Getting Ready for Spring and Beyond: UCLA's 2013 and 2014 Depth and Recruiting Needs - Part I: Special Teams

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Spring football is fast approaching, with Jim Mora and our Bruins returning to Spaulding Field on April 2. As we get ready for what we hope will be an exciting (and successful) second year of the Jim Mora era in Westwood, Bruins Nation takes a look at how our 2013 and 2014 depth chart projects to look like, all to assess where our coaching staff will need to focus their recruiting efforts. The first part of our three part series will begin with our special teams unit.

Signing Day is officially long gone and out of sight in our rear view mirror, and Mora and Company are already well into the recruiting battle for the Class of 2014, with the Bruins in the running for elite OLB recruit Rashaan Evans out of Alabama (with our lead recruiter being the newest addition to the staff, QB coach Taylor Mazzone). Of course, as we find out every year, while our depth chart for 2013 has some definite known starters (for example, barring injury, Brett Hundley will be UCLA's starting QB, Anthony Barr will be starting at OLB, and Eric Kendricks will be starting at ILB). But, in many positions, the Bruins' starter is still up-in-the-air (with the biggest holes being the giant ones left by Johnathan Franklin and Joe Fauria), so any depth chart projection for both this upcoming fall and the fall of 2014 will be fairly speculative.

But, as we know from the failed Karl Dorrell regime, to succeed in Westwood, Jim Mora will need to intelligently recruit and make sure that the Bruins are stocked with talent across the board. The only way to do that is this speculative effort: projecting how the depth chart will look and then addressing those needs. As we found out last season, our projected depth charts for Fall 2013 before spring camp in 2012 were close (offense and defense), but a bit off. Although, to trumpet my own projection, check out this gem:

Turning to our QB battle, I continue to see Hundley as the projected starter. He's simply too good and with quality coaching (Mazzone and Tui), I think the kid will be alright. I expect Devin Fuller to see the field as a true freshman in a variety of roles (wildcat-type plays, as a WR, etc.) so when 2013 comes around, I believe he will enter the season as a true sophomore, while prototypical Mazzone style QB T.J. Millweard will come in after redshirting his first year on campus.

At least I got something right. I also didn't include Eddie Printz in the projection since I suspected he wouldn't come to Westwood. I wonder if I get bonus points for having Malcolm Jones in the projection since he has returned to the program as a walk-on. If you want your personal fortune read, I charge $50. Please send cash or make your check out to Happy Dude (if you don't get the reference, you didn't watch enough television in the 1990s).

So with all of that said, let's take a look at the way-too-early projection of how the Bruins will look this upcoming fall, as well as the following season (Fall of 2014), so that we can gauge Mora's recruiting efforts over the next year (as we slowly march along toward National Signing Day, 2014). We'll get started in this first part of our three-part preview with the special teams unit, one in some major flux with the loss of veteran (and NFL-talented) punter Jeff Locke:

2013 UCLA Special Teams Projected Depth Chart

K
P
LS
Returners
Ka'imi Fairbairn (SO)
Sean Covington (FR)
Christopher Longo (RS FR)
Shaquelle Evans (RS SR)
Justin Moreno (JR)
Peter Hajimihalis (RS FR) Devin Fuller (SO)
Mitch Johnson (FR)
Jay Weneta (RS FR)
Damien Thigpen (RS SR)


Kenneth Walker (SO)


Steven Manfro (RS SO)

While the offense and defense have definite, for-sure (barring injury) starters returning, special teams is completely up-in-the-air, with formerly maligned kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn being the only returning projected starter. After struggling at the beginning of the year, Fairbairn found a rhythm down the stretch. Despite that, Mora still came up woefully short in trusting the true freshman to kick a 40+ yard FG with time expiring on a rainy night in Palo Alto with the conference title on the line. Fairbairn was highly regarded coming into UCLA, so improvement should be on the horizon for the Flyin' Hawaiian. The big loss will be the big leg of punter Jeff Locke, who was instrumental in forcing UCLA's opponents to starting with terrible field possession. Taking his place, so far, is true freshman Sean Covington, a highly-ranked punting prospect from Florida. Without Locke to rely on, the pressure will be on the offense even more to sustain drives and not put the defense in bad positions. At long snapper, the Bruins lost Kevin McDermott to graduation, leaving the Bruins with only three redshirt freshman on the roster as listed long snappers. Whether Ulbrich and Mora intend to convert another guy on the roster to long snapping duties remains to be seen, but losing #1-nationally-ranked long-snapper recruit Cole Mazza from Bakersfield to Alabama puts a bit of hurt to UCLA on this side of the ball. Finally, the return game is a question mark: will Shaq Evans see the majority of punt return duty? Will Devin Fuller continue the transition away from QB and take on a bigger role as the Bruins' slot receiver and return man? Damien Thigpen returns from injury and showed flashes of break-out ability in the return game. Likewise, sophomore Kenneth Walker got some time returning the ball for the Bruins, and of course, much-maligned former return man (and practice MVP) Steven Manfro may make a push to get his former job back.

Big question marks remain for this unit, and it'll be interesting to see how Mora addresses those holes this upcoming season. For now, let's turn to the following season and see how our special teams unit shapes up in 2014:

2014 UCLA Special Teams Projected Depth Chart

K
P
LS
Returners
Ka'imi Fairbairn (JR)
Sean Covington (SO)
Christopher Longo (RS SO)
Devin Fuller (JR)
Justin Moreno (SR)
Peter Hajimihalis (RS SO) Kenneth Walker (JR)
Mitch Johnson (SO)
Jay Weneta (RS SO)
Steven Manfro (RS JR)


Ahmaad Harris (RS SO)


Paul Perkins (RS SO)

Once Mora is able to answer those questions and holes in 2013, the Bruins should have stability in the special teams unit going into the 2014 season. Fairbairn will be back for his junior season (barring injury or a complete meltdown during the 2013 season) and likewise Covington will have a year of experience under his belt. Long-snapper will still be a position of need, unless one of the current crop of three unheralded redshirt freshman snappers can step up and claim the job as theirs in 2013. The return game will lose Shaq Evans and Thigpen as return candidates, but Fuller and Walker will still be int he program. Likewise, you would think that diminutive (but reportedly shifty) receiver Ahmaad Harris would get a look in the return game, while Paul Perkins is unlikely but a possibility.

All-in-all, Mora's special teams depth looks solid going into this season and next, with the notable exception of our long-snapper. If Covington pans out as expected, and if Fairbairn continues his upward growth, UCLA will be fine on special teams. So, that's your very preliminary look at how our special teams will look over the next two seasons. Feel free to pick it apart, put up your own projections, and tell us how UCLA will need to recruit in the Class of 2014 to ensure that the wheels don't fall off the wagon on the special teams front.

Stay tuned for the second part of BN's three-part series on our way-too-early pre-spring-practice football depth chart, which will take a look at how Mora's defensive crew shapes up to look over the next two seasons.

Fire away in the thread.

GO BRUINS

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