Not amazing. But good.
It's been done with decent personnel, and a solid scheme, one designed originally by DeWayne Walker, and then perpetuated last season by Chuck Bullough, in his first year as a defensive coordinator.
Last season, UCLA's defense ranked 32nd in the country, and you could say that was about right – not under- or over-achieving.
You might question whether 32nd in the country can get it done on the highest level of the BCS – but then consider that UCLA's defense was enough for third best in the conference – better than conference-winning Oregon, which was fourth best.
But here's a big thing to consider also: UCLA's defense has basically been carrying the program in the last four years while the offense has sputtered. If, in fact, UCLA had even a decent offense in those years, UCLA's defense would have spent less time on the field, been better rested and almost certainly would have held opposing offenses to fewer yards and points.
And been ranked higher nationally.
So, in other words, the scheme that Walker instituted at UCLA that has been carried on by Bullough is a sound, proven one – one that only needs an offense to perhaps make it an elite one.
There's no reason to believe that the 2010 season will be any different – that is, there shouldn't be any kind of letdown defensively. Bullough does have to replace six starters who were all seasoned veterans, but you could argue that most of the players who will be stepping into those spots are potentially more talented than the guys they're replacing. They clearly aren't as experienced, but probably overall more talented.
And there are some stars – and potential stars – among the starters that remain. A defensive unit, to be successful, clearly needs some stars – some guys that are big playmakers, and the Bruins definitely have the marquee guys this season.
Going into spring, by far the biggest question mark was at defensive tackle. UCLA was going to lose Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Brian Price, along with Jerzy Siewierski. And the depth chart looked pretty thin.
But if there was a clear success that came out of spring practice for the defense it had to be some real, valid answers at defensive tackle for the 2010 season.
David Carter, who was the third guy behind Price and Siewierski last season, steps into a starting spot as a redshirt senior, with plenty of experience, and plenty of big-time potential. Carter is 6-5 and 301 pounds and looks more like an offensive tackle, and Defensive Line Coach Todd Howard has said previously that he has a very good chance of playing on Sundays.
Justin Edison, a redshirt junior, has gone from a 6-3, 240-pound defensive end when he came to UCLA three years ago, to a 6-4, 290-pound defensive tackle. We'll admit, we have been skeptical that Edison could develop into a player, when we used to see him thrown around the practice field as that scrawny, under-sized guy. But Edison had a very good spring, and the coaches believe he has what it takes to succeed in the Pac-10 at defensive tackle. He's gotten considerably strong, and the coaches cite how smart he is.
Going into fall, those are the two guys penciled in as the starters. But there's a wildcard in the name of Nate Chandler, the one-time tight end, offensive tackle, tight end again, who made it over to the defensive side of the ball for spring practice, and the coaches were seriously taken aback. Chandler has always been athletic, even when he grew to 6-5 and 290, but the coaches were knocked out by his quickness and explosiveness. In spring, they were ecstatic that they had found a legit third defensive tackle, but as spring wore on, they discovered that Chandler, with that quickness, might be the team's best pass rusher. So they experimented with him at defensive end. As of right now, the hope is that there will be enough depth at defensive tackle so that Chandler can play mostly at defensive end. But you can expect Howard to move around Chandler situationally, with his versatility making it kind of fund to see how he'll be used.
Then, throw in Datone Jones, the junior strongside defensive end, who had a good sophomore season and many believe is poised to have a breakout junior year. Jones is a pretty big boy for a defensive end at 6-4 and 270.
Now, line up those four guys across UCLA's defensive line and they're not exactly your Gutty "Little" Bruins, averaging 6-4.5 and 287 pounds.
This all sounds good, but there are some things that could bring you down to Earth. This all works if Edison is good enough to hold down one of the starting defensive tackle positions. If not, Chandler will step in there. He even might be exclusively a defensive tackle if UCLA feels it's going to get a good pass rush from the other defensive end candidates. Chandler, too, hasn't played defensive end in a college game and is in catch-up mode in terms of technique and knowing how to play the DL. Between the three of them – Carter, Edison and Chandler – there isn't a great deal of game experience at defensive tackle.
But even so, there is some reason to feel quite a bit better than you might have before spring practice.
Todd Howard would like to have at least four DTs he could feel confident in putting on the field, and even ideally five. The next guy in line is converted linebacker Donovan Carter, who is now 6-1 and 280 as a sophomore. Carter looks quick, but the question will be if he has the strength to hold the trenches.
Then, there will be a battle among the incoming freshmen to perhaps round out the rotation. It's likely one could play this season, and the competition will most like be between Seali'i Epenesa and Cassius Marsh. It was thought that Marsh might be more prepared to play, but the latest word is that Epenesa, at 6-2 and 320 and with good strength, might have more of a chance at immediate playing time. Wesley Flowers, who is 6-4 and 257, is a good athlete, but the way his body goes will probably determine if he's a DT or DE, and that almost certainly means he'll be redshirting this season.
You have to mention Andy Keane, the redshirt senior, who has yet to ever play a significant down in his time at UCLA, so you'd expect it not to happen this season.
So, at D-end you have Jones a fixture at the strongside, and then perhaps Chandler on the rush side. But perhaps one of the biggest things to watch for this fall is the wide open competition at the rush end spot – to see who can put the most pressure on the quarterback.
There's Chandler, and then the most likely candidate is probably Keenan Graham, the redshirt freshman. Graham has shown the coaches he has a chance to be a very good pass rusher, and he's added strength and bulk, now at 245 pounds. It could very well be a platoon situation, too, where Graham might get the call on passing downs, and Chandler, with his size, is able to hold down the edge in mostly rushing situations.
Sophomore Iuta Tepa, who played sparingly as a true freshman last season, will also compete, having put on some strength and bulk himself, now at 248 pounds.
The guy the coaches really want to get a good, long look at is Owamagbe Odighizuwa, one of the most highly-recruited defensive end prospects in the country. "Owa" is a well-cut physical specimen, at about 6-3 and 240, and while he, of course, will be very raw, he has the talent. It will be interesting to see if it's enough to make up for the lack of experience and actually crack the two-deep.
Backing up Jones on the strongside will be Damien Holmes, the redshirt sophomore, who moved from the rush side, looking more suited for the strongside spot, and fifth-year senior Reginald Stokes. Stokes has recovered from knee surgery and is expected to be ready in time for camp, but he'll probably be ramped up slowly. Holmes and Stokes aren't star quality, but they provide good, solid depth behind Jones.
So, overall, there are some interesting puzzle pieces on the defensive line, it's just a matter of how they'll all sort out and fall into place in fall camp.
The reality of the situation with Carter, though, was that, while he was a good player over the course of his career at UCLA, he was considerably nicked up in his senior year and wasn't very effective at middle linebacker.
UCLA is hoping that health and talent at the position will mean not much drop-off, and possibly an improvement on the season at the Mike spot.
While officially the program is saying junior Steve Sloan and sophomore Patrick Larimore are still battling for the starting spot, it's pretty clear that Larimore has the edge heading into fall practice. Sloan is the former starter, who is smart and knows the position. Larimore is the more talented, younger player, who has shown at times in practice that he has a chance to be a force at the position. Either way, UCLA isn't playing small, with Sloan at 6-4 and 230 and Larimore at 6-3 and 248. Middle linebacker is probably the most important defensive position on the field, so it is definitely a big thing to watch who wins the position in fall. It very well could be a situation where Larimore emerges, but the coaches still like Sloan's experience, and there is some platooning done – at least early on. Either way, it's good that UCLA has two guys at the Mike who can play.
Bosworth's graduation then opened up the weakside linebacker position, and UCLA got a real boost there last spring. Glenn Love moved over from safety and made a big splash, looking fast and athletic playing the position, and at 6-4 and 220, having great size for it. Sean Westgate had been penciled in, and he's a trooper, and probably inch for inch one of the best football players on the team. But he just doesn't have enough inches, at about 5-11 and 217, and that stretching it. It, again, though, is good to know that there is a guy (Love) who will probably step up and start, and another guy (Westgate) with some experience who will back up the spot.
Then there is one of the best defensive players in the conference at the strongside ‘backer position in Akeem Ayers, who is now listed at 6-4 and 255. He's on some pre-season All-American lists and, after a sophomore season where he had some of the best defensive highlight clips in the country, you'd think this season would be his complete star turn. He also provides Bullough another option at the rush end spot in certain situations, like he did last season.
In fact, with UCLA moving to three down linemen in more and more situations, it's going to be interesting to see where Bullough has Ayers and Chandler line up sometimes. You could definitely see Chandler and Ayers with their hand down next to each other, to try to get as much pressure on the opposing quarterback as possible without giving up size and strength.
Again, the potential starters at linebacker are not "little," by any means. If anything, UCLA definitely has some considerable size in its front seven.
The depth chart doesn't have that much to sort out at the three linebacker spots, maybe a few little moves here or there, but not much. redshirt freshman Isaiah Bowens, who is a physical specimen himself, is the guy being groomed to step into the strongside spot after Ayers. Behind him is David Allen, a walk-on transfer from Tulane who came in last season and impressed the coaches.
In the middle is Todd Golper, who probably suffers a bit from the same thing as Westgate – pound for pound being a good football player, but lacking the size, at 6-0 and 228.
On the weakside behind Love and Westgate is the greyshirt from last year, Jared Koster, who will be a true freshman this season. Koster was nicked up in spring, so we didn't get a good look, but are hoping to this fall. There is also Mike Schmitt, the fifth-year senior, who hasn't seen much playing time.
The incoming freshmen, more than likely, aren't going to see the field, but it will be interesting to watch them in fall camp. Jordan Zumwalt, at 6-4 and 225, and with a frame that could add 20 pounds of muscle, is thought to be the middle linebacker of the future. He's already getting good reviews in the off-season 7-on-7. Aramide Olaniyan is being called "Alterraun Verner at linebacker" by his teammates, due to his cerebral demeanor and talent. He has impressed this summer with his speed and athleticism, but will need some time to bulk up, at 6-2 and 202. You'd have to think that he's the prototype weakside linebacker. Erick Kendricks probably also gets slated at the weakside spot.
The linebackers, overall, have very good size and talent – albeit it young. You'd have to think this is the season of Akeem Ayers, and it's not hard to envision Glenn Love having a bit of a breakout season himself.
UCLA replaces just one guy in its back four, but that guy was their best cover corner and long-time starter and leader, Verner. So, those are some big shoes to fill.
The guys stepping up, though, have literally some big shoes. UCLA's two projected starting cornerbacks are Sheldon Price, who is 6-2, and Aaron Hester, who is 6-1. For the first time in just about ever UCLA has two guys at cornerback with NFL-type size.
But size doesn't win games, necessarily. Price and Hester have a combined 12 starts between the two of them, which isn't much, and Hester is responsible for only 1 of those. If you remember, Price was the guy that opposing offenses picked on last season, because, as a true freshman he lacked the strength to hold down his edge against the run.
This is going to be a big learning year for the two talented guys – one where at times they look very good and then at other times get burned.
Price is noticeably bigger, so hopefully he'll have more strength to play off blocks this season.
It's going to place more of a burden on free safety Rahim Moore and strong safety Tony Dye. Moore, of course, is a guy on many pre-season All-American teams since he led the country in interceptions a year ago. It was a nice stat, and Moore is very much a ballhawk, but it will be interesting to see if he can re-produce those same numbers in interceptions. Dye is a second-year starter, and the word is he's made some good strides in the off-season.
Generally, after the secondary starters, you have to like the depth in the back. At corner, there is experienced Courtney Viney who (sound familiar?) might be the best cover corner pound-for-pound, but is limited by his 5-8, 168-pound stature. Andrew Abbott, the redshirt sophomore and former walk-on, has a good amount of game experience. So, in the second string, there is a good amount of experience, which is a very good thing to have backing up a first string that lacks it.
Then, there are the youngsters. Redshirt freshman Marlon Pollard is talented, but didn't have much bulk or strength a year ago, which he's been working on. Brandon Sermons is coming off a fractured femur he suffered in spring practice, so he'll probably be brought back slowly. But there also is one of the most talented athletes to come out of Los Angeles high schools last year in Anthony Jefferson. He'll almost certainly redshirt, and have to put on some muscle, but the coaches are very excited about him.
At safety there is also some promising younger players. Dalton Hilliard played some last season so he's a sophomore, and he's backing up Moore at free safety, but there are those in the program that feel he needs to get on the field more than just as a special teams players. He's athletic and has a nose for the ball. Stan McKay is a physical specimen at strong safety who needs seasoning, but the coaches believe he has a bright future. Alex Mascarenas, at 5-10 and 189 pounds, has been somewhat of a forgotten guy, but the coaches, when talking about the young safeties, always say Mascarenas has a chance, despite his smaller size.
The incoming freshman Dietrich Riley is a guy the coaches really want to see on the practice field. He, also, was considered a prized recruiting catch and looks physically like a guy who could play this season, at 6-0 and 201 pounds. In the summer 7-on-7 the other guy who also has drawn praise is Tevin McDonald. A few veterans have commented that they immediately recognized that he could play and will have a chance to be good.
UCLA went to the nickel quite often last season, and will probably again this season. Abbott is probably the first-string nickel back, but watch to see if Hilliard plugs in there, too.
There isn't that much to say in terms of what to expect out of UCLA's kicking game. The Bruins might have the best combo of placekicker and punter in the nation, with Lou Groza winner Kai Forbath and Jeff Locke.
UCLA has prepared for Forbath's departure after the season by bringing in kicker Kip Smith, so he's someone to watch in fall for the long-term placekicking duties.
The kick-off and punt return spots are truly wide open, and there are many candidates. Josh Smith was one of the best returners in the Big 12 at Colorado so, if he's healthy, he'll be a top candidate. Other guys who have gotten looks last season and in spring are Damien Thigpen, Randall Carroll, Taylor Embree, Ricky Marvray, Andrew Abbott, and Courtney Viney.