Our unit by unit grades are winding down and will come to a finish today. With the offense's grades complete and the defensive line and linebackers done, we finish off the defense with the defensive backs. This is undoubtedly the deepest unit on the defensive side of the football and has some breathtaking talent. The only concern is a single position, strong safety, which hopefully won't be the problem it was in camp.
The UCLA defensive backfield is arguably the most talented and deep of any unit on the Bruins' roster. The physical skills of the unit are outstanding, but especially on the second unit, inexperience runs rabid. The cornerstone of the UCLA defensive backfield is at the cornerback position where Alterraun Verner waits. Waits is probably the best word to describe what Verner will be doing this year too because odds are that he won't be tested often. Verner has returned interceptions for touchdowns three times in his career. He led the nation in passes defended last year and has played in all 38 games in his college career. He's on nearly every award watch list and is a good bet to be named to the All-Pac-10 first team. Verner is the definition of a shut down corner and as a result, will be left alone while opposing teams test the other side of the field.
That other side of the field is a tempting one for opposing teams to go at because there lies a redshirt freshman who will be playing in his first collegiate games. Aaron Hester has the prototypical size and speed for a D-1 cornerback. He's 6'1'' and just over 200 lbs. and was one of California's better sprinters throughout his youth. Most impressive though is probably his length. Hester has extremely long arms and it allowed him to get his hands on a lot of balls during camp. He is also a very confident player who enjoys contact and will not shy away from contact on the line, but does have the speed to play catch up. The physical tools are there for Hester to dominate for the Bruins in coming seasons and on Sundays in the future, but the first job for him this year will be learning the intricacies of the college game because he will be tested often with teams shying away from throwing at Verner. If camp was any indication, he's more than ready for the challenge.
The free safety position is one of the two, along with Verner's cornerback spot, where the Bruins have a returning starter. Rahim Moore will man the position once again after a promising freshman campaign that saw him start every single game. Moore's play got markedly better as the season went on and that continued through spring practice and training camp. While he was caught overpersuing early in his freshman year, that is rarely the case now and simple pump fakes or double moves no longer leave him in the dust. One spot he does have trouble with is defending tight ends, but he won't be asked to do so often so it won't be too much of an issue. He showed good ball skills last year in picking up three interceptions and was even better in camp as he was quicker to the ball, giving himself more opportunities. Moore is in line for a big year so long as he doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time covering for the safety next to him.
Who that safety next to him will be is still up in the air. Both Tony Dye and Glenn Love will likely see time this year at the strong safety position and hopefully, they can do so capably. Right now, asking for anything better than passable play would be greedy. Neither Dye nor Love was good in camp and while they did improve as it went on, all that does is show the level they were at to begin. For such a big guy, it's amazing that Love isn't more of a force against the run. He doesn't read plays well and is often pushed around despite his size. Dye is more aggressive and likes to hit, but is small, overpersues and isn't disciplined in coverage. Personally, I think Dye offers more than Love both now and in the future, but I'm not overly comfortable with either in the backfield.
The nickel back spot has been a battle between Courtney Viney and the surprising Andrew Abbott. Viney's biggest problem is one out of his control. He's small and by small, I mean very small. He's only 5'8'' and that's being generous. Even in practice he was being picked upon as the offense routinely threw jump balls in his direction. He is explosive and very fast so he does close well, plus he got time as the nickel back last year so the experience isn't a major concern. Abbott had an outstanding camp to play himself into contention for the nickel back spot, although he still struggles at times because he lacks the physical tools of some of the others. He has trouble getting his hips open and running so he's susceptible to being beat deep, but he does well to cover underneath and read the quarterback's eyes.
Aaron Ware will provide depth at the safety position and while he hasn't quite lived up to the hype surrounding him when he entered UCLA, he is still a solid contributor as a back up. He is experienced enough and won't be out of his element in hostile territory, but doesn't always react quick enough regardless of the stadium so he can be beat deep. He's more more natural providing support in the running game than he is in coverage. Alex Mascarenas is the freshmen who really made an impression in camp as he was quick to the ball in all instances and strong against the run. He may end up redshirting, along with fellow freshmen Marlon Pollard, Brandon Sermons, Sheldon Price and Stan McKay, but he appeared more ready to step in and play should he be called upon.
Grade: B+ The unit has plenty of talent and even some experience, although to consider what the Bruins have at defensive back experience just gives you an idea as to the lack of experience on the rest of the roster. The cornerbacks are solid with Verner and Hester, who was a force in camp, and Moore was good, but the strong safety spot has me very concerned. I'd love to get mediocre play out of the position, but I'm not so sure we will. The depth is good though all the way down and the young players likely to redshirt are awfully talented.