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UCLA Football: 2012 Spring Preview of Bruin Defensive Backs

UCLA's defensive back unit is going to be an interesting case study, in terms of getting a sense of the identity of the entire team under a new head coach. Remember Coach Jim L. Mora not only made his name in the NFL as defensive coordinator, he got his start as a secondary coach. So Demetrice Martin may be in charge of this crew as the "passing game coordinator/defensive backs" coach, but one would think Mora is going to keep a close eye on the development of this unit.

Martin has proven his worth on the recruiting trail as he came in with the hype of being one of the best recruiters in the conference. He certainly lived up to it by helping Mora close strong with a solid collection of recruits in a very short period of time. The question around Martin is going to be around his teaching abilities, as the performance of the Washington pass defense this past season raises some concerns. Washington had one of the worst passing defenses in entire college football, as the Huskies finished ranked 116th in the country, giving up a whopping 284.6 yards per game.

Our secondary on paper had a decent showing this past season. The Bruin pass defense finished ranked third in the conference in 2011 giving up 226.57 yards per game. The problem for us was that the numbers looked respectable on paper, because our opponents didn't really need to air it out against Joe Tresey's non-existent rush defense (ranked 11th in the conference, 96th in the country) most of last season.

There were some great individual efforts at times from this unit from guys like Tevin McDonald (perhaps one of the best defensive freshmen in UCLA uniform in years) and Andrew Abbott. But overall the secondary, just like rest of the program had a disappointing season. All of us had a sick feeling right after the Houston game. We knew it was going to be long season early on as Joe Tresey had our guys line up 10 yards of LOS, and Case Keenum started slicing and dicing our defensive backfield. Anyway, I don't really want to go over what took place rest of the season. Oy.

From what we have seen so far Martin brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the table. He can fire up a crowd. The ability to infuse a crowd with energy and enthusiasm certainly helps at the college level. But then we just have to think back to the days of "passion bucket" when we had plenty of enthusiasm and energy in early years of Neuheisel. It reminds us how we are going to need coaches, who will actually get our student athletes well prepped in Xs and Os and get drilled in the fundamentals of the game.

We will keep our fingers crossed that Martin will be the guy, who with help of Mora and Lou Spanos will mold together an unit that will be aggressive, fundamentally sound, and ferocious in the way they swarm the point of attack. Let's get to the depth chart after the jump.

I will pick up where Bellerophon left off in his early 2012 defensive depth chart preview of the program. We already have had some early movement in our roster. Here are the ones we know that impacts the defensive backfield:

  • Dalton Hilliard, perhaps in the biggest surprise move of the season has moved from Safety to Running Back;
  • Jared Koster has moved from linebacker to defensive back (safety as he is listed as DS) in the updated roster;
  • Andrew Abbott has moved to safety (DS) from CB

With those changes here is how the pre-spring depth chart shapes up:

Aaron Hester (6-1, 205, RS Sr.) Stan McKay (6-1, 205, RS Jr.) Tevin McDonald (6-0, 195, RS So.) Sheldon Price (6-2, 185, Sr.)
Brandon Sermons (6-0, 185, RS Jr.) Anthony Tompson (6-1, 208, RS Fr.) Andrew Abbott (5-11, 200 RS Sr.) Marcus Rios (5-11, 170, Fr.)
Librado Barocio (5-9, 175, RS So.) Jared Koster (6-1,208, RS So.) Alex Mascarenas (5-10, 188, RS Jr.)

Dylan Price (5-10, 206 RS Sp.)

I am going to continue to leave Dietrich Riley out of this depth chart. It is unclear right now whether he is going to be even available for spring practice. As I have mentioned before, I rather have Riley red-shirt this upcoming season, focus on getting completely healthy, and then make a return to the program. I love the passion and energy this guy brings to UCLA. He seems to have all the requisite tools to emerge as a great safety. However, football will be there for a while. UCLA should make sure he is fully healthy, before making a return the program.

So with Dietrich Riley out and Dalton Hilliard's move to offense, our depth chart looks, uhm, a little thin. We are going to have Marcus Rios, our 4 star recruit from Elk Grove, who was one of the early commits for Mora in camp as he has enrolled early. He will most likely get good looks at CB and get some time in nickel situations. For now though I am slotting him behind Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson.

Speaking of those two guys - Sermon and Jefferson - this spring could be huge for them in terms of making a move. Both of them came to UCLA as highly recruited athletes, but have had their career marred early with injuries. Not sure if Jefferson is 100 percent yet, but if he is healthy, he could emerge as a great asset in this unit. Sermons at 6-0, 185 can provide good matchups for Martin against receivers with height.

In terms of starters, I am hoping we are going to have great and mature senior seasons from both Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. Price came a long way from his first two years, when he looked lost as a lanky and skinny CB. His coverage got much tighter. On the other side, I think Hester also improved but he is still nowhere near the dominant CB, we all hoped he would become when he arrived at UCLA. I think both of these guys can have great seasons, if the new staff gets them in solid physical shape and get them fundamentally drilled (funny, how the need for fundamentals keep popping up in this post). They already showed signs of improvements in defending against passes (I am being charitable here as the cynical side of me can argue they didn't have a lot of pass to defend given our atrocious run defense). The key for these guys will be emerge as defensive backs who can play physical bump and runs, and also when necessary swarm the ball carrier in run situations.

No question the safety spot is going to hurt with the absence of Riley and Hilliard. Hillard is checking out the offensive side of the ball because that's what he wants to do. He may come back on the defensive side but at least for now Martin has to assume he will need to prepare an unit without him. Tevin McDonald will have to take leadership role very early in this team. Then again, that is why perhaps Andrew Abbot was moved to the safety spot. He can certainly provide leadership as one of the most popular and dedicated member of this team. He is now listed at 5-11, 200 on the official depth chart, which is really interesting because he was listed at 5-9, 178 before the season started in 2011. That's a gain of 22 lbs! He could see some time at the FS spot, as he showed pretty good ability to read the QBs and get some timely interceptions last season.

I am honestly not sure what to expect from Stan McKay. His stats - 6'1, 205 - look great on paper. We have heard good feedback about him from practices as someone who can bring some pop from the free safety position. But can he translate that into success on Saturdays? Jared Koster at 6-1, 208 - if he can stay healthy - could be a good option at strong safety.

Alex Mascaranas can be a serviceable option in the backfield. He is a pretty fearless guy and plays with a lot of heart, but let's hope Bruins don't have to use him much this coming season. This will be Anthony Thompson's second year in the program. Not sure what to expect from him either but we will track the practice reports closely to see if there are any specific feedback on him.

Of course not included in the depth chart above are incoming freshmen Ishmael Adams and Taylor, who as Bellerophon mentioned could be prime candidates for early PT this upcoming season. Other incoming recruits include Paul Perkins and Justin Combs, who will most likely redshirt in their first season.

So that's the state of Bruin secondary as of right now. To sum it up the depth chart is kind of thin due to attrition issues at this moment. However, the current mix of athletes in this bunch are intriguing as we have some guys returning from injuries. It will be fun to read the practice reports and notes as usual. I have a feeling the reviews will be positive as they tend to be with a new coaching regime. I am anxious to find out how it all translates on the field on Saturdays this Fall. But I guess that's part of fun as it's all part of the journey of getting there. Unfortunately for us, it's been an excruciating journey for almost 10 years. Hopefully this time the story will have a different ending.