Spring Football For The Deep UCLA Defensive Backfield

If any position group on the UCLA defense is going to be considered deep going into spring practice it is the defensive backfield. With three returning starters, a returning nickelback and three other players who all have gotten their fair share of playing time, there is experience. Add a few inexperienced, but highly recruited young guys to that mix and you have plenty of depth in the UCLA backfield. Not only is the kind of depth that the Bruins have good because you can withstand injuries, but it also ratchets up the competition and forces everyone to improve or take a seat on the bench. The group is coached by a guy they should be familiar with now, Todd Hundley, who is entering his third season coaching the Bruin secondary.

With depth, experience and consistent teaching, the UCLA defensive backfield has they will be expected to take a giant leap forward this season. Yes, they will be without Rahim Moore, but there is too much talent for the group not to be good and there isn't any semblance of inexperience to use as an excuse. Last season the group had some good moments, but also committed too many penalties and were burned because of mental errors. They will have to cut it out this season and there is reason to believe they can. With Chuck Bullough gone they will not be in predictable coverages, will be able to play to more of their individual strengths and will not have to be in coverage for so long with an improved defensive front, at least theoretically.

So what does the Bruin defensive backfield look like? UCLA hasn't released an official spring depth chart, but we can put together something that should come pretty close to what we'll see when spring starts. 

CB

SS

FS

CB

Aaron Hester (6-1, 209, Jr*)

Tony Dye (5-11, 205, Sr)

Dalton Hilliard (6-0, 189, Jr)

Sheldon Price (6-2, 178, Jr)

Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 183, Fr*)

Dietrich Riley (6-0, 205, So)

Alex Mascarenas (5-10, 188, So*)

Andrew Abbott (5-10, 181, Jr*)

Courtney Viney (5-8, 167, Sr*)

Stan McKay (6-1, 198, So*)

Tevin McDonald (6-0, 194, Fr*)

Brandon Sermons (5-11, 185, So*)

Jeff Dickmann (5-9, 190, Jr*)

Dylan Price (5-9, 205, Fr*)

Josh Barut (6-0, 188, Fr*)

Librado Barocio (5-8, 175 Fr*)

* Denotes redshirt

Right Cornerback

This is one of the three spots in the defensive backfield where UCLA returns their starter from last season with Aaron Hester slated to return to his spot as one of the Bruins' starting cornerbacks. Hester has had one of the more frustrating careers thus far because of the misfortune and bad play that has also been sprinkled into flashes of what makes Hester such a high ceiling cornerback. You won't find many corners at 6'1'' that have both Hester's strength and speed. He has good hips that let him get in and out of breaks and he never hesitates to get nasty and mix it up. Unfortunately, that aggressiveness resulted in too many penalties for pass interference and holding. One of the things that held Hester back was out of his control last season as Bullough often had him playing off of the line, negating the size and strength advantage he would have on many receivers. The talent is there for Hester to be an All-Pac-12 corner, but he needs to be given the chance to play to his strengths more often and then learn to harness his aggressiveness so he's not having laundry thrown at him.

Behind Hester is one of the more intriguing athletes on the entire UCLA roster, Anthony Jefferson. A redshirt freshman, Jefferson hasn't gotten into a game yet, but he has all of the tools to be a successful player for the Bruins. Coming out of high school he was a highly recruited player and the word used to describe over and over was "athlete." How else would you describe a player who legitimately could play cornerback, safety or receiver at the college level? Aggressive and willing to come up and tackle, Jefferson has the chance to be special and while he lags well behind Hester in experience, he drew rave reviews on the scout team last year and at the least will certainly put pressure on Hester to keep his play at a high level.

The third corner has a bit of a strange story, going from Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year in his redshirt year to playing in all 12 games as a freshman and tailing off ever since to minimal playing time. Courtney Viney has always had an uphill battle because he was short, but he showed some promise early in his career. For whatever reasons, which have never been explained, Viney has fallen into the background and appears to be at best a fill in player this year as a redshirt senior. Jeff Dickmann rounds out the group as a walk-on.

Strong Safety

Leading the group of strong safeties is the man who will lead the entire secondary, and despite the bigger reputation and undoubted leadership of Rahim Moore, really led the secondary in terms of production a year ago. Tony Dye is a converted cornerback who has taken a shine to safety and led the team in tackles with a per game tackle average of eight, good for fourth in the Pac-10. Tack on a team-best nine pass break ups and it's easy to see why Dye is expected to lead the secondary this season as a senior. Dye could have a slightly different role this season though. A year ago, it was clearly defined that Moore would be more of a roamer, especially in pass coverage and Dye would provide the bulk of the run support. The free safeties this season aren't the kind of player that Moore was in pass coverage, but they are a tad more physical so their role can interchange more with Dye. That could give the senior some more versatility and responsibilities, not that putting a former corner in coverage more often is a bad idea from the start.

Dietrich Riley is behind Dye on the depth chart and it's understandable considering that Dye is the top player in the UCLA defensive backfield, but the Bruins will have to find a way to get the talented Riley on the field. Whether that means giving Dye a break here and there or playing him alongside Dye, Riley will have to get chances because as he showed in his freshman season, he can be a game breaker. Big, fast and without an ounce of fear, Riley flies around the field with reckless abandon and causes havoc. As the season went on, Riley showed improved awareness and discipline, which earned him more playing time. Even more playing time should follow this season for a player who has the ability to be one of the best safeties in the country before his UCLA career comes to an end.

When Stan McKay entered UCLA there was talk that he could be an outside linebacker, a sign of his size and tackling ability. He hasn't been able to get on the field much except on special teams and with Dye and Riley ahead of him this season he will have a tough time getting onto defense again, but with good size and tackling there should be a way to use him as a specialist in specific situations. Way back there just in case is Dylan Price, a redshirt freshman from Mater Dei.

Free Safety

The battle for free safety is going to be one of the more interesting ones on the UCLA roster. It is the only spot in the secondary where there isn't a returning starter, but there are intriguing pieces. It's possible that Dye and Riley play together at safety, but if not, Dalton Hilliard will get a run at the free safety spot. The junior played well last year in limited team and the coaches not giving him more time left a lot of observers wondering what else he had to do to get snaps. Hilliard will start behind though because he's not going to participate in spring practice as he recovers from knee surgery.

Ever since he stepped on campus it has been clear that Alex Mascerenas had some ability, but the question was where could he use it. He's a bit of a tweener and some thing he should be at cornerback, while others think he's a safety. Those who think he's a safety won out and he'll likely enter the season in the two deep. Mascerenas is somewhat limited by being a tweener that doesn't make him an ideal fit at either corner or safety, but he does have very good instincts that allow him to make up for it.

Behind Mascerenas is Tevin McDonald who bucked the family trend by attending UCLA. Both his dad and brother went to USC, but Tevin chose to be a Bruin and as you would expect from the son of a former NFL player, Tevin is smart with good football instincts. He's a quick safety who has range in coverage, but will need to improve his tackling to make a run at the two deep. Josh Barut rounds out the group as a walk-on safety.

Left Cornerback

If only he could put on some muscle, oh wait, he did put on muscle. Sheldon Price was routinely beat as a freshman and unable to make many tackles because he didn't have the strength to get it done. Last season, as a sophomore, he wouldn't have been considered a feared hitter, but he clearly put in work in the weight room to get stronger. It paid off and Price's tackling improved, as did his all-around game. Of all the players who were limited by Bullough's conservative style though, Price may have been limited most. Price is 6'2'' so he's big and he has longer arms for a 6'2'' player, making it easy to get his hands on opposing receivers. He also has top speed, running sprint events for the Bruin track team, so he can run with receivers too. That sounds like a player who should be in a lot of bump coverage, but Price rarely got that chance. Price was prone to some mental mistakes last year, something he'll have to shore up, but getting to play more aggressive should be a boost for him.

If there was a player on the UCLA team that is easiest to root for it would be Andrew Abbott. A walk-on who didn't find out he had been admitted to UCLA until just before the Bruins started camp, Abbott was been playing from behind from day one and never had the eye popping measurables of other players. No matter, all Abbott has done is work his tail off and go from lowly walk on to scholarship player who has gone past highly touted recruits on the depth chart to be the team's nickel back. This season, Abbott will likely return to his role as nickel back, a role he excelled at and may have been the Bruins' best cover corner last year.

Some argued that Brandon Sermons' freshman season was wasted because he never really got a shot on defense and was largely a spot special teams player. He probably should have redshirted that season, but it ended up not mattering much because he missed all of last season with a knee injury and used that redshirt. Now, Sermons is trying to work his way back up the ladder, but will likely make his biggest impact on special teams this season. Librado Barocio is the last of the Bruin cornerbacks, a walk-on who went to Loyola in Los Angeles.

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