In looking at the projected depth chart for next year, most fans are worried about the defensive tackle position.
While that is an area of concern, it really isn't at the top of the list in terms of positions of worry.
In fact, defensive tackle isn't that worrisome. First, you have David Carter, who will be a senior and has had plenty of playing experience. Many people close to the program believe he's an NFL-level player. The concern for Carter will be making the transition from a 20-down-per-game player to starter's reps, but that shouldn't be that much of an issue.
The plan going into spring practice in April is to try out defensive end Datone Jones at defensive tackle. We're hearing that Jones is close to 300 pounds, and to be candid, he played more like a defensive tackle than a defensive end last season. He's strong and good straight ahead, and has the capability of holding his space, but struggled a bit when he had to get out and run on the edge as a defensive end. So, really, it's almost as if Jones is now arriving at his more natural position. Jones, too, has had two years of starting experience. The biggest concern always when you try to replace starters from the previous season is the learning curve for younger players who haven't had much experience. Despite playing defensive end, Jones has plenty of playing experience so that learning curve shouldn't be too steep.
Nate Chandler, the guy who has been tried at many different positions, will also get a look at defensive tackle, from what we're hearing. The concern with Chandler was that, when he attempted to play at offensive tackle, he had the bulk and strength, but didn't play physically enough, being a converted tight end. So, it will be an interesting experiment with Chandler at DT.
If, though, those three – Carter, Jones and Chandler – make up the majority of the rotation's minutes, you have some considerable size at defensive tackle. Carter is 6-5 and he says he's up to 300 pounds. Jones is 6-4 and the word is that he's 300 pounds. Chandler is 6-5 and the latest is that he's pushing 290.
After those three, the guy with the next best chance at playing time will be true freshman Cassius Marsh. Marsh might not think so, but having three guys ahead of him very well could be the perfect situation for him – not too much pressure to immediately produce, but enough opportunity to make the two-deep. Marsh is very talented, with great explosion, and he'll have to learn how to play hard on every down. While the competition at DT will be wide open, we think that Marsh's talent will dictate that he doesn't redshirt and contributes next season.
After that, it's a crapshoot. Freshman Sealii Epenesa might be the most talented among the rest of the candidates, and he is the prototypical nose tackle at 6-2 and 305 pounds, unlike the four guys mentioned above who are probably better suited for the three-technique. But it's not easy to make a transition from high school to true freshman as a defensive tackle.
The other candidates will be Justin Edison, who will be a redshirt junior; Andy Keane, a reshirt senior; Donovan Carter, a back-up strongside linebacker who we're told will be given a look at defensive tackle; and another true freshman, Wesley Flowers. Edison and Keane haven't shown that they can play at this level, and if just one of them displays the capability of providing solid back-up minutes this spring it'd be considered a big win. Carter is a wild card. He's about 260 pounds, and he could be used in passing situations to provide quickness and pressure on the quarterback. In the bowl practices he had some moments where the OL couldn't stay with him from the DT spot. Flowers, who is 6-5 and 265-ish, is expected to redshirt. Good news is that we've heard he's already filling out well physically.
So, really, as we wrote in our defensive depth chart analysis a few weeks ago, if Jones moves to DT that position isn't as much of a concern on the DL as defensive end would be because of his absence. Senior Reginald Stokes will be expected to be the starting strongside end. After that it's pretty uncertain. We know that Keenan Graham is up to about 245 pounds, and the coaches expect him to make big contributions next season, and hope to see signs of that this spring. Graham is considered the best pass rusher on the roster among the DEs. There is Damien Holmes, who we've heard has gotten bigger, and is about 265 pounds and getting stronger. He struggled a bit holding the edge last season, so that will be the concern with him. Iuta Tepa played as a true freshman at about 230 pounds, but he's bulked up to about 245; the concern with him, too, will be if he can be physical enough to contain the edge. There's also elite freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who is considered one of the best DE prospects nationally in the 2010 class. But it's impossible to speculate how ready he'll be to contribute. Derrick Bryant will be another true freshman, but he's expected to redshirt.
In passing situations, strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers will plug into the rush end spot often, like he did last season. Bringing pressure on passing downs isn't as much of a concern with Ayers, Graham and possibly even Owa; the concern is more holding the edge on running downs.
So, you can see if Jones moves to DT, it leaves the DE positions a bit thin in terms of experienced bodies.
Also, if you're talking about positions of worry, eye-balling the depth chart, you'd have to say that left offensive tackle is the #1 concern. The loss of Xavier Su'a-Filo is huge, perhaps the biggest loss from last year's team, if you factor in the impact of the position and what UCLA has to compensate. Micah Kia, the redshirt senior, will get the first chance, and he'll be returning from ACL surgery. He'll be limited in spring, but is on track to be full-go by next fall. His rehab has gone well (Here's a recent interview we did with Kia), but he hasn't been able to do much weight lifting for his legs. He has, though, added a great deal of muscle in his upper body and is reportedly up to 315 pounds. He obviously has a lot of experience, and if he could plug in and do a strong job at the left OT spot it'd be easily the biggest boost UCLA could get for next fall. We've heard that Nik Abele, who will be a redshirt freshman, will get a chance at left offensive tackle. The coaches love Abele; at one point the coaches were projecting him and Su'a-Filo to be their offensive tackles for the next several years. He's big at about 6-7 and moves really well for his size, making him very difficult to get around, but he's still very raw technique-wise. He came to UCLA at about 257, but we've heard he's up to about 275, but he still looks as lean as a tight end. Expect him to be about 280 by fall.
You'd have to say, too, that there is some concern with overall depth at the two offensive tackle spots. Behind last year's starting right tackle, Mike Harris, there is Brett Downey, the walk-on sophomore, who is expected to be granted a scholarship. Offensive line coach Bob Palcic really likes him, and expects him to have a chance to be a significant contributor during the next three years. Sean Sheller, a redshirt senior, also returns to the OL from spending a year on the DL scout team. Kia, Abele, Downey and Sheller are all expected to compete for the left tackle spot. And, if two of them are considered the best two tackles on the team, Harris could be supplanted at right tackle.
There is some clear concern at linebacker for next season. Losing starters at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker leaves a considerable hole. Steve Sloan, a junior who started a good amount of games as a redshirt freshman, will get the first look at middle linebacker, and be pushed by sophomore Patrick Larimore. But the position is one to worry about; Sloan hasn't been more than just solid, and Larimore has only shown flashes in practice.
The weakside spot should have some pretty exciting competition this spring and fall. Sean Westgate, the undersized junior who has made a name for himself as a scrappy special teams player, will get the first look, but there's obviously some concern over his size (5-11, 205). Besides him, at this point there's nothing more than a great deal of speculation. As we've reported before could happen, strong safety Glenn Love will get a look at the spot; it will be a question of whether he can play physically enough, but the coaches are excited about moving Love to linebacker. They feel it's a chance to get their most talented players on the field. Taniela Maka is academically qualified and will join the team for spring practice, and there are those that expect him to immediately compete for the spot. Jared Koster, another grayshirt, is thought to have a shot there. There is walk-on David Allen, who the coaches like. And then, this fall, there is the possibility that the talented trio of true freshmen, Anthony Barr, Josh Shirley or Aramide Olaniyan, might compete at the spot. Barr and Shirley could end up at other positions, but are being considered for the weakside spot at this time.
Then, there has to be some concern about depth at quarterback. Since UCLA didn't bring in a quarterback for 2010, it only has three scholarship QBs on the roster, and one of them has been chronically injured. Kevin Prince, reportedly, is doing very well in the off-season. His shoulder is in very good shape and he has more arm strength than he ever has. He's also up to a very sturdy 230 pounds. Richard Brehaut is expected to make a big jump in mastery of the position between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Nick Crissman has had shoulder issues since he came to UCLA, but the reports are that he's healthy now and ready to compete. There are some close to the program that believe Crissman has a better grasp of the offense than Brehaut and could push him for the #2 spot.
But it's worrisome to go into a season with only three scholarship quarterbacks, all three relatively inexperienced sophomores, and one who is still recovering from chronic injury. It's been pretty proven that you need quality depth at quarterback, with how frequently quarterbacks get hurt in college football these days. UCLA does have some confidence in a walk-on transfer from UC Davis, Clayton Tunney, who is 6-4 and about 215.
If Chandler does leave tight end for DT, then the tight end depth is a bit questionable. We've heard that transfer Joseph Fauria will immediately become a big element in the offense. There is Cory Harkey, who is a big, talented kid. But after that, there's some question. It's thought that Morrell Presley is more of a receiver than a tight end. UCLA will need be lacking depth at the H-back type of position it uses often, and that's not Presley. John Young will be a true freshman and it's expected he'll redshirt.
There are other concerns, of course, but those spots are the primary ones to focus on heading into April spring practice.