Spring Practice Review: Defense

The dust has settled at Spaulding Field, so here's a review of what transpired in April for spring practice -- all the players who made advances, those that didn't, how some veterans will be replaced, and more. Here's the look at the defense...

Going into spring, there were some obvious questions to answer for UCLA's defense, namely: Who was going to replace the departing seniors and Brian Price?

One of the positions which was easily among the few biggest mysteries was defensive tackle. Price jumped to the NFL this spring, and UCLA lost Jerzy Siewierski to graduation. And, if you looked at UCLA's depth chart, there wasn't much there besides David Carter, who, even though he has some terrific upside, was only a returning back-up.

But defensive tackle is the one position of mystery that became far less of a mystery as a result of spring practice.

Much of that can be attributed to the arrival at DT and the impressive play this spring of Nate Chandler, the tight end/offensive tackle/tight end who decided to take a shot at the position. At 6-5 and about 290, Chandler certainly had the size, and being a good athlete he had the kind of burst you'd like to see. So, the experiment made sense. It ended up being probably the most successful aspect of spring practice – not only that Chandler could play DT, but the fact that he could be exceptional at the position. It took a mere few practices to have the coaches raving about him, and to see him get plugged into the first string for a good portion of practice. Of course, he'll have a ways to go in learning technique, but there's talk that he could have an NFL future as a defensive tackle. He showed so much explosiveness off the snap that coaches, by the end of practice, were toying with the idea of Chandler playing some defensive end, and he actually lined up at DE when UCLA went to three DLs in some alignments. With his quickness, he makes for a pretty overwhelming load at the three-technique spot.

Carter had a good spring, looking like the starter he'll have to be this fall. Between him and Chandler, it's a pretty formidable pair at DT, two guys who are 6-5 and 300ish, with both having the talent to potentially play on Sundays.

So, UCLA went from almost zero at DT, to looking like potential heroes.

On top of Chandler's spring development, there was more. Justin Edison, who most didn't consider more than just a guy, had a good spring, according to the coaches. Enough so that they're completely confident he could be a solid back-up at the nose behind Carter.

Then there's Donovan Carter, the converted linebacker, who is now 6-1, and 270-ish, putting on the weight but retaining the quickness to be what the coaches think is a solid guy at the three-technique.

Andy Keane, the senior to be who has not amounted to much, still has a ways to go with his broken finger, perhaps another month and a half, so his status is still undetermined for fall. But it wasn't as if UCLA was expected much out of him anyway.

They are expecting some contributions from at least one of the incoming true freshmen – Cassius Marsh, Sealii Epenesa and Wesley Flowers. Reports on Marsh is that he's getting bigger and stronger physically, and he'll be physically ready to play. Epenesa is a pretty big boy to begin with, while Flowers will probably need some time to fill out.

But between David Carter, Chandler, Edison, Donovan Carter and Marsh and/or Epenesa, the DT spots look quite a bit better now than they did in March.

At defensive end, this spring it appeared that Datone Jones is now sitting on the brink of stardom. He was perhaps the defensive MVP of the spring, constantly in the offense's backfield disrupting running plays and getting many "virtual" sacks.

The other DE spot, however, is still one that has some room for growth. Damien Holmes was slotted as the starter for most of the spring, and he had some moments. But Keenan Graham and Iuta Tepa also had some good spring moments, and Graham is considered the best pass rusher among the three. The knock on Holmes was whether he was physically big enough, since he got pushed around a bit last season as a redshirt freshman, but now at 270 pounds he's looking more like he could physically hold up. Graham was up to about 240, but still looks like a linebacker. Tepa was considerably bigger physically, too. It's probably Holmes' spot to lose, but there is a feeling in the program that there could be some movement at that spot in fall.

Especially with Owamagbe Odighizuwa, one of the best high school defensive ends in the country, coming into the program. Derrick Bryant will be another true freshman, but he's had shoulder surgery in the off-season so it's pretty certain he'll redshirt. Reginald Stokes, who will be a senior, sat out all of spring coming back from a knee injury, and the word is that he's progressing and should be okay by August. It's expected he'll be Jones' back-up.

The linebacker positions might have been among the most interesting of spring to watch. With the departure of Reggie Carter at middle linebacker, there was a competition between Steve Sloan, a veteran who played quite a bit in the 2008 season, and redshirt sophomore-to-be Patrick Larimore. Even though the coaches were being politically correct publicly and not saying who won the competition, privately it was clear Larimore had. He stepped up throughout spring and battled, and played exceptionally at the position, showing the aggressiveness and aptitude for it. The coaches are actually feeling pretty good about the spot, with the more talented Larimore probably starting, and then the improved veteran Sloan behind him.

Then there was the drama at the weakside linebacker spot. Sean Westgate, all 5-11 and 210 pounds of him, was penciled in to be the starter at the beginning of spring. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough likes Westgate, and he's proven to be a special teams guy who can make an impact, but it's a question of whether, with his size, he could be an every-down starter.

It wasn't necessarily that Westgate didn't hold up during spring practice, but converted safety, junior Glenn Love, who had made the switch to the position, showed that he could be a true standout at the spot. At 6-4 and 220, Love's athleticism was evident throughout the spring, being able to pursue in space with his length and quickness. The coaches have conceded that Love has a ways to go to learning the position, but he already went a long way to winning the starting spot in spring.

If there was someone else on the defense that, like Jones, looked like they were positioning themselves to be s star, it was Akeem Ayers at strongside linebacker. In the words of one coach, "He was a monster."

So, that appears to be the starting LBs for spring – Ayers, Larimore and Love. It might take a week or so in August for Larimore and Love to get cemented in as the starters, but it's a pretty safe bet it's going to happen. While, with Larimore and Love, there is quite a bit less experience than with last season's starting LBs, there is also quite a bit more athleticism, which makes the prospect exciting. Also, if Ayers returns for his senior season in 2011, all three will return as a unit for that season. It's particularly exciting to think about what the unit might be like by then, with a year of starting experience for Larimore and Love.

Among the reserves at linebackers, there are some things to feel pretty confident about, and some things to feel pretty uncertain about. There is Sloan at middle linebacker, and then Isaiah Bowens quickly established himself as the back-up strongside ‘backer behind Ayers this spring, and the coaches are high on him. Westgate also provides experience and some playmaking backing up the weakside spot. So, among the second string, that's two guys with some experience, which isn't bad. But the rest of the linebacker roster is really a question mark. Grayshirt Jared Koster participated in spring practice, slotting in at weakside linebacker, but he has a long ways to go before he can contribute. Mike Schmitt started spring as the second-stringer at the strongside spot, but lost it to Bowens. There is David Allen, the walk-on transfer from Tulane, who the coaches think has a chance to contribute, but they're just not sure where and how. He started the spring on the weakside, got some looks in the middle and then ended up as strongside. Third-string middle linebacker Todd Golper could have the most ability and technical skill but, like Westgate, he's fighting the under-sized issue.

The linebacking depth could greatly benefit from the incoming freshmen this fall. For one, Jordan Zumwalt is thought to be UCLA's middle linebacker of the future and, while he might not actually see the field this fall, it's good to have the depth of talent at the spot. Aramide Olaniyan is a guy that many in the program feel could come in and have a shot at the two-deep, probably at weakside linebacker. Josh Shirley is an exceptional prospect, it's just a matter of where he could plug in – at defensive end or linebacker. Right now, it truly is uncertain, but he might have the same kind of game as Ayers – possibly not quite as big but faster – so he could be a strongside linebacker that puts his hand down in certain alignments like Ayers.

Eric Kendricks is projected to redshirt.

Then there is Taniela Maka, who was committed as a recruit in the 2010 class but has taken a year to get academically qualified, and it appears it's happened. Maka is a guy that the program is excited about, someone who at about 6-1 and 235 looks to be ready to play physically. He probably will get his first look at weakside linebacker.

In the secondary, there was some good surprises. Perhaps the biggest one was the stepping up of safety Dalton Hilliard, before he went down in the Spring Game with an ankle injury. Hilliard did everything in spring to prove he was a player and worthy of PT, challenging Tony Dye at strong safety and looking like the heir apparent at strong safety behind Rahim Moore. The last we heard Hilliard is recovering well from his ankle injury.

What was encouraging was that Dye stepped up himself to the challenge. With Hilliard and Stan McKay pushing for playing time, the coaching staff was pleased with the way Dye responded. After sitting out a few practices with a heart condition, he returned and looked very good – quick and instinctual.

McKay was a little disappointing in spring. There were expectations for him to really emerge, and he seemed to be held back a bit by a lack of a true grasp of the position just yet.

There was also Alex Mascarenas, a redshirt freshman, who kind of unexpectedly stepped up and had some moments in spring, gaining the coaches' confidence.

UCLA's objective for the spring with the safeties was to get someone to step up at strong safety, and establish some depth with the departure of Love to linebacker, and they feel they, for the most part, accomplished that. Dye was impressive and Hilliard looks to be a strong back-up option, with the talented McKay still learning.

The coaches are also eager to see if true freshman Dietrich Riley will be able to come in and immediately vie for a spot on the two-deep.

At cornerback, it was thought that the spring would see Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price nailing down the two starting spots, and that's pretty much what happened. Hester was really 100% for the first time since breaking his leg at the beginning of last season, and it showed. While the two of them are still raw, their size was clearly a factor in pass coverage during spring practice, which is a departure for UCLA cornerbacks – seemingly always being the gutty, "little" over-achievers in recent years. Now, UCLA has two big, NFL-potential guys in the spot, and it will be a matter of getting through the growing pains.

What was also very encouraging was, after the projected starting "big" corners, the two second-string small corners – Andrew Abbott and Courtney Viney – had very good springs. They both are veterans and handle themselves that way, and were consistently good in pass coverage throughout April. Marlon Pollard was out for a good portion of spring with a hamstring issue, but returned by the last week. The coaches like Pollard, and feel he has a chance to be a significant contributor, he just has to get bigger physically and more refined in his technique.

The biggest injury of the spring happened to redshirt freshman corner Brandon Sermons, who fractured his femur in the first week. The latest on him is that he's off crutches, and improving at a good rate, but his status is uncertain for fall.

The coaches would feel a lot better about depth if one of the true freshmen came in this fall and showed they could get on the field. The thought is that Anthony Jefferson could have the best shot, but no one is counting out Shaquille Richardson or Tevin McDonald.

One of the biggest impacts on spring practice was the arrival of new GA and cornerbacks coach Daronte' Jones, who infused a great deal of energy and enthusiasm into the defensive coaching. He coached on just about every rep, hopping around and barking encouragement, and it's clear the cornebacks responded.

You could say the same about new linebackers coach Clark Lea, who basically did what he did when he was a GA last fall.

The defense, overall, had a good spring, looking perhaps more athletic, despite being less experienced. It was a good spring for answering some questions – namely at defensive tackle and linebacker – and the coaches feel that they, for the most part, have some answers, or at least the beginning of some answers.

With special teams, the unknown is who will be the kick-off and punt returners. While UCLA experimented with speedsters like Damien Thigpen or Randall Carroll, they tended to have issues catching the ball. Taylor Embree looked like the most reliable on punt returns, but Josh Smith, before he went down with the injury, is also a clear candidate. Smith also, you'd have to think, will be one of the best options at kick-off return, since he was a standout at the spot when at Colorado. Ricky Marvray also got some looks.

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