Fall Camp Preview: Secondary

Randall Goforth

UCLA has plenty of talent among the starting group, but the formation changes this spring could make developing depth a big key for this August...

UCLA’s defensive backs have gone from one of the major eyesores of the defense two years ago to one of the most consistent strengths of the team, and much of the credit has to go to the coaching and recruiting of Demetrice Martin. Each year, Martin has brought in a talented group of corners and safeties, and this year is no different.

The Bruins return every starter from last year, but also add Jaleel Wadood, Denzel Fisher, Adarius Pickett, and Ron Robinson to the mix. The trick will be determining what depth there is in between the freshmen and the starters. We got a long look at Tahaan Goodman this spring, and we’d feel comfortable including him in the rotation, but among Priest Willis, Tyler Foreman, and Marcus Rios, it’s almost critical that one or two emerge as players with the potential to start in the next month.

UCLA spent most of the spring running a very effective nickel defense that relied on five defensive backs. If you project the four starters from last year plus Goodman as the mainstays in that starting group, the Bruins will still need at least three defensive backs to fill out the rotation, particularly with the amount of plays teams run in the Pac-12.

This August should be fun, and interesting, as we try to figure out who those three players could be.

Injury/Personnel Updates

*** Johnny Johnson — The shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the season last year cropped up again this spring, and he’s once again out for the year. We’ve heard the injury is a potentially chronic one, and could actually force him to move on from football at some point. It’s a sad story, particularly given how effective Johnson looked in limited action last year in San Bernardino.

*** Marcus Rios — Rios is still making his way back from the fungal infection that sidelined him all of last year. He participated in spring practice, and we’ve heard he has continued to make progress, but he still has a long way to go to return to his freshman year level. It’ll be interesting to see how far he’s progressed.

Ishmael Adams & Anthony Jefferson.
Incoming Freshmen

Jaleel Wadood
Denzel Fisher
Adarius Pickett
Ron Robinson

We were able to evaluate Pickett and Robinson pretty thoroughly through spring practice, and, while they didn’t look like immediate impact players, both showed they belonged on the field. Pickett struggled a bit lined up against faster receivers, but much of that seemed to stem from inexperience. We could see Pickett being thrust into action out of necessity at some point, but his ultimate future could be at a different position, potentially on the offensive side of the ball.

Robinson looks like he could eventually fill out to be a linebacker. He moved well during coverage, but he didn’t quite show the quickness to stick with slot receivers. He’s a big, tall safety right now, and those types of safeties are not typical in the Pac-12 anymore.

Fisher, physically, has plenty of upside, at 6’2 but fairly skinny. We liked what we saw from him during camp and 7-on-7 play over the last year. How quickly he can develop this fall could go a long way toward solving some of the depth concerns.

Wadood is probably the easiest guy to project as a contributor, likely as a nickelback. He’s another one, like Pickett, who has some versatility and could project on the offensive side of the ball, but with the depth issues in the secondary, we’d have to imagine he’s a full-time defensive back in his first year.

Projected Starters

We projected three linebackers and three defensive linemen, so, unless UCLA is playing a new sport, we have to project five defensive backs here as the starters. Again, we’ll provide the caveat that UCLA runs so many different formations that it won’t necessarily be the case that they play five defensive backs at all times.

That said, the staring group is a very good one, and projects as one that should be in the top third of the Pac-12 in terms of quality. The headliner, who made great strides from December to April of this year, is Fabian Moreau. The cornerback drew high praise from Jim Mora all spring, with Mora at one point saying he thinks Moreau is an eventual first round pick in the NFL Draft. It’s easy to see why — despite playing the position for a little under two years, Moreau has shown elite natural instincts and athletic ability for a cornerback. His recovery speed is his best quality; when he was beaten this spring, sometimes by five yards, his quick hips and explosion put him back in the play quickly.

On the other side, Ishmael Adams is the tenacious pitbull of the defense, showing this spring the ability to frustrate and annoy receivers on his own team. He’ll likely drop down to the nickel position when UCLA goes with five defensive backs, as he did last year.

The safeties, Randall Goforth and Anthony Jefferson, were steady hands last year and there’s no reason to expect different this year. Jefferson, in particular, has had a nice resurgence after sitting out most of his first three years in the program with a variety of ailments, including a herniated disc in his back that almost forced him to retire from football. He’s still learning to play safety, and still getting stronger after sitting out those three years, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect him to take a leap this year. Both Goforth and Jefferson can play corner in a pinch as well, as they showed this spring.

Priest Willis.
We’re projecting the final starter as Tahaan Goodman, who had a good spring and looked like he was finally feeling comfortable in the defense. Goodman has the size and athletic ability to be a very good safety in this defense, and we’d imagine that an offseason of strength training and maturing has only improved his ability.

Depth

As we said up top, the issue isn’t the starters, it’s the depth. Behind the starters, and ahead of the freshmen, there are only three really healthy scholarship players in Foreman, Willis, and Justin Combs. Foreman redshirted last year, while Willis received spurts of playing time.

From what we’ve seen of Foreman, we’re a little skeptical that he’ll be able to make a big impact at safety this season. He is physical, which is a plus quality of his, but when he’s asked to cover in space, he has some real difficulties. We’ve heard some rumblings that he might even switch to linebacker.

We’re a little more optimistic about Willis, but he also had his issues covering in space, struggling to turn his hips to run with receivers. On short fields this spring, particularly in the red zone, he was better, showing some better awareness while also using his physicality to check receivers at the line of scrimmage. He was an improved player in the spring, so the hope is that he has continued to progress this summer and will arrive in San Bernardino as a potential contributor.

As we’ve written a couple of times, Combs is a good player for the Scout Team, since he always plays with good effort and has enough ability to keep receivers honest, but doesn’t project as a contributor in the defense.

Actually, Charles Dawson, the walk-on, might be the next best option for UCLA, depending on where Rios is in his progress. Dawson showed some tenacity and athletic ability this spring, and we wouldn’t be shocked if that earned him some mop-up playing time at some point.


FALL PRACTICE UNIT PREVIEWS

Jul 23, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers - UCLA could shift its emphasis to inside linebackers this season...
Jul 22, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: D-Line Premium Story - The group should be one of UCLA's most talented units this fall...


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