We first previewed the what-to-watch-for in the offense, and you can find that story here.
Now, onto the defense. UCLA's D last season was a good one – not spectacular but certainly very solid. It ranked 29th in the country, and third in the Pac-10. It was only one of four programs whose defense was ranked in the top 30 nationally that had a losing record, which means the offense of those respective programs were pretty bad and the defense might have even been better than it appeared statistically.
DeWayne Walker has certainly changed UCLA's defense in two years since becoming Defensive Coordinator. UCLA's D, before Walker took over, had a rep for being soft, not aggressive and porous against the run.
Walker has changed that, mostly through a good, attacking scheme and a return to fundamentals. When you come out to Spaulding Field to watch practice, it can get a bit monotonous how much the defense works on fundamentals, but it definitely has paid off.
On one hand, you could say, though, that Walker has done it with two years of a relatively veteran crew. But on the other hand, you could also say that he's done it with marginal talent, and really got some production out of players you wouldn't have expected.
Last year, Walker had 10 returning starters. This year: four. Last year, there were just three players who weren't either juniors or seniors in the two-deep. This year we can probably expect maybe eight sophomores or freshmen.
So, this will probably be Walker's most challenging season since he's been the DC at UCLA.
How Walker did change the defense, and what he'll have to rely on this season, is a good run defense. The Bruins, in 2005, were 116th in the nation in run defense, before Walker took over. In the last two years, they've been ninth and 14th, respectively. While Walker is a defensive back specialist, it's easy to make the case that he's transformed UCLA's defense, first and foremost, by turning it into a run stopper.
Luckily, Walker has some of his best defensive players up front.
Harwell has had an up and down career at UCLA. When he's been able to stay on the field, he's been very good. But he's been fighting injury since he came to campus. He actually was granted a redshirt year last season when he missed the last 11 games with a knee injury. He's had knee and ankle injuries, and many around the program are wary that he can't get through a season without one. If he does, it would be a major boost for the defense.
Price is probably the best NFL prospect on the roster. After having to miss the first three games of the season because of eligibility issues last year, Price came into the program behind in terms of coaching, and knowledge of the scheme – but it was clear from the outset that he was the most talented player on the defense. He quickly took over a starting spot and was bordering on dominant at times. He's now had an off-season in the program to get more familiar with the scheme and work on his body, so it's expected that Price will take the next step and become a bonafide star this season.
The defensive end spots will have a different dynamic to them in 2008. Two seasons ago, UCLA had two aggressive pass rushers in Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis. Last season, there was Davis, forcing the offense to give him his due with double-teams. This year opposing offenses might not perceive the same threat from UCLA's D-ends, and they won't have to shade toward one side like they've done in the last two seasons.
It presents a challenge for both D-end spots, with neither really benefitting from the offense double-teaming the other. Tom Blake (SR, 6-4, 265), the former transfer from UC Davis and walk-on, started eight games last season when Nikola Dragovic couldn't play, and did fairly well – holding down the opposite side from Davis. Now, without Davis, it's going to be time for Blake to step up, and this fall camp will test whether he's up for it. Physically, Blake has gotten even bigger and looks huge this off-season.
On the other side is Korey Bosworth (JR, 6-1, 235), who is essentially a linebacker playing with his hand down. Because of injury to the DL last season, he played quite a bit and had three starts and, for an under-sized, converted LB, played fairly well. It's definitely a different theory to defense end with Bosworth – conceding the power and strength battle and trying to make up for it with quickness.
The two-deep looks a bit suspicious, however. At defensive tackle, the first off the bench will be Jerzy Siewierski (JR, 6-2, 294), who has shown to be a solid back-up in years past and looks like he's done a lot of work to transform his body. After that, it gets a bit, well, sketchy. Jess Ward (JR, 6-4, 288) would be next on the list but he's been rehabbing a left knee after surgery. The word is that he's not expected to be ready to play by UCLA's first game. Ward, even when healthy, hasn't shown that he's more than just an adequate, occasional spot back-up. It's amazing to realize that Chase Moline (SR, 6-2, 255) is a senior already, especially since he hasn't seemed to have a full season since his freshman year. Moline has been bothered by neck and migraine problems, and it's uncertain at this point how much he'll be able to contribute this season. Jeff Miller (SO, 6-5, 265) is probably more suited physically to be a defensive end, but doesn't necessarily have the quickness, and, with UCLA's lack of depth at DT, will find himself inside this fall. Some fans have suggested that Nate Skaggs (SR, 6-4, 294) be returned to the offensive line because of the OL's depth issues, but he'll probably stay on the DL because of its own depth issues. It's one reason why it was thought Andy Keane (SO, 6-2, 290) would be on defense this season, but some in the program are saying he could stay on the OL.
The DT depth is especially worrisome since UCLA didn't bring in one defensive tackle with the 2008 class. In two years of recruiting, UCLA brought in just one DT (Price), and the Bruins really haven't brought in one before that for a number of years who could clearly contribute besides Siewierski, and that's plainly not going to get it done.
An aside: UCLA doesn't look like it's doing particularly well in recruiting DTs in the 2009 class, and it definitely is a cause for concern.
The DT and DE spots are a bit flip-flopped. The DTs are top heavy with talent, but lacking depth of talent. The DEs, on the other hand, are perhaps a bit skimpy on top but have some younger talent to fill out the ranks.
The first in line to back up right now are Reginald Stokes (SO, 6-3, 254) and David Carter (SO, 6-5, 265) since they've been in the system the longest. Stokes had a knee injury his first season at UCLA and is trying to work his way into the two-deep. Reports are that it's uncertain if he'll make it. Carter has shown a bit of ability, but he was moved to DT last season for a while because it appeared that was the way his body was going. If you had to think of a potential candidate to end up at defensive tackle this season, it's Carter.
Justin Edison (R-FR, 6-3, 250) looks physically impressive, appearing pretty huge this off-season. The word is that UCLA coaches expect him to seriously compete to back-up Blake at the right end spot.
Then there are the two freshmen who are probably more talented than anyone in the program at their position. Damien Holmes (FR, 6-3, 240) has very good quickness, and it's not difficult to see him jumping over a few guys on the depth chart. Datone Jones (FR, 6-5, 250) is less polished than Holmes but a very good athlete, and you'd have to think that he could come in and also make the two-deep.
Overall, with a lack of proven depth, it's again key that the DL stay healthy, particularly Harwell. If you take him out of the equation, UCLA's D-line suddenly looks very thin.
Defensively, easily UCLA's biggest personnel challenge is to replace Christian Taylor, the Gutty-Little-Bruin poster boy for the last couple of years. Taylor was the mind and heart of UCLA's good defenses for the last two seasons and Walker's crutch, being his coach on the field.
It's the personal challenge of Reggie Carter (JR, 6-1, 225), who moves to middle linebacker after being the starter at weakside last season. Carter played weakside to get him on the field, since he's so talented, but he has been watching and studying Taylor, waiting to take over in the middle. It's one of the biggest aspects of the defense to watch, how well Carter quarterbacks them, and if there is a perceived loss without Taylor. Most inside the program believe Carter, who came to UCLA pretty raw, is now ready and knows his stuff.
John Hale (SR, 6-4, 240) is the guy in line to inherit the strongside spot. We haven't seen Hale at all this off-season, so we can't comment on any kind of off-season development. He has great size, but the knock on him is a lack of quickness. After being in the system for four years, it's believed it's his time to take over the strongside spot.
At weakside is, for now, Kyle Bosworth (SR, 6-1, 235), who is one of UCLA's leading returning tacklers. Like his brother, he's considered a solid guy, not spectacular. We say he's the starter "for now" since Josh Edwards (SR, 6-1, 230) would be penciled in as the starter at the weakside if he were healthy. He's had some back luck, missing spring practice because of a fractured cheek bone, and how he's missed much of the off-season with an ankle injury. Edwards, when healthy, is UCLA's fastest linebacker. And if he was healthy, and able to play the weakside, Bosworth would probably move to the starting position at the stronside spot.
The linebacker that most fans should be excited to watch this fall is Akeem Ayers (R-FR, 6-2, 238). Ayers, the much-hailed talent out of high school, is thought by many in the program to be a potential star, and he definitely physically looks the part. The coaching staff has plugged him into strongside, where he'll definitely play this season as at least a back-up and then take it over as the starter in a year.
Trying to make the move from D-end to linebacker is Chinonso Anyanwu (JR, 6-4, 225), who just hasn't been able to put on enough bulk to play D-end. He's one of the strongest guys on the team, pound for pound, and the coaches would love to see him flourish at the strongside spot to give him a place to contribute.
Also at strongside is freshman Donovan Carter (FR, 6-2, 227), who definitely passes the eye-ball test. He's considered to be pretty raw, though, and would be a good candidate to redshirt.
Backing up at middle linebacker is Steve Sloan (R-FR, 6-3, 235), who physically embodies the stereotypical middle linebacker. The coaches like him, even though there's been a slight knock on his quickness. Behind Sloan is slated to be freshman Patrick Larimore (FR, 6-3, 230), who we haven't seen this off-season. Larimore is thought to have the size and quickness to play the position, but it's believed Sloan, with a year in the program under his belt, will stay ahead of him, at least this season.
There is also Mike Schmitt (SO, 6-0, 225) who showed some flashes in spring, which has led the coaching staff to hope he could be a solid guy in the two-deep. Incoming freshman Sean Westgate (FR, 5-11, 205) could end up at safety, and it's almost certain he'll redshirt.
UCLA will experience the biggest overhaul of its defensive backfield in many years. Since they were there for so long, it's going to be almost surreal not to have Dennis Keyes, Trey Brown, Chris Horton and Rodney Van on the roster.
UCLA returns one starter, who actually shared starting duties last season with Van: Alterraun Verner (JR, 6-11, 180). Verner is definitely someone to watch, being UCLA's most experienced DB, but still seemingly inexperienced. He also didn't have a fantastic spring, so Verner starting out strong in fall camp will be key for the defensive backfield.
At the other corner spot is Michael Norris (SR, 5-9, 182). While it seems that Verner has been at UCLA for such a short time it seems like Norris has been there forever. He's threatened to be a starter at times over his UCLA career, but never has shown that extra edge to put him over the top. He could very well hold down the starting position this season because there's no one else experienced enough.
But talent could overcome experience this season at cornerback. First, there's Courtney Viney (R-FR, 5-9, 182) who, despite being pretty small-framed, has very good cover skills and aggressiveness. Aaron Hester (FR, 6-0, 185) looks physically like a veteran and has the tools to be a big-time corner. Anthony Dye (FR, 5-11, 185) has good speed and smarts. Viney and at least one of these two are going to make the two-deep, and possibly both, so get prepared for some inexperience at corner, something UCLA hasn't had much of in recent years. There could be some considerably boneheaded plays, but also some display of talent, too. Look at it as an investment in the future; getting the younger, talented players experience will pay off down the line.
Chris Meadows (SR, 5-11, 182) is a walk-on who is practically considered a scholarship level player, and he'll be in the mix.
At safety, it wasn't enough that UCLA had to replace its two veteran starters, but now there's some uncertainty. Strong safety Bret Lockett (SR, 6-2, 208), who is the guy with probably the most talent and easily the most experience, is suspended from the opening game against Tennessee for an academic violation. This puts some considerable pressure on free safety Aaron Ware (JR, 6-0, 192) to have to be the vet of the group when he's only had very limited actual playing time himself. Glenn Love (R-FR, 6-4, 207) is slated to start in place of Lockett against Tennesee, which is definitely a case of being thrown into a fire. Love, whose athleticism and size the coaches have raved about, still looks like a baby out there.
When Lockett returns, Love will probably back up Ware at the free safety spot. Because of a lack of bodies, true freshman E.J. Woods (FR, 6-1, 205) probably has a very good chance to make the two deep backing up Lockett at strong safety. Woods is a very good athlete and was very good against the run in high school. Then there is probably the most-heralded recruit in the 2009 class, Rahim Moore (FR, 6-1, 185). Last spring we were told Moore would start out competing at cornerback, but he's been working as a safety in the off-season workouts. Moore is very talented, and you could see UCLA plugging him in either at corner or safety this season, wherever they need him. He definitely has a very good chance not to redshirt.
In spring, even after having to replace so many long-time, veteran starters, the defense looked like it didn't miss a beat. It was, though, going up against an offense once again learning a new offensive scheme, but the defense looked surprisingly good. This fall camp it's critical that the D continue with that consistency, especially since you'd have to expect that the unit, once again, will have to hold the team together while at least the new offense gets its legs.
Among the three units, the special teams are easily the most solid, deep and experienced. If UCLA could play its games mostly with its special teams on the field, it'd have a very good chance of having a successful season.
Placekicker Kai Forbath (SO, 6-0, 195) has all the makings of the next, great All-American kicker at UCLA. On the season a year ago he made 25 of 30 field goals, and had five field goals of at least 50 yards, the second player in school history to do that. That's a pretty good year for a redshirt freshman, and you can expect him to be even better and more consistent this season. Specifically he needs to be more consistent with getting his kicks higher.
It will be interesting to see if walk-on Jimmy Rotstein (JR, 5-11, 175) continues to kick off. The previous coaching staff thought it was too much of a burden on Forbath, being his first year as the field goal kicker, to also kick off. But Forbath has a stronger foot, so we'll see.
Punter Aaron Perez (SR, 6-4, 220) has evolved into a good punter for UCLA. In his first couple of seasons there were a good amount of mis-punts, but those are very rare these days, and the big boomers are more frequent. His 42.3 yards per punt was second in the Pac-10 and he became very good at pooching the ball, which the new coaching staff clearly wanted him to emphasize last spring practice.
Longsnapper Christian Yount (SO, 6-1, 257) came to UCLA on a scholarship as a longsnapper, which is a bit unusual, but he's proved his worth. His snaps are actually a thing of beauty, and he gets them off very quickly, giving punter and placekicker ample time to set up. If there was an All-American honor for longsnappers, Yount might be a candidate.
Terrence Austin (JR, 5-10, 165) really grew into his role as a punt returner last year, being more reliable catching the ball, and showing some game-breaking flashes, like in his 68-yard return against ASU. Ryan Graves (SR, 6-1, 174) also is a solid back-up. At kick returner, Christian Ramirez would have been the returning player with experience, but since he's out for the season because of academic reasons, you can expect an open audition this fall, with Austin, Graves, and a mix of veterans and youngsters trying their hand. It could be one of the most exciting elements of fall practice, seeing who among all of the potential candidates could win the job.