As Achilles mentioned a week ago, UCLA released its post-spring practice football depth chart. In the first of what will be a three part series, let's look through at how UCLA's depth chart has shaped up thus far. Today, we start on the defensive side of the ball, where last year the Bruins, despite an abundance of talent, were maddeningly inconsistent, often woefully unprepared, and uninspired by a conservative base defense scheme.
Following this spring's practices, here's how it shapes up for the Bruins on the defensive side of the ball:
Let's break it all down after the jump.
Starting up front, there are some surprises coming out of spring practice. After an impressive camp, Justin Edison, who has long looked out of place, easily pushed around, and nothing better than a reserve player, has landed himself a starting job alongside Cassius Marsh. Don't be surprised if Nate Chandler, Donovan Carter, or Seali'i Epenesa find themselves getting significant time alongside Marsh as well. Of some concern is the fact that guys who played defensive end in high school (Sam Tai) or have no meaningful on-the-field experience at this level (Hale and Amajoyi). Fortunately for UCLA, highly-rated defensive tackle Kevin McReynolds will be joining fellow defensive tackle Brandon Tuliaupupu in Westwood this fall. If there's any significant injury to the interior defensive lineman, the Bruins have to hope McReynolds will be game ready quick, otherwise it'll be slim pickings.
On the ends, however, the Bruins enjoy a wealth of talent. Datone Jones, returning from injury, re-claimed his starting position. Surprisingly, Damien Holmes has edged out the competition to claim the other starting end spot, beating out super-freshman and athletic super-freak Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Don't expect Owa to spend too much time on the sidelines: he's simply too explosive and talented (although still young and raw) to not have on the field. The Bruins also return steady reserve Iuta Tepa from injury. Sadly, Keenan Graham, despite coming in with a lot of promise and high marks from the folks at Scout.com, has failed to live up to his potential. He's a solid reserve player, but thus far, he hasn't shown anything that really wows you.
Moving to the linebacker corps, Patrick Larimore and Sean Westgate retained their regular starting positions. While Larimore reminds me of former UCLA MLB Christian Taylor, Westgate is still an undersized linebacker who I wouldn't be surprised if teams ran the ball at. Losing Akeem Ayers to the NFL is going to hurt and there isn't a lot of talented depth to cover holes should they form due to injury. Isaiah Bowens is a quality reserve player, but I don't see him displacing Larimore. The same isn't true for Westgate: his backup, Eric Hendricks has been, reportedly, very impressive in practice. I wouldn't be surprised if Hendricks sees significant playing time this season and/or ends the season as a starter.
The big surprise in the linebacker corps after spring is that Glenn Love has displaced Jordan Zumwalt at the starting strong side linebacker spot. Zumwalt had a very positive freshman campaign, making four starts, and being named to rivals.com's Pac-10 All-Freshman team. Love has never been able to hold down a regular starting job and last year was unable to displaced Westgate to break into the line-up. I suspect Zumwalt will pick up his game during fall camp and re-take his starting position. Aramide Olaniyan and Ryan Hofmeister bring depth to the linebacker corps and each should see limited action this season. Lastly, the Bruins welcome three newcomers to the unit: Mike Orloff, Aaron Wallace, and Ryan Hofmeister.
Finally, we wrap things up with the easiest unit to break-down: the defensive secondary. The Bruins return three out of four starters: Tony Dye, Aaron Hester, and Sheldon Price. Obviously, losing All-American Rahim Moore is a major blow, especially as Rahim was not only a special talent, but the emotional leader of this unit (if not the entire defense and/or team). Fortunately, the Bruins are flexible enough to slide Tony Dye from strong safety to free safety, allowing new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey to get uber-talented sophomore Dietrich Riley on the field as often as possible. Riley is a special talent and will be the rock of the defense in seasons to come. And the kid can lay out the big hits: just ask Jacquizz Rodgers.
Moreover, the back-ups are a talented group. Regular nickel-back Andrew Abbott returns for another season in Westwood; also backing up Price and Hester is Anthony Jefferson, who has been drawing a lot of praise from the coaching staff. Dalton Hilliard, Stan McKay, Tevin McDonald, Brandon Sermons and Alex Mascerenas round out the group of guys likely to actually see action in a back-up role. McDonald is a solid player and will likely end up starting within a few seasons. Anthony Thompson and Kyle Lewis join up with the Bruins in the fall and are almost guaranteed to be redshirting this upcoming season.
In sum, despite losses of two All-Americans in Ayers and Moore, the UCLA defense may actually improve under Joe Tresey from last year's performance at the direction of Chuck "Base D" Bullough. Or, as Ted Miller put it (emphasis added):
The defense is going to be sneaky good.
The Bruins' defense lost two elite players to the NFL draft -- outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore -- and the unit was mediocre to bad in 2010, which provided a push out the door for coordinator Chuck Bullough. So what suggests improvement in 2011? Well, for one, the Bruins have a potential All-Pac-12 end in Datone Jones, who was expected to be a dominant presence last fall until he broke his foot. Further, a number of young defensive linemen looked like they were growing up this spring, while some older players seemed to find their rhythm. End result: It looks like UCLA will be able to throw seven or eight D-linemen at opposing offenses, which is a good start. There's also intriguing talent at both linebacker (not a ton of depth, though) and in the secondary (far more at safety, though), with those levels led by middle linebacker Patrick Larimore and safety Tony Dye. Further, new coordinator Joe Tresey runs an aggressive attacking scheme that is probably going to be easier on the athletic, young talent that isn't salty with experience. Is this unit going to transform into the conference's top defense in 2011? Probably not. But it will be good enough to keep the Bruins in a handful of games even when the offense struggles.
On that note, fire away with your thoughts, bits and pieces of news, etc.