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Cubs In The (Defensive) Backfield

If you think Walker is going to have his hands’ full with answering questions on his front-7, wait till you take a look at our defensive backfield. Last year we were all so excited about our defensive backfield that we envisioned the return of Safety U. That unit performed admirably finishing 4th in the conference in pass defense (234Yds/G) and pass defense efficiency (115.0) [See 2007-08 Pac-10 Team stats]. However, this unit faces a major overhaul this season.

Gone are the dynamic safety combination of Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes. Also not returning is Trey Brown, the senior LC who was not only one of the emotional leaders of this defense, but also the team leader in interception. And when you consider the departure of Rodney Van (who was penciled in as the starter in the depth chart going into last year’s Fall Camp), DeWayne Walker is basically looking at the task of replacing his entire starting defensive backfield.

So with that note here is how the depth chart looked following spring ball:

22 Michael Norris (5-9, 177, Sr**) 25 Bret Lockett (6-2, 204, Sr.) 27 Aaron Ware (6-0, 193, Jr**) 1 Alterraun Verner (5-11, 176, Jr.)(11)
7 Courtney Viney (5-8, 153, Fr.**)
35 Matt Culver (6-2, 197, Sr.**)^ 20 Glenn Love (6-4, 207, Fr.**) 30 Chris Meadows (5-11, 175, Sr.**)^

31 Garret Rubio (5-9, 186, So.**)^
32 Michael Ciaccio (6-0, 173, So.**)^

** denotes red-shirt
^ denotes walk-on
() indicates number of games started in 06

Right away everyone can spot the inexperience in this chart. pegged this unit as the "biggest problem" in UCLA’s defense:

BIGGEST PROBLEM: Junior cornerback Alterraun Verner (four interceptions last season) is the only returning starter in the secondary. Two seniors and a junior will enter fall camp as the other starters – Lockett at strong safety, senior Michael Norris at corner and junior Aaron Ware at free safety. However, a talented group of redshirt and true freshmen are lurking. Redshirts Glenn Love and Courtney Viney are in the hunt at free safety and cornerback, respectively. The Bruins also signed four four-star defensive backs.

We will get to those freshman Cubs later. Let’s start with the returning DBs from last season who themselves are rather Cub like in terms of experience.

Unfortunately going into the first game, the most experience guy from this unit will be missing. Everyone here should know about Brett Lockett not being available for the first game of the season. It’s unfortunate for Lockett because it was imperative for him to be in the mix from get go so that he could provide on field leadership from many of the young players who are going to be fighting to get in the mix right away in this unit. According to Walker last spring Lockett had done well "to solidify his spot as Chris Horton's successor" and that it was Ware who would have to compete to "win the free safety position."

I wonder if Lockett’s absence will allow Love to start for the season opener. From observations via the LAT this past spring:

Love is beginning to make an impression on defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker despite suffering a broken left thumb early in spring practice. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Love had a good effort in last Friday's scrimmage, where he intercepted a pass and had a few solid hits.

"He has shown me something," Walker said. "I've been pretty critical with him and Viney, because it is the first time they have really played. I think Glenn has shown us some pop."

Incoming freshmen Anthony Dye, Aaron Hester, Rahim Moore and E.J. Woods are all expected to get a look in the secondary come August. Jonathan Franklin may be included in that group as well, provided he is not playing tailback.

"I know the guys coming in and it's going to be competitive," Love said. "But that helps me. It makes me want to play harder and pushes me. It will help me a lot, actually."

I will talk about the freshmen a little more below but let’s stick with who we have returning from last year.

ATV is the unquestioned star of this group. He has the ability to light up the Rose Bowl:


Photo Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

That was after his game winning pick 6 against the Bears last year. If you wanted another look there is this view from the stands ...

or this from the year before:

ATV is the unquestioned spark plug of this unit and he will be anchoring the left side hopefully for two more years. Ted Miller ranked him as the 3rd best CB in the conference:

Alterraun Verner, Jr., UCLA: Finished fourth on the Bruins with 75 tackles, he also had 15 pass breakups and four interceptions, returning one for a TD. A good student, he earned first-team Pac-10 All-Academic honors.

What about the right side though?

Michael Norris has some experience as a senior. But he could be pushed hard to hang on to that spot. Courtney Viney doesn’t have a lot of size but according to practice observers (if you are the type who gives weight to notes from practice observers from 7-on-7 drills) from last year he is a "cling on type DB" who can hold his own. He was also getting lot of "verbal praise" from the current coaches this past spring. So it should be interesting to see if he can challenge Norris for that starting spot.

Well here is where the much heralded recruiting class from last year can step in and make an instant impact.

The kids who might be giving Norris and Viney a run for time in the CB rotation are Rahim Moore, Aaron Hester and Anthony Dye. Although Moore was a safety at Dorsey High, he has the speed to play corner. In addition at 6-1 he has the size advantage over both Norris and Viney, in terms of presenting better physical matchups against NFL prototype, physical receivers. Similar to Rahim, Aaron Hester at least has the size at 6-1, 188 to play this level as a true freshman. From his bio:

Defensively, Hester is strong in run support and plays the pass very well. He shows good hips and can turn with the receiver. Hester anticipates well, shows a good burst and plays the ball well in the air. Overall, Hester is a physical corner that supports the run and shows excellent cover skills.

According to Dohn both Moore and Hester have been performing well during off-season 7-on-7 drills.  But the question remains whether impressive performance in these off season workouts will translate into instant impact on Saturdays?

With Lockett’s absence in the first game, will it open up an opportunity for EJ Woods? Instead of yours truly describing the athleticism of 6-1/2, 192 safety/RB from Crespi, I will let these highlights tell the story:

In other words he can come in and compete for a spot right away. I am sure it will take a while for him to get well versed in Walker’s schemes, but given Lockett’s suspension, there might be no choice but throw him to the wolves (aka an SEC offense) right away.

In addition to EJ, Aaron and Rahim another kid who is going to be in the mix is Anthony Dye, a four star CB from Corona, CA. Like his peers – Moore and Hester – Dye reportedly has "good speed" and described as "big hitter" who can provide "tough" run support. Walker raved about him as "IQ guy" who is "a quick learner." According to Walker he could compete for the playing time "at free safety."

I guess we will find out the answers starting next week. I am excited to see these kids get in the mix right away. However, I think as a reasonable fan we should hold back the expectations a bit taking into the fact that it will these kids a while to get up to speed with the college game. The key here will be note on how these Cubs develop from game to game. It will be interesting to see whether they can cut down on their freshman mistakes towards the end of the season. No doubt they are going to make some during first part of the season against some very tough competition. But for them to play their part in the reestablishing a strong, winning foundation for the Bruin football program, it will be imperative for them to not let up, and come back stronger with encourage from their peers, coaches, and rest of us as we go through the first season of Rick Neuehisel.