The defense, overall, has the potential be one of the best in recent memory for UCLA, and it's led by a veteran, talented defensive line, one that very much exhibited those traits this spring. Rodney Leisle (6-3, 288, R-SR) returning to UCLA for his senior season was perhaps the best news that the new coaching staff could have gotten, and he showed why in spring, recovered from his injuries and surgery, in great shape and very focused. And while UCLA has had some solid players at the other defensive tackle position recently, those players probably didn't have the talent that Ryan Boschetti (6-4, 291, SR) has. Boschetti, this spring, showed that he's improved his strength while retaining his quickness. He's also more technically sound and less reliant on some of the poor habits he brought with him from JC ball.
Mat Ball (6-6, 275, R-SR) stepped into the starting position at the one vacant defensive end position, and UCLA now has two bookend Balls, joining his twin brother, Dave Ball (6-6, 268, R-SR). It was interesting to watch the new alignment on the line, with Mat officially being the strongside defensive end, even though most of the time the Balls remained on the same side regardless of how the offense lined up. The theory is that, without much difference between the Balls in quickness and agility, it probably is better that they stay on one side most of the time and stay comfortable.
But watching this DL in spring practice was truly a delight. Not only are they talented, but the four seniors have so much experience between the four of them. If they stay healthy by fall, they are the best and most experienced starting defensive line UCLA has fielded in quite a long time.
If there is possibly one weakness to the starting five, it would be quickness and pass rushing ability. That's where defensive end Asi Faoa (6-4, 265, R-SR) comes in. This spring, he was consistently one of the most impressive players in the drills, being physically overwhelming, and incredibly quick for his size. Faoa, though, has always flashed this kind of talent in practice, and it's time for him to step up next season and show it consistently in the games.
From there, the UCLA defensive line gets a bit skimpy, and it's understandable since it's spring, and there were a couple of players that sat out because of injury. C.J. Niusulu (6-2, 300, SO) looked very good at tackle before he tweaked his knee and sat out two weeks of practice. Thomas Patton (6-3, 263, R-FR) had a positive spring, looking like he's improved his ability to hold the line and also shed blockers. He looked better at planting himself, being a bit top heavy last fall. David Tautofi (6-2, 260, R-SR) actually had a good showing at defensive end for spring and might be able to provide some good backup minutes as another option at rush defensive end. Defensive end Kevin Harbour (6-4, 244, R-FR) sprained a knee and sat out most of spring. Then UCLA lost walkon defensive end James Jessen and Kirby Joseph, who both decided to leave the team, making the depth on the DL somewhat of a worry. It makes it quite a bit more possible that one of the true freshman coming to UCLA this fall – Kevin Brown (6-2, 285) and Junior Lemau'u (6-5, 240) -- will have a shot at getting some playing time. It would actually behoove UCLA if they did; After next year, UCLA loses six seniors from its defensive line and will need some bodies to plug in by 2004, and it would help if some of those bodies had as much playing experience as possible.
There is some real reason to be excited after watching UCLA's linebackers this spring. Again, similar to the defensive line, the potential for UCLA to have one of its best linebacking crews in recent memory was very evident in spring. Brandon Chillar (6-3, 233, SR) had a very good spring, after a great off-season where he thoroughly impressed the new coaching staff. He's a potential star at the strongside backer position. Then, you have the freshman first-team All-American, Spencer Havner ((6-4, 229, R-SO), on the weakside. Havner started out a little slow, but then looked very impressive in the last couple of weeks of practice. His combination of size and speed at the weakside position again showed why he's so tough there – with the quickness to rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline but with the height that makes it difficult for quarterbacks to throw over him in pass coverage.
Then after the known star quality of Chillar and Havner, you had a blossoming star emerge at middle linebacker in Justin London (6-1, 235, SO). London had a great spring, given that he had off-season surgery and the coaches weren't expecting him to be 100%. He started out behind Dennis Link (6-2, 215, R-SR) at the position, but was just too good to keep down. By the last week of practice he was impacting just about every play in the scrimmages, flashing through the offensive line and running down ball carriers. It's thought that London is still learning the position and has a way to go, but with the summer, the program is expecting him to come back in fall and be in command of the middle linebacker position.
Again, like the defensive line, the projected starting linebackers from spring are possibly among the most talented UCLA has had in years.
What was one of the most encouraging aspects of spring were how some of the younger, backup linebackers fared in practice. Wesley Walker (6-2, 222, SO) got rave reviews from coaches and players alike at the backup weakside. Even though he's listed on the depth chart at the strongside and played a bit there in spring, Walker mostly lined up at the weakside, and looked similar to Havner in his size and quickness. Xavier Burgess (6-2, 243, R-FR) was also a great treat this spring, looking very good at the strongside position, looking lean, running very well, and showing good instincts to the ball. Tim Warfield (6-2, 222, R-JR) also moved around a bit position-wise, playing both strongside and middle linebacker at times. Patrick Pierre-Louis (6-0, 216, R-JR) was recovering from a shoulder injury last season and apparently re-injured it this spring. His status is uncertain at this time, which led to Walker moving to weakside. If Pierre-Louis can return by fall, and play the way he did in practice last fall, it would give UCLA some needed depth, and a different type of option at the weakside. Link had a pretty solid spring and it's thought that he'll be able to provide solid backup minutes at middle linebacker next season.
The hits just keep on coming. After you rave about the talent at defensive line and linebacker, you have to keep raving when you review the defensive backs and how they did this spring.
This spring, when it came to the defensive backs, it was a matter of some young talent getting older, more experienced, bigger physically and more confident.
Probably the most emerging star, who started to emerge last season, is free safety Ben Emanuel (6-3, 203, R-JR). It's amazing to think how different and how far Emanuel has come since he first came to UCLA and some questioned whether his light would ever turn on. Well, it's a lighthouse now. Emanuel had a great spring, looking so big, quick and smart. He looked better at free safety this spring than any free safety in the last five years. And there's a sense that he still is just at the beginning of his potential, still learning how to play and understanding that he has the potential to dominate.
And if you're talking about how someone looked almost scarily bigger and better in spring, the award probably goes to Jarrad Page (6-1, 200, SO) at strong safety. In spring, it was pretty apparent that Page hadn't finished growing last season, looking bigger and more athletic this spring. He and Emanuel combined are so long and athletic that they seemed to gobble up real estate in the secondary. Page also has to be right there if you're handing out an award for some frightening potential, with a sense that he really is just at the beginning of his development.
Holding down one corneback spot in a new role as a veteran is Matt Ware (6-3, 201, JR), who had probably his best month of practice this spring than he's ever had since he's been at UCLA. Ware looked really clued in to the new scheme and less hesitant than just about any DB out there. He also looked more physical and stronger. He made more plays this spring than any other cornerback and looked like he now has a firm grasp on the position.
The other starting cornerback position left vacant by the loss of Ricky Manning was a big issue this spring – the question of who would be the one to fill it. Matt Clark (5-9, 171, JR) started out spring practice at the top of the depth chart at the position, and held on to it by the end. Clark was thought to generally have a good spring, looking similar to the rest of the defensive backs in the way he appeared more comfortable and instinctual than he had before. But what was really encouraging, in much the same way that the strong play from the young linebackers were this spring, was the competition among the young cornerbacks. Marcus Cassel (6-0, 174, SO) and Jebiaus Brown (6-0, 180, R-FR) were both considered by the program to have very good springs. Cassel looked more aggressive and physical than he had before. And then perhaps the most unexpectedly good performance came from Keith Short (5-10, 178, SR), who had a very good spring, consistently making plays just about every day in practice. His performance will make it hard to keep him out of the two-deep and signaled to the coaches that Short can play corner at this level. If that's not enough, Joe Garcia (6-0, 185, R-FR), even though on the depth chart he was moved to strong safety, played most of the spring at corner, and had some very strong moments.
The backups at safety were also pretty impressive. The biggest development there was the move of Glenn Ohaeri (5-9, 200, SO) to strong safety and his use as the #1 nickel back when the defense went to the nickel, which was quite frequently this spring. Ohaeri, even though he's just 5-9, packs a punch with his 200 pounds, and he is very quick and aggressive. When he's in with the nickel package, Brandon Chillar comes out and UCLA has some exceptional athleticism in their defensive backfield. Eric McNeal (6-2, 211, R-FR), who didn't participate much last fall due to injury, came to spring practice bulked up and focused and played very well. Kevin Brant (6-0, 190, R-SR) had a solid spring backing up at free safety.
Traditionally spring practice has been a time when the roster is a bit thin, particularly at defensive back in recent years. But the talent and depth in the defensive backfield was impressive for a fall, much less a spring practice. For a spring, to have at least five cornerbacks that looked strong is really exceptional.
The defense was very impressive. There is a little worry about depth on the defensive line, especially as a result of the injuries to Niusulu and Harbour. But with London stepping up at middle linebacker, and Walker and Burgess having good springs as backup linebackers, and then the defensive backfield looking extremely talented and deep with some of the younger cornerbacks stepping up, so many of the small worries about the defense were answered. Again, the depth of the defensive talent this spring was highly unusual, and makes it pretty exciting to think that, with the players back from injury – and then plugging in some of the exceptional incoming freshmen -- how loaded this defense could potentially be next year.
Replacing a kicker, punter and long snapper could prove to be a big issue next season. And in spring practice there was a little evidence that it could be just that. Kicker Justin Medlock (6-0, 193, R-FR) had a bit of a peculiar spring. In the drills, he was almost perfect. In the scrimmages, he wasn't close to perfect, missing more gimme attempts than making them. Chris Kluwe (6-5, 212, R-JR) generally had a solid spring. He's getting his punts off much quicker, with shorter mechanics, and he improved his consistency. There is a potentially large issue at longsnapper. A couple of walkons took the bulk of the reps at longsnapper in spring, Adam Craven (6-1, 208, R-JR) and Riley Jondle (6-3, 195, R-FR), but they were fairly inconsistent in their snaps in the drills. David Tautofi and others tried their hand at it. Joe Tomasello (6-2, 210, JR), who enrolled in UCLA in winter from Fresno City College on a scholarship to be a longsnapper, sat out spring with a shoulder injury. He's expected to be back for fall, and the hope is that he can nail down the longsnapping duties.
Generally the new coaching staff was a bit surprised by just how much talent they discovered they had on the roster. Perhaps the primary concern remains the offensive line, even moreso than the efficiency at the quarterback position, mostly because the lack of experience at quarterback is a known commodity, and the offensive line has some experience and would be disappointing if they didn't step up. Plus, it's integral to the performance of the quarterback that the offensive line perform well. This spring, when the young quarterbacks had time to operate, they generally did very well executing the game plan. With the defense so solid, and really not slowed as much by learning the new systems as much as the offense, spring practice emphasized that the offense will probably determine just how successful this team is next season. And again, spring emphasized that the two biggest areas of concerns are production out of the quarterback position and the offensive line performance.
But overall the amount of talent and depth the team exhibited – for a spring practice where traditionally teams show some pronounced pockets of thinness – was impressive. Generally a young team, if it continues along its learning curve and improves, and continues to get comfortable in its new systems by fall, it's exciting to think just how good this team could be.
And generally the most profound impression of the spring was the different energy and approach of the new coaching staff. Not only was their optimism in the air with the new staff, there was a perceivable difference in intensity, work ethic and precision. There has definitely been a pall lifted from the program, and it's been replaced with a new outlook and knowledge that everything is on track, being done correctly, foundations are being built, and a family-type atmosphere has returned to the program.