It's time to take a look at the smallest guys on the defense. The big boys up front? Already had a peek at them. The same is true for the mean ol' linebackers so it's time for the guys in the defensive backfield. It's almost the same group from a year ago so there isn't a shortage of experience in most place. Even if there's only one senior in the group, everyone in the two deep has at least a year of experience so there shouldn't be much that surprises them this year.
What might be a little bit of a shock to the system though is the scheme of new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. Under former coordinator Chuck Bullough the defensive backs were almost left hung out to dry. No matter how well they executed, the defensive backs were almost helpless to stop offenses because of predictable coverages without much pressure up front.
Under Tresey, the defensive backs will be heavily depended on. He's going to bring blitzes, which is a good thing because when done correctly it results in pressure and less time that the DB's have to be in coverage. What it also means is that there have to be many different coverages behind them. That could be different zones, so the DB's need to know exactly where to be and how to read routes, and a lot of man-to-man coverage without a lot of help. It's asking a lot and they will get beat sometimes because of it, but they have to pick their heads up and go right back at it when they do get beat because if they can't get the job done on the back end then it doesn't matter what Tresey schemes up.
|Aaron Hester (6-1, 206, RS Jr.)||Dietrich Riley (6-1, 205, So.)||Tony Dye (6-0, 216, Sr.)||Sheldon Price (6-2, 180, Jr.)|
|Andrew Abbott (5-9, 178, RS Jr.)||Dalton Hilliard (6-0, 200, Jr.)||Alex Mascarenas (5-10, 191, RS So.)||Brandon Sermons (6-0, 180, RS. So.)|
|Brandon Sermons (6-0, 180, RS So.)||Stan McKay (6-1, 198, RS So.)||Tevin McDonald (6-0, 195, RS Fr.)||
Jeff Dickman (5-7, 184, RS Fr.)
|Librado Barocio (5-7, 178, RS Fr.)||Dylan Price (5-11, 206, RS Fr.)||Anthony Thompson (6-1, 205, Fr.)|
There's no questioning Aaron Hester's physical ability. He's tall and strong with long arms and quick feet. He can sit down in zone and close space and he run with guys in man coverage. He can come up and make tackles against the run and he can play the ball. So why hasn't Aaron been a dominant cornerback? That's the question a lot of people are asking. He was flagged too many times last year and was so eager to make a big play that he often saw guys get behind him for big plays. Not only wasn't he dominant, but Hester wasn't dependable last year. Now he has a new defensive coordinator and his first full season of experience under his belt so will he start making good on his talent?
As far as guys who are easy to root for go, Andrew Abbott is near the top. He was a walk-on and measures just 5'9''. That's not a recipe for competing at the Pac-10 level, but all Abbott has done is give the Bruins a dependable nickel back for two years now. He's not big and he's not blazingly fast, but he is very smart and plays like a walk-on still trying to make the team. Toss that in with underrated physical skills (just because he's not blazing doesn't mean he can't run and he does have great hips) and you have yourself a very good player who makes the Bruins better on third down. If he and Hester have problems and the Bruins need walk-on Librado Birocio this year then they're in trouble.
The best athlete in the UCLA secondary has some big shoes to fill. For the last three years Rahim Moore has been lining up in the Bruins' backfield, but he's gone now and now Dietrich Riley steps in to start next to Tony Dye. Luckily, for the Bruins, Riley seems to have no issue with being asked to start. He's put in the work this offseason and has gotten himself in great shape for the season. That's scary for a guy who was already extraordinarily big and fast who liked to hit. Simply put he's a freak athlete who can dominate games flying all over the field. The question for Riley will be if he can show discipline and learn. He's so eager to make big plays that he can take himself out of the play and getting just some snaps here and there last year he's not exactly full of experience so he'll have to learn quick.
If Riley has issues picking up on things then Dalton Hilliard will have no problem stepping up. He was used sparingly last season, but every time he did play he made an impact and left fans wanting to see more. As far as experience goes, Dalton doesn't have a ton, but it hasn't slowed him so far. He plays smart and with great poise. Add that to a big body that can move and he can make his presence felt. Dietrich is the starter and is more than capable of playing great football, but Dalton can play some ball too and if Dietrich slips then you know who will be right behind him to take that starting spot.
Stan McKay is a guy that always looks good in passing drills. He moves well and plays the ball well so when they're out of pads he always stands out. Then as soon as the pads go on he looks a little less impressive. As far as third stringers go, McKay is pretty good, but he's going to have to translate his play in shorts to in pads to take the next step. If need be, Dylan Price is hanging around too.
Last season Tony Dye was a strong safety, but it's time for him to make the move over to free with Rahim Moore gone. That means he'll have played both safety spots and cornerback in his time at UCLA, but it hasn't proved to b much a problem so far. In fact, last year he was arguably the team's best defensive player. He was a force in coverage and led the team in tackles, but the Bruins won't want him leading the team in tackles again. For one, he's at free safety now and they also don't want guys making it into the defensive backfield so much this year. If they do, Dye will be there though, just as he'll be there in coverage. Tony is a senior now and will be the leader of that defense, a role he's earned after three fantastic seasons with no reason to believe he won't make it four this year.
If the Bruins are lucky, Alex Mascarenas won't have to play too much. That's not an indictment on Mascarenas at all, but more a matter of Dye's importance to the defense. If Mascarenas does have to give it a go though, the Bruins should be okay. He's small for a safety, but he doesn't play with an ounce of fear and as you'd expect from an undersized free safety he can get the job done in coverage. He's fast and quick with ball skills better than you find in most defensive backs. Alex won't bring much pain, but he can move and make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
As far as safeties go, Tevin McDonald is almost prototypical. He's big, although he needs to get a little stronger, and he has the feet to play anywhere in coverage. He's not afraid to come up and hit and as you'd expect from a kid who has a dad who played in the NFL, he has great instincts. He was a standout in the spring and looked anything but a third stringer. There might be a couple growing pains if Tevin has to get some run because he is a freshman, but he can make an impact. That's why it's possible that the Bruins could move Tevin into the two-deep and slide Mascarenas over to cornerback, where he's probably a better fit and where there's a hole on the right side with Anthony Jefferson's injury.
Anthony Thompson is looking at a redshirt season. With the guys in front of him there's no reason for him to have to play and burn it so hope we don't get a look at Anthony this year.
Boy can Sheldon Price run. Track star and speed demon on the football field, Sheldon can pick 'em up and put 'em down. He's also got a little strength to go with it too. After being knocked around some in his freshman season because he had nary a muscle on his frame, Sheldon bulked up and was not just able to keep from getting knocked down, but he put a few good licks on guys. With long arms that allow him to engage guys on the line and blazing speed to run with guys Price is built to play in man coverage, but he rarely got the chance to jam guys or play man coverage the last two years. He'll get that chance this season and it could be what allows him to take the next step.
If Mascarenas stays at safety, Brandon Sermons will back up Price, which isn't a bad thing. He was highly touted out of high school and got some run as a freshman, but then suffered a nasty injury that sidelined him last season. He'll have to get back in the swing of things now that Anthony Jefferson's season-ended injury has him in the two-deep. He's big and has the strength, but it's the little things that only comes with playing that he needs to pick up on. It won't be easy after missing an entire season of not just playing, but practicing too. Jeff Dickman isn't without experience either, but the Bruins sure hope that Sermons holds down the fort behind Price.