If you don't know by now, I'll refresh your memory. The defensive side of football is something I am fairly passionate about. I played it for a very long time on many levels of football. Pop Warner, middle school, high school and finished up in college.
By no means would I ever consider myself an expert or even a qualified analyst of Division 1 or NFL level defenses. But people on this site appreciate the insight I offer and I need to get some issues with UCLA's secondary off of my chest. This is my number one forum for doing so. So bear with me for about 1500 words or so.This has been an unbelievably disappointing decade+ for UCLA defenses and football in general. With the talent flowing through the program, mediocrity aside, there have been NFL defenders coming and going through this school.
Brian Price, Akeem Ayers, the Bosworths, Jarrad Page, Rahim Moore, Chris Horton, Dave Ball, Spencer Havner, even the mishandled Nate Chandler is on a practice squad currently. That isn't a resume to sneeze at for a program that's struggled on defense as much as UCLA has recently.
This isn't a post about the state of UCLA's defense under Lou Spanos because I still believe it is too early to judge the unit on the season. Despite the issues, I can confidently say there is a marked improvement for the most part.
This is a post to focus on the issues in the defensive backfield that are confusing fans, exciting Pac-12 quarterbacks and receivers and frustrating the hell out of me every weekend.
I don't believe in belittling UCLA players on a public forum because they all obviously work hard and have done nothing off the field to embarrass the program. It goes without saying that most observers of UCLA football have noticed a constant presence in the UCLA defense for the past 4 seasons. Some combination of Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have always been present in the starting lineup for UCLA football.
Numbers 21 and 22 have been noticeable throughout their careers and usually not in the most positive way. I've harped on them less than most because I have seen flashes of good from each one. Both players were unanimously celebrated recruits, Top 20 corners, 4-stars by most services out of solid programs in Bishop Amat and Compton Dominguez, respectively.
On paper, both appear to have warranted starting as many games as they have. That's what you expect out of 4-star recruits. But football is not played on paper. So, let's delve into the numbers.
They are both big DBs. Hester coming in a 6'1", 207 and Price at 6'2", 180. The official weight listed for Price might be a touch generous because his legs appear to be just as skinny as they were when he was a 6'2", 165 pound freshman. But he unquestionably has length and above average speed, as does Aaron Hester.
Sheldon Price has started 37 games thus far in his UCLA career. In that time he's been credited with breaking up 18 pass attempts and has intercepted 5 passes (4 this season and 1 last year against San Jose State). He has made all of 2 tackles for loss (which might be unfair because he was forced to play 10 yards off the ball last season). Despite his weight and dubious reputation in pass defense, Price has actually been decent against the run as a cornerback and a fairly sure-handed tackler.
Aaron Hester red-shirted his first season at UCLA in 2008 and was named the starter going into the 2009 season as a red-shirt freshman, however he broke his fibula in that game and returned to play sparingly in one game later that year before re-injuring his leg. The following two years have seen him start 23 more games and all 6 so far in 2012. In Hester's 30 career starts, he has been credited with 11 pass breakups and 4 interceptions. His 5 tackles for loss are a step up from Price's; but I will say he is far weaker in run support than his counterpart and if they credited missed tackles as an official stat, Hester would be towards the top.
All in all, not the level of play you would expect out of such highly celebrated players. They've been on the field plenty, but no level-headed person can say they've been anything but disappointing.
The past three years were littered with depth issues and injuries in the defensive backfield and throughout the defense. I get that. UCLA's defensive struggles for the 3 years before that can't be placed on either player's shoulders. If anything, I'd put it on inconsistent play from the linebackers and awful schemes.
2012's defense is much different.
The unit is littered with talent and performance.
Datone Jones, Seali'i Epensa, Cassius Marsh and Owa Odighizuwa have all performed at a high-to-acceptable level of play, along with steadily improving play from Donovan Carter and Brandon Willis (who's played more snaps in the DE rotation the last two weeks).
The front seven on defense has come up with more sacks in six games than all of last season, and are on pace to approach triple digits in tackles for loss for the season (compared to 70 last season).
There have been some gap issues and big running plays (notably the multiple 80+ yard TD runs by quarterbacks) but, overall, this unit has played at a high level for most of the season. Ranking 66th in the country is not anything to be proud of; but that number would be considerably lower if the 2nd and 3rd string defense's stats at the end of blowouts weren't included. Regardless, compared to previous seasons, the run defense has been much improved.
The defensive backfield has been a different story. I was honestly surprised that UCLA was ranked as high as 88th against the pass.
They've allowed opponents to go 135-221 for 1512 yards and a 61.09 completion percentage. The fact that it's only yielded 10 passing TD's is surprising.
Passing Efficiency Defense is a little more amiable at 53rd in the NCAA; but that is heavily impacted by the 10 interceptions that have been forced by the defense and 5 of those came against Houston's beat-down quarterback (thank you Datone, Anthony and Jordan).
I'll also give props to the entire defense for ranking 20th in the country in 3rd down defense. That's a big time improvement, given that I wrote an entire post last season on UCLA's anemic 3rd down defense.
Improved play aside, this pass defense is giving up 250 yards a game without having played the most prolific passing offenses on the schedule yet (Southern Cal, Washington State, Arizona, even Stanford is throwing the ball well). Last year's defense gave up just 230 yards per game, including 50-0 and the Arizona disaster.
The easiest and most obvious method of fixing this would be adjustments in personnel.
I would take great pride is someone in the media could ask Coach Mora and Coach Martin a question that I'll get to after making some points.
Both coaches have seemed to go out of their way to praise Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay and Randal Goforth multiple times after games this season. Whom have all played well, though I'm 80% sure that last week's 50 yard completion by Cal was on a blown zone coverage by Hilliard. He seemed to drop towards the sideline and not recognize the threat in the middle of the field. Might have been Kendricks or Hofmeister at LB but my instinct says otherwise.
Last week aside, all three have played above expectations this season and well enough to warrant starting somewhere on defense.
Those players are all safeties (though Hilliard and McKay play the shallow middle in Dime and (sometimes) Nickel and are technically LBs in those situations).
Andrew Abbott, starting safety, was All-Pac 12 Honorable Mention at corner last season (one of only two returning All-Pac-12 players). I have no issue with him at safety because he does a good job.
The questions I'd love to see asked that have not been asked once are as follows:
1.) If you have an all-conference cornerback and are solidly 4 deep at safety without that corner playing out of position, why is that guy not playing corner?
2.) Why are two guys who have combined for all of 6 pass defenses and 2 breakups (each and every one of those stats belonging to Sheldon Price) playing corner over that player?
3.) If your coaching staff is willing to experiment with a 4 star QB (Devin Fuller) at WR despite being completing passes to 11 players almost every game, then why aren't they willing to experiment with a four star CB (Marcus Rios) at CB when the pass defense is struggling?
4.) How can a cornerback be starting on your defense if he is 4th on the team in tackles despite not having a single pass defended, broken up or intercepted?
I could deal with the experience excuse on Goforth not playing corner because he has had some problems when he has been on the field. But, Andrew Abbott, Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay could easily combine their efforts to get one of, if not both, the cornerbacks that are struggling off the field.
Do I still feel like Goforth would be an improvement for sure at CB over the two seniors? Yes, but not as confidently as most are.
Do I feel the same way about Marcus Rios? Yes.
Do I feel like Andrew Abbott could easily be an All-Pac-12 defender at corner? Yes.
Do I feel like Stan McKay and Dalton Hilliard should be starting on this defense? Yes. I praise those two almost every game because they deliver and do their jobs. They are both sure tacklers in the open field. Hilliard might be the most fundamentally sound tackler on the team.
This is an issue that needs to be fixed on this defense if they expect to compete for a Pac-12 title or even for an 8-9 win season.
Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have shown what they can do against the likes of Robert Woods or Marquise Lee or Keenan Allen or Marquees Wilson at WSU. Let someone else show you better.