UCLA Defensive Depth Chart: Spring Football Preview

A look at the projected defensive depth chart heading into UCLA's spring football practices, which start April 1 at Spaulding Field.

As basketball season winds to an end in the coming weeks with March Madness, the Bruins football team is closing in on the start of Spring practice (schedule here). April 1st can't get here soon enough (nor can the start of Fall Camp, or Week One against Virginia, or the home opener against Memphis), but to kick things off as a buildup to Spring Practice, we will be taking a look at the offensive and defensive depth charts for the Bruins this year, followed by more in-detail positional grouping previews later this month.

I'll be giving everybody a look at the defensive depth chart today. Full disclosure, since there is not a released depth chart by the coaching staff, I am going off of a combination of last year's depth chart, previous year's performance for returning injured players and personal opinion.

First off, to hype up this group. There are quite a few returning All-Pac-12 honorees to this group:

LB Myles Jack (2nd Team, Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year), LB Ryan Hofmeister (2nd Team Specialist), LB Jayon Brown (Honorable Mention Specialist), both starting safeties Randal Goforth and Anthony Jefferson (Honorable Mention), starting ILB Eric Kendricks (Honorable Mention), starting DE/DT Ellis McCarthy (Honorable Mention), starting cornerback Fabian Moreau (Honorable Mention) and starting DE Eddie Vanderdoes (Honorable Mention)

The Bruins also lost a lot of talent, both to graduation and, for a number of them, to future careers in the NFL. Starters and major contributors on the defensive line (Cassius Marsh, Keenan Graham, Seali'i Epenesa and Brandon Willis), linebackers (Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, Isaiah Bowens and Aramide Olaniyan) and, to a lesser extent, in the defensive backfield with third cornerback (which is essentially a starting position in the Pac-12) Brandon Sermons.

With plenty of incoming talent from the 2014 recruiting class and many returning players, there is no reason to expect anything less than one of the best defensive units in the conference in the 2014 season.

Let's take a look at the depth charts.

Starting on the defensive line:

Right Defensive End Defensive Tackle Left Defensive End
Eddie Vanderdoes (SO) Kenneth Clark (SO Owamagbe Odighizuwa (RS SR)/Ellis McCarthy (JR)
Kylie Fitts (SO) Eli Ankou (RS JR) Sam Tai (RS JR)
Ian Taubler (RS SO)

(Note: Story going around that Eddie broke his foot and will not be participating in spring practices, hope he heals up quickly and fully if that is the case.)

At defensive end, there will be a competition for the starting job between the three top guys (Odighizuwa, McCarthy and Vanderdoes), but all three will play a ton this season with rotations. I expect Vanderdoes to be a near guarantee to start at LE because he looked so good at that spot last season. The RE (a more pass-rush heavy spot, even in a 3-4) will be the spot to watch for a leader to emerge. Depth at DE gets even better in the fall with 4* recruits Matt Dickerson (6'5" 280) and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (6'3" 265).

The transfer of Brandon Tuliaupupu hurts the depth at defensive tackles a little bit for the Spring, but with the versatility of Vanderdoes and McCarthy to move inside and out, along with the incoming freshman Ainuu Taua (6" 298), the Bruins should be fine at the defensive tackle spot.

Now the linebackers:

Left Outside Linebacker Inside Linebacker Inside Linebacker Right Outside Linebacker Nickel Backer
Myles Jack (SO) Isaako Savaiinaea (SO) Eric Kendricks (SR) Kenny Orjioke (JR) Taylor Lagace (SO)
Deon Hollins (SO) Zach Whitley (FR) Ryan Hofmeister (RS SR) Aaron Wallace (RS JR) Jayon Brown (SO)
Aaron Porter (RS SO) Cameron Judge (SO)

The clear cut guys are Kendricks and Jack. No debate, no dispute, they're the high profile guys and both should compete for national awards and First Team All-Pac-12 (although it'll apparently take more than leading the conference in tackles for Kendricks). Everyone's eyes will be on who has the edge to replace Jordan Zumwalt on the inside and Anthony Barr on the outside.

Aaron Wallace started three games at OLB last season and played fundamentally fine, if unspectacular, while physical freak Kenny Orjioke (who won't be 20 years old until next June) flashed multiple times in limited playing time as a pass rusher. Also, don't overlook incoming 4* freshman Dwight Williams (6'1" 212), who has gotten a lot of praise for his pass coverage skills, which is always a valuable asset on defense.

On the inside, incoming freshman Zach Whitley (6'2" 225) is listed because he is an early-enrollee and will be participating in spring practice. That's who I expect to be starting against Virginia in 6 months. He supposedly matched all of Myles Jack's workout numbers for an incoming freshman (and take into account that Whitley showed up in January, while Jack showed up in the fall without getting to practice and work out with Coach Alosi for the better part of a year). Savaiinaea and Hofmeister will both be in the race as well, and don't be shocked if former 4* Aaron Porter finally breaks through to compete for PT. That's not even mentioning incoming talent in the fall (3* Cameron Griffin 6'3" 215 and prize Louisiana 4* Kenny Young 6'2" 225) that could turn everything on it's head.

To close things out, the defensive backs:

Cornerback Safety Safety Cornerback Third Cornerback
Fabian Moreau Randall Goforth Anthony Jefferson Ishmael Adams Priest Willis
Charles Dawson/Erick Zumwalt Tyler Foreman Tahaan Goodman Justin Combs/Librado Barocio Johnny Johnson
Mossi Johnson Ron Robinson Marcus Rios

(Note: I believe that 4* DB Adarius Pickett is supposed to be enrolled at UCLA in 2 weeks, but I have no clue if he gets to participate in Spring Ball or not, so that is why he isn't listed.)

I list Willis, Johnson and Rios in a separate order because that is the competition that will take place. In the modern defense, a front-seven is used less often than a 5-man defensive backfield. That's just the way things are. A team's third (and fourth) cornerback are vital to having a successful defense. Whether that corner stays on the outside (when Sermons came in the game last year) or bumps down to the slot (something that Ishmael Adams did a great deal in the Nickel package) is irrelevant because the 3rd corner or (sometimes) safety gets a ton of playing time.

Of those three players (Willis, Johnson and Rios), along with the backup safeties (Goodman and Foreman), some combination will emerge to set up UCLA defensive backfield in 2014. Incoming players from the 2014 class in the defensive backfield will likely factor in the mix as well, but only Mossi Johnson (6" 180) and Ron Robinson (6'2" 195) are enrolled early for Spring practice. The incoming defensive backs are 3* Denzel Fisher (6'2" 175), 4* Adarius Pickett (6" 185), and 4* Jaleel Wadood (5'11" 175). All three are talented enough to break into the rotation or on special teams as freshmen.

So there is the defense going into spring practices. The offensive preview should be up later today, so until next time, Go Bruins!

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