at defensive end because its recruiting at the position over Dorrell's tenure has more or less been horrendous. There is Chinonso Anyanwu, who will be a redshirt junior next season, and Anyanwu is still only 220 pounds. Scouts had him pegged in high school as a classic tweener – the size of a linebacker with only the quickness to play defensive end, but UCLA took him. The word in the program is that Anyanwu is a lot stronger in the weight room than his 220 pounds would belie. But still, he hasn't seen the field much, if at all. Unless he really steps up and puts on at least 25 pounds between now and fall, expect UCLA to only be able to use Anyanwu as a rush-down option.

Then there are the other guys who haven't panned out also to date. Reginald Stokes and Jeff Miller will be redshirt sophomores, but have yet to really make a big impact in practice. Miller, because of a lack of mobility, was moved to defensive tackle during last season, but then moved back to end because he didn't have the bulk to play inside. Stokes has had some injuries but hasn't distinguished himself.

Justin Edison will be a redshirt freshman and he physically looks the part, having matured and gotten bigger in his first year in the program. But the word is that, while he has some upside because of his body, he's very raw.

It will be interesting to see if Akeem Ayers, the true freshman from this season, might make a move to the rush-side defensive end from linebacker. He is similar to Bruce Davis, probably even slightly bigger than Davis, and he might fit in better with his hand down than as a linebacker, like Davis. The problem, though, is that there is an issue with linebacker talent and depth, too (which we'll get to below).

So, there is a pretty decent opening in the doorway for the two talented true freshmen to walk through and get some playing time next season. Damien Holmes appears to be the most physically ready, at about 6-3 and 245. Even last summer at the camps, he was physically put-together well, and that was a year ago. He also has a very quick first step and was aggressive. Datone Jones wasn't as developed physically as Holmes last summer, but he's grown since. He's probably 6-4 and 240, and has a body and frame you could see putting on another 20-25 pounds of good weight. He also has good quickness off the snap. Playing as a freshman as a defensive end would be tough and each of them would probably get burned quite a bit, but there probably isn't much else UCLA can do at the position. It would be one of those situations where you play at least one of them as a true freshman, let him generally get beat up, and then benefit from the experience he gets later.

With so many bodies that are question marks, UCLA will again have to make defensive end a recruiting priority for 2009, probably taking two again.

At defensive tackle, UCLA is in a great deal better shape for next season than at defensive end. It has Brigham Harwell returning for his redshirt fifth season, and the real question is whether Harwell can stay healthy for a season. He's had recurring problems with knees and ankles. When he's healthy he's potentially an all Pac-10 DT. Starting next to him will be perhaps UCLA's best NFL prospect, sophomore Brian Price. After he finally became eligible a couple of weeks into the season, Price had an immediate impact on the defensive line, which is extraordinary for a true freshman. With Harwell out, it didn't take Price long to win the starting position – again, remarkable, since he came in cold, without any experience with the schemes, and still stood out. By the end of the season, Price was drawing double teams. That's a freshman drawing double teams. Again, remarkable.

Backing up those two there are some guys with experience. Jerzy Siewierski will be a junior, since he never redshirted, and he continues to get better and transform his body. He should be a solid third DT. There's also Jess Ward, who started some games this season because of injury to the position. Ward improved this season, while he still struggles from being too top heavy and not being able to get low enough in the trenches. Ward has had a good amount of experience and, being a junior next season, should be reliable as a back-up. Chase Moline, who will be a redshirt junior, sat out the entire season because of a back injury and his status is unknown. David Carter, who grew out of the defensive end position, will be a redshirt sophomore, and he's not considered anything more than a potential solid back-up. Redshirt sophomore Andy Keane jumped from OL to DL, and the program is still waiting for him to step up and show he can contribute on the field.

One of the recruiting projects in January for Neuheisel was trying to get a defensive tackle in the 2008 class, but he came up short. They took a shot at some guys who were committed elsewhere and looked at other guys who ultimately couldn't qualify for UCLA. It's clear, though, that, beyond Brian Price, there isn't any real elite DT talent in the program and that Neuheisel will make getting two very good ones in the 2009 recruiting class a priority.

Linebacker

UCLA loses essentially three starters from last season and the cornerstone of DeWayne Walker's defense in middle linebacker Christian Taylor. Taylor wasn't an elite talent, but his impact on the defense was considerable, one that you'll only notice now once it's gone.

It will be a big challenge for Reggie Carter, who will be a redshirt junior, to step into the middle spot, which we've heard are the plans. Carter is talented, with aggressiveness, quickness and hitting ability, but he came to UCLA pretty raw and his learning curve has been considerable. Last season, while he was the starting weakside linebacker, he didn't sometimes play for half a game when UCLA went to a nickel against a spread offense. The word was, though, that Carter just didn't get the scheme as well as others. We know that the coaches have a lot of confidence in him and he's putting in work to make the transition to being the defensive quarterback at middle linebacker.

Kyle Bosworth will be a senior and he was a sometime starter at the strongside spot, and it doesn't look like there is anyone on the depth chart to supplant him. Bosworth, actually, played solidly thoughout last season.

The weakside spot will be a big question. Josh Edwards, the former walk-on, is considered a pretty good athlete – probably the fastest linebacker in the program. He might be the guy leading for that starting position. Ayers, though, has a great deal of talent and it will be a question of whether linebacker is actually where he'll get on the field. Ayers is recovered from his knee injury, and it's known that the coaches like him quite a bit as a player, even though he has to mature and learn how to sustain focus and intensity. Shawn Oatis fractured a vertebrae last season and it's uncertain if he'll return to football. Mike Schmitt is a forgotten guy, the JC transfer who went virtually unnoticed in practice last season.

John Hale will be a senior, and he ended the season as the back-up at middle linebacker. He could be plugged back into strongside, where he spent the most of the last two seasons. Hale is big, but lacks mobility, which has allowed other guys to pass him up on the depth chart. Tobi Umodu will be a redshirt sophomore, and he gets raves in the weight room, but hasn't shown much yet on the practice field.

Backing up at the strongside position could be Hale, or more than likely Steve Sloan, who will be a redshirt freshman. The coaches liked Sloan in practice last year, showing good instincts, while being a little bit stiff.

Because of the lack of stand-out talent at linebacker besides Reggie Carter, and with many spots up for grabs in the two-deep, the incoming freshmen could challenge for a spot. Patrick Larimore is projected as a middle linebacker and Donovan Carter as a strongside. With the back-ups at those positions pretty uncertain, it will be interesting to see if they can come in next fall and compete for time. Sean Westgate will get a look at linebacker first, rather than safety, even though he's just 5-11 and 210. If he can get bigger, he showed great instincts and headiness in his senior season. He'll almost certainly redshirt.

Missing on Uona Kaveinga took its toll on the linebacker depth chart. Again, it's a position with a good amount of bodies, but not many who have proven they can play at this level, so Neuheisel will probably be looking for at least two linebackers in 2009.

Defensive Back

UCLA got one of the best defensive back classes in the country, and it needed it.

UCLA loses its entire starting backfield from a year ago (if you count Rodney Van, the sometime starter).

The only guy returning who you could call starter caliber is cornerback Alterraun Verner. At the other corner there will be senior Mike Norris, who, over his five-year Bruin career, has come close to breaking into the starting lineup, only because of a lack of great talent at the position. He'll have a chance, and it's known that the coaches like Norris.

Courtney Viney will be a redshirt freshman. He's very small, but he had some good moments in practice last year. Chris Meadows is one of those quality walk-ons that could earn a scholarship and a place in the two-deep.

There is, obviously, room for at least one of the true freshmen not to redshirt next season at cornerback. Aaron Hester is probably the best candidate, since he combines really good size (and getting bigger) with good speed. A local scout thinks he's an NFL cornerback in the making. There's also Anthony Dye, who has very good speed and quickness, but could probably benefit from a redshirt year to get stronger. He, though, is talented enough to challenge to play, especially since the returning cornerback depth is thin.

You might also see Rahim Moore, the #2-ranked safety in the national class of 2008, end up at cornerback. That same scout believes that Moore is also a potential NFL player – but at cornerback. He easily has the cover skills, and his size – at 6-1, makes him a big corner, the type the NFL likes.

At safety, senior Bret Lockett will have the strong safety position, and junior Aaron Ware will get first crack at the free safety spot. The defensive coaches have always liked Lockett's potential and athleticism, but he was a bit slow in picking up the scheme. Ware had a good season in practice. One of the most promising of the true freshmen from a year ago is Glenn Love, who sat out the season because of a shoulder injury. Love really stood out early in fall camp, mostly because of the quickness for his size and capability of covering a lot of ground quickly. The coaches love him. It will be interesting to see, now with some bodies at tailback, and not that many at safety, if Christian Ramirez will return to safety. He would plug in as the back-up behind Lockett at strong, or that could be Love, since he's the size of a linebacker. Rahim Moore could also then be in the two-deep at free. E.J. Woods is another incoming freshman who many think has pro potential, at about 6-1 and very good speed for a safety. He's more of a strong safety, better at moving forward against the run than in coverage. Incoming freshman running back Johnathan Franklin and/or wide receiver Antwon Moutra also could end up at safety down the line in their Bruin careers.

While UCLA stocked up with very high-quality DBs in 2008, they could still use some in 2009. UCLA already has as commitment from Marlon Pollard, a cornerback prospect with good size and speed. They'll probably be, then, looking for whatever elite corner or safety wants to jump in the boat.

Special Teams

The personnel at special teams is easily the best and most experienced of any of the units. Kai Forbath was one of the best kickers in the conference as a redshirt freshman. Aaron Perez, who will be a senior, has developed into a good punter. Coming in next fall is Jeff Locke, who is considered the #1 punter in the country by many scouts. He'll redshirt for a year behind Perez.

Christian Yount was worth giving a scholarship to as the longsnapper, doing a great job last season, getting off some very quick snaps.

It will be interesting this spring to see who gets tapped for punt and kick-off return. Terrence Austin was disappointing this year as a punt returner. And Matt Slater will be very difficult to replace as a kick-off returner.

UCLA almost certainly won't be going after a punter or kicker in 2009, with many years in front of Forbath and Locke.


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