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UCLA Football Spring Practice: Looking at Defensive Backs

A preview of the UCLA Bruins secondary in preparation for 2014 Spring Practice, starting April 1st at Spaulding Field.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With Spring practice getting closer every day, we have been taking a closer look at the defensive side of the ball for the 2014 UCLA Bruins football team before switching over to offense later in the week. On Friday, I gave a general preview of the defensive depth chart going into this season (sans incoming freshmen who won't be on campus for the spring), on Monday AHMB previewed the stout Bruins defensive line, and Tuesday saw Patroclus look at the linebacking core that will have to replace Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. To close things out, I'll be previewing the defensive backs.

Below is the depth chart put together from Friday's post:

Cornerback Safety Safety Cornerback Third Cornerback
Fabian Moreau (JR) Randall Goforth (JR) Anthony Jefferson (RS SR) Ishmael Adams (JR) Priest Willis (SO)
Charles Dawson (SO)/Erick Zumwalt (RS JR) Tyler Foreman (RS FR) Tahaan Goodman (SO) Justin Combs (RS SO)/Librado Barocio (RS SR) Johnny Johnson (RS FR)
Mossi Johnson (FR) Ron Robinson (FR) Marcus Rios (RS SO)/Adarius Pickett (FR)

I list Willis, Johnson, Rios (and Adarius Pickett) in a separate position because that is the competition for the that will take place for a starting spot. In the modern defense, a 7-man (4-3 or 3-4) front is used less often than a 5-man defensive backfield. That's just the way things are. A team's third (and even 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, as 4* Adarius Pickett (6' 185), grey-shirt 3* Mossi Johnson (6" 180) and 3* Ron Robinson (6'2" 195) are enrolled early for Spring practice. The incoming defensive backs are 3* Denzel Fisher (6'2" 175), , and 4* Jaleel Wadood (5'11" 175). All three are talented enough to break into the rotation or on special teams as freshmen.

The Bruins defense will have the luxury of having equal parts experience and talent in the defensive backfield, as upperclassmen like Anthony Jefferson (89 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FR and 7 PDs), Randall Goforth (78 tackles, 3 INT, 3 FF, 7 PDs), Fabian Moreau (51 tackles) and Ishmael Adams (61 tackles, 4 INT and 8 PD) all have seen multiple seasons worth of action and have been contributors throughout their careers as Bruins.

I personally can't recall the last time the Bruins returned an entire starting secondary this talented. The safety spots are locked down for Jefferson and Goforth, both very talented players that have a great deal of versatility playing deep safety and walked up into the box. With Jefferson's experience at corner, it allows the Bruins to take a lot of risks in man coverage with confidence. Some feel like Fabian Moreau's starting position is in the most jeopardy, but the coaching staff and Pac-12 recognized him as an All-Conference Honorable Mention over Ishmael Adams. I would be surprised to see a scenario (barring injury) where the 4 returning starters aren't the first group on the field when the Bruins play Virginia. That is a testament to the talent of the starters because the depth in the defensive backfield is ridiculous.

The real competition is between Marcus Rios, Johnny Johnson, Priest Willis and whoever else will emerge in Spring practice and Fall camp as well. Willis played sparingly on defense in 2013, registering 7 tackles and 1 pass deflection. The former 5* recruit should probably have the first opportunity to prove himself. Marcus Rios played as a freshman in 2012, but had a scary nasal infection that kept him out of 2013. Thankfully, Rios is expected to be full-speed in 2014 and he already showed that he is capable of holding his own against Pac-12 talent. The less well-known option for the casual fan to keep an eye on is Johnny Johnson, a 4* recruit that injured his shoulder in Fall Camp after working with the starting unit for the majority of practice. He's smaller at just 5'9" and 181 pounds, but might have the best instincts of any defensive back on the roster. Johnson is who I expect to be the 3rd corner when the game against Virginia rolls around, but any of these 3 players (or either Wadood or Pickett) is more than capable of being a big-time player this season.

The defensive backfield will be a strength for UCLA in 2014 and should be fun to watch the rotation work itself out throughout Spring practice and Fall camp. Next, we'll be moving to the previews on the offensive side of the ball.

Go Bruins!