So, now we're back in the saddle.
Even though spring practice doesn't start for three months and UCLA is in the home stretch for 2010 recruiting, we wanted to re-set the table of the depth chart for next season.
Here's the Offensive Depth Chart Analysis
Now, on to the defense.
Under Coach Rick Neuheisel, UCLA's defense has been solid, you would say. Not spectacular, but solid. In his first season as head coach, Neuheisel had DeWayne Walker as his defensive coordinator, but then Walker left to coach New Mexico State, and linebacker coach Chuck Bullough took over the DC duties this season.
Bullough, in his first season as a DC, took over essentially Walker's scheme, without much variation. And it was, overall, a very Walker-esque result. A bit mixed, with vulnerability in the running game but a good defense against the pass, with some issues defending spread schemes.
Interestingly, though, if you compare the two seasons – 2008 and 2009 – Bullough's defense was perhaps better statistically. In 2009, UCLA had the 32nd best defense nationally, while in 2008 it was 47th. The rushing defense was ranked 59th in the country and the passing D was 28th, while in 2008 it was 89th and 9th, respectively.
You could make the case that Bullough had one more year of experienced talent to utilize, with seniors Reggie Carter, Alterraun Verner, Jerzy Siewierski, Kyle Bosworth and Korey Bosworth, and the senior equivalent in Brian Price.
While Bullough's scheme and performance in 2009 wasn't exactly super dynamic, it was solid. We learned, after a few games, that Bullough takes at least a quarter, if not a full half, before he gets what the opposing offense has schemed. During that learning-curve time, it got pretty dicey at times for UCLA, but after Bullough got it down, UCLA's defense, you could say, was particularly effective. BRO message board posters asserted all season that, if Bullough could start with his adjustments, UCLA's defense would have been a top ten unit in the country. But give him credit for being able to accurately scout the opposing offense's game plan and adjust so effectively.
Also take into account that it was Bullough's first year as a defensive coordinator, one I'm sure he'll admit was a big learning experience for him. It's reasonable to expect him to continue to improve; perhaps the learning-curve factor of the first half will get shorter and shorter as Bullough gets more experience.
Bullough's biggest challenge in 2010 will be replacing those six starters, at positions where UCLA doesn't have many answers.
We'll start with perhaps the most glaring positional issue on the team – defensive tackle. Of course, Price, the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, a guy who is projected to go in the NFL first round, is a huge loss. But what really makes it catastrophic is the additional loss of his partner, Siewierski, along with veteran back-up, Jess Ward. That's three of UCLA's top four defensive tackles from last season.
Left with a huge task of not allowing a big letdown at DT is senior-to-be David Carter. On the plus side, many people within the program think Carter is a potential pro, and was the second best DT on the team last season. On the negative side, Carter hasn't ever gotten the bulk of the reps at the position for an entire season, probably not getting more than 20 in any game in his career.
Without many guys who are physically prepared to play DT, you can probably expect Carter to play the nose tackle spot as opposed to the three-technique.
There is junior-to-be Justin Edison, a converted defensive end who many feel doesn't have the talent to get significant playing time at the Pac-10 level. There is senior Andy Keane, who, going into his fifth year in the program, has never proven that he can play at this level. These guys, though, might be pressed into duty.
Offensive lineman Sean Sheller worked with the scout team at defensive tackle all of last season, then switched back to offensive line for the bowl practices. It was thought that he had some potential at defensive tackle, but by far had more potential to be effective in 2010 at offensive line, so the intention going into spring is for him to stay there.
Interestingly, our own Robert Kuwada recently interviewed Carter, and he said that there would be a big "surprise" at defensive tackle next season.
We've heard a great deal of talk, and much of it speculation, from inside the program, about a player moving to defensive tackle, and we'll give you all that we've heard.
The rumor circulating is that tight end Nate Chandler is moving to the defensive line. From what we've heard, that thought is a bit premature, but it's a possibility. Chandler was originally a tight end, then moved to offensive line, and was then moved back to TE last season. He has good size, at about 6-5 and 275, with the ability to bulk up to 290ish. For a guy his size, he's fairly explosive, so he'd probably be more of a three-technique.
Donovan Carter, the strongside linebacker, will be a redshirt sophomore in 2010, and he's going to get a shot at DT in the spring. Carter is about 6-1 and currently weighs about 260ish. He has a smallish frame to play DT, but the coaches are experimenting to see if he can put on bulk enough to play the position. In the bowl practices, he worked at the position and, in pass rushing drills, he was far too quick for the bigger OLs to contain. But the question, of course, would be whether he could be effective against the run.
Datone Jones, the starting defensive end, could be another possibility at the three-technique. Jones is 6-4 and over 270, and is strong, and might be a guy who could hold up physically inside.
Iuta Tepa played last year as a true freshman at defensive end and got good reviews from the coaches. He has put on some good bulk, looking like he's about 6-1 and 250 pounds now. He could be a guy who swings inside in situations.
Those are mainly the guys that could be getting some looks inside currently on the roster.
The two true interior DLs that UCLA signed yesterday are clearly going to get a chance to play next season. Sealii Epenesa is 6-2 and 315 pounds and is supposed to be very strong. He very well could step in and get time at the nose. One of the reasons Cassius Marsh, the DT from Oaks Christian, signed with UCLA was the possibility at early playing time, and, being one of the most heralded DT prospects in the nation for 2010, he's definitely going to get a chance. He's more of a three-technique guy who loves to get after the quarterback, but his size and strength might be needed to do time at the nose. Wesley Flowers will also be a true freshman but it's expected he'll redshirt and it will probably take a while before he's ready to play. He's 6-5 and about 260 right now, but the coaches think he'll bulk up and eventually be a defensive tackle.
On the outside, UCLA should actually be pretty good. There is Jones, who will be a three-year starter. Most close to the program feel that he's played fairly well, and he's close to breaking out and becoming a force. In our opinion, he doesn't quite have the balance or agility to be a true rush end and is actually better suited inside at the three-technique. But, of course, UCLA's defensive coaches know better and will play Jones where he best fits. He does anchor the strongside end spot well, though, in terms of run containment.
Reginald Stokes will be a senior and is considered a solid back-up quality defensive end on the strongside. Connor Bradford, who will be a redshirt sophomore, spent last season at defensive end, but he'll move back to the offensive line.
If Jones does do any time inside, then, it will create a hole at the d-end spot. So, really, it's kind of a pick-your-poison situation. Wherever Jones isn't playing there will be a hole.
Because beyond Stokes, there really isn't much else. Tepa, who played on the other side, could move over to the strongside spot.
Damien Holmes, who will be a redshirt sophomore, has a chance. He played quite a bit last season, and did fill in for Jones. At times he looked physically overwhelmed a bit, but he also had some good moments. Holmes is about 265 pounds, but has a narrower frame; it's just a matter of him continuing to get stronger. His name has also been bandied about as possibly moving inside.
The rush side end spot is one that could be an exciting one for UCLA. First, if UCLA finds enough bodies to fill the d-tackle spots, more than likely Holmes will be penciled in at the rush end spot. But waiting in the wings is the guy who showed in practice that he's the best pass rusher on the team, Keenan Graham. Graham fractured his jaw in fall camp, which set him back enough that he redshirted the season. But once he returned the coaches were very excited when they watched him blow by offensive linemen while playing on the scout team. He apparently has put on 15 pounds or so and is up to a solid 240, and they expect him to be 245 to 250-ish by next fall. Bulk and strength were the only things holding him back, so the hope is that he'll have added enough to really contend for the starting spot next season. He's, of course, still raw in his pass rushing technique, but he has the best natural ability since Bruce Davis.
Then there is one of the biggest rush defensive end prospects in the country coming into the program in Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Owa is currently about 6-4 and 240 and a physical specimen, even though he has the frame where he could easily get bigger and stronger. But physically he might be capable of playing as a true freshman. While he also is raw in his technique, he has unusual quickness, explosiveness and elusiveness. It's expected that Owa, barring injury, will come in and compete for immediate playing time and probably at least make the two-deep.
Also coming in is Derrick Bryant, who is supposed to be a vey good athlete, but it's expected he'll redshirt. He might very well have the frame to bulk up to the size of a defensive tackle, currently at 6-5 and 240 but with a wide frame.
There could very well be quite a bit of experimenting on the front four in spring practice. Don't be surprised if a number of guys emerge at different positions when spring practice is over.
The linebackers look just as about as up in the air as does the defensive line. Really the only completely known quantity is Akeem Ayers, who will return for his third season starting at strongside linebacker. Ayers had probably the two most spectacular defensive plays of the season, which got him a great bit of notoriety. But what you might not have noticed is how fundamentally he improved over the course of last season. He was out of position and making poor decisions at the beginning of the season, but was quite a bit more disciplined by the end. He was particularly effective when UCLA used him as a defensive end with his hand down, being far too quick for most offensive tackles to contain on pass rushing downs. Expect him to be used the same way next season, and if continues to develop, he should be considered one of the best linebackers in the Pac-10 by next December.
After Ayers, though, the linebacking unit is completely uncertain. It's thought that Isaiah Bowens, who will be a redshirt freshman, will be the back-up at the strongside spot by next fall. The coaches have been impressed with Bowens, and he's a physical specimen at 6-1 and about 240. If Carter doesn't catch on as a defensive lineman, he'll go back to his spot as a back-up at the strongside linebacker position. Mike Schmitt, who hasn't seen much time other than special teams, is also there.
At middle linebacker, going into spring the top two guys are Steve Sloan, who will be a redshirt junior, and Patrick Larimore, a redshirt sophomore. Sloan, who is 6-4 and 235, has had some experience, starting a good portion of the 2008 season, and the coaches consider him solid albeit not spectacular. They see more potential from Larimore, who is a better athlete and more instinctive. Larimore also has good size at 6-3 and 247 pounds to be able to hold down the MLB spot, but being pretty inexperienced it's a worry that he'll make too many mistakes at the most critical position on defense. Todd Golper, who will be a redshirt freshman, might be the best pure player among the three, but he's probably too small to be able to be an every-down guy, at 6-0 and 220 pounds. While I haven't heard it from any sources, and I'm just speculating, I think that Golper is too good of a football player and they'll find a place for him, possibly at weakside linebacker. While he might not have the quickness for the edge like that, he's a gamer.
Even though he just committed yesterday and hasn't stepped foot in pads on Spaulding Field, it's expected that Jordan Zumwalt is the middle linebacker of the future. He has the size (6-4, 220), is instinctual, quick, and is a big hitter. It's just a matter of him getting bulkier and stronger.
The weakside linebacker spot is going to be the position to watch by next fall if you want to see a wide open competition to be the starter. Going into spring camp, junior Sean Westgate will be atop the depth chart, and he's a good story. Westgate is about 5-11 and probably 210 pounds, and he's a good football player but just undersized. He's proven to be an exceptional special teams guy, and he's gotten some snaps as the back-up at weakside.
But there are huge amount of other guys who are going to compete with Westgate, and just about all of them are unknown quantities at this point.
We'll start with Taniela Maka, the prospect who committed to UCLA as part of the 2009 class but wasn't academically eligible. He has, though, since been working hard to get eligible, mostly trying to achieve a good test score and, reportedly, he has. At present, his paperwork has been submitted and he's waiting to hear back from the NCAA if he's cleared their admissions. If he has, he'll be enrolled in time for spring quarter. At 6-1 and about 230, with very good athleticism, there are some with the opinion that Maka could be the guy to step in at the WLB spot next season. If he is eligible, at the very least, expect him to be in the two-deep.
There is also a walk-on transfer from Tulane, David Allen, who, at about 6-2 and 210, is a guy the UCLA coaches are very high on. He did well in special teams last season, and he has good athleticism.
Jared Koster also committed to UCLA as part of the 2009 class, but didn't enroll until the current winter quarter. He's about 6-2 and 220, and the coaches like his athleticism and ability to run. He's expected to play the weakside spot but, at this point, it's completely uncertain where he'll plug in or whether he'll be able to make an immediate impact.
Aramide Olaniyan is a guy the coaches consider very talented, with a great burst and motor. He's 6-2 and 200, and will need to mature physically and get stronger. There will also be some transition time in him getting used to playing linebacker and having to drop into coverage, since he played with his hand down on his high school team.
Josh Shirley might have been the surprise of Signing Day, picking the UCLA hat over the four others when he had pretty much indicated publicly that UCLA was out of the running for him. As we said in the last several weeks, though, Neuheisel was still very much on Shirley, and it turned out that Shirley was a silent verbal that wanted to keep it secret. In terms of how he plugs in next fall, or in his UCLA career, it's uncertain. He was recruited as either a linebacker or defensive end and it's a matter of UCLA coaches getting him out to practice to see where he best fits. There was some worry whether he had the quickness to play linebacker, but he looked pretty darn quick at the U.S. Army practices and game. He's a great physical specimen at a buffed-out 6-3 and 225, with very good pass-rushing instincts, so he could very well be the next hybrid Akeem Ayers-type.
The other incoming linebacker, Eric Kendricks, is about 6-1 and 215, and will need to bulk up and get stronger, and is probably destined for a redshirt season.
The strength of the UCLA defense next season will definitely be its secondary, as it returns three starters, and another previous starter.
Of course, the big hole is the departure of Alterraun Verner, and replacing him as the lockdown corner is going to be tough. Aaron Hester won a starting corner spot last season before breaking his leg. He'll be a redshirt sophomore and, at 6-1 and about 205 pounds, is thought to be a potential NFL corner prospect.
At the other corner is the guy who replaced Hester when he was hurt, Sheldon Price. Price struggled early in the season, mostly in run support when opposing offenses were picking on him, realizing that he was only about 160 pounds and pretty slight, and that they could run over him. Price, though, all in all, was solid in pass coverage, and he improved as his trial-by-fire season progressed. The word is that the 6-2 speedster has done good work in getting stronger, and is up to about 175 pounds. Both he and Hester are expected to struggle some next season, having so much inexperience at the corner spots, but they are thought to be potentially two very special cornerbacks in the making, who UCLA will have potentially starting opposite each other for three years.
The 5-8 Courtney Viney, who will be a junior next year, was passed over by Price, even though he had seemingly played very well early in the season. The coaches like his cover ability, just think that the size of both Price and Hester give them better match-up options. Viney very well could get a good amount of time at the nickel spot.
Andrew Abbott, the walk-on, will be a sophomore, and while he's had some regrettable moments on the field, the coaches like him and his abilities. He and Viney are probably penciled in as the second string at this point and the first two options at nickel.
The coaches really like Marlon Pollard, who redshirted last year as a freshman. He's very athletic, with very long arms, but he has a smallish frame and is still pretty thin. The talk is that he's up to about 165 pounds, which would be probably 10 additional pounds since he came to UCLA.
Brandon Sermons played last year on special teams, so he'll be a sophomore. He has a bigger frame than Pollard and more weight at about 185 pounds, but he's not quite the athlete. The coaches, though, think he can be a good contributor down the line.
The three recruits who signed yesterday that are projected as cornerbacks are three very promising prospects. Anthony Jefferson is perhaps one of the best athletes in the Los Angeles area, and at 6-2 and about 180, he has that NFL-type size for a corner that UCLA has been looking for. He was an exceptional wide receiver, too, but it's believed he projects better as a corner. He was just about the only guy who could cover Robert Woods, the #1 wide receiver in the country who committed to USC, so there could be some continued rivalry battles between the two in the next several years. Shaquille Richardson isn't quite as big at 6-0 and 175, but he's just as good an athlete, with great quickness and agility. Then there is Tevin McDonald, who is now about 6-0, having grown an inch or so since last fall, and 180 pounds. McDonald is a very good football player who might very well grow into a free safety down the line. It's thought that there is an opportunity for probably at least one of the true freshman to make the two-deep next season, especially if Jefferson is as special as many believe.
At safety, three-year starter Rahim Moore has the free safety spot nailed down. He led the nation in interceptions as a sophomore and made many All-American lists. He still has much room to improve, though, especially in run coverage and his tackling. But he'll be perhaps the #1 returning ballhawk in the country next fall.
Backing him up is Dalton Hilliard, who will be a sophomore next season, having played a bit last season. The coaches really like Hilliard's natural feel for the game, and his hitting ability.
Alex Mascarenas will be a redshirt freshman next season and, at just 5-10 and 176 pounds, he's undersized at safety. The coaches, though, after watching him on the scout team, liked his smarts and thought he had a chance down the line to contribute.
Tony Dye, who will be a junior next season, is penciled in as the strong safety spot going into spring practice. Dye, for being thrown into the fire, has played solidly, and he's expected to really benefit from the game experience for his junior year.
The guy, though, that is thought to be Dye's biggest competition at the strong safety spot for the next two seasons is Stan McKay, who redshirted last season. McKay, at 6-1 and 195, is a very good instinctual player and a big hitter, and he had the coaches drooling last season in practice. He's still young and inexperienced, and needs to stay focused and keep working hard, but the potential is there for McKay to be a big-time player. The UCLA coaches are hoping he makes a big stride this spring.
Glenn Love will be a junior and he played well last season, which makes the coaches feel good about the depth at strong safety. There's been some talk of Love moving to weakside linebacker to get him on the field, but we've never heard it seriously discussed.
The incoming recruit, Dietrich Riley, who is 6-1 and 195, got rave reviews from Neuheisel in his Signing Day conference call. UCLA, at this point, doesn't know where Riley will plug in, but it's thought that he'll eventually settle in to being a strong safety, with a linebacker's ability to pursue the run. Some think that he has a good frame and if he continued to just moderately bulk up he could actually end up a weakside linebacker.
Then, if you're talking about exciting athletes who no one knows where they could end up, there's Anthony Barr. Barr is 6-4 and 225 and runs like a deer. UCLA says he'll get a first look at his first love, running back, and it wouldn't be that surprising if he actually stayed there. Barr knows, though, he could end up on the defensive side of the ball, and he said he prefers the strong safety spot. But he also knows that, with his size and quickness, he could be an outside linebacker. On the other hand, Barr could stay on offense since, as Neuheisel said, he could be the best when he's carrying the ball. So, he could end up a tight end or an H-back type.
Special Teams should be an extreme strength for UCLA next season. UCLA returns the Lou-Groza-Award-winning kicker in Kai Forbath, and one of the best returning punters in the country in sophomore Jeff Locke.
The kicking game is in good hands for a while, with UCLA getting a commitment from Kip Smith, who some think is the best PK in the country. He kicked a 67-yard field goal this season but there will be a bit of a transition from kicking in the thin air of his home state of Colorado. Locke, too, showed in practice that he is more than serviceable as a place-kicker if he was forced into duty.
The return teams should again be excellent. While UCLA loses long-time punt returner Terrence Austin, it plugs in a guy who was considered one of the best in the Big 12 in 2008, Josh Smith, when he was at Colorado. The kick-off return chores will be up for grabs, with possibly Smith or speedster Damien Thigpen getting the call.