Heading into fall practice, the prospects on the defensive side of the ball perhaps look the best they have in years.
The Bruins only replace four starters, and have some potential star talent that will be stepping into those three positions to replace those starters. But not only is the defense talented, it's deep, particularly at defensive line and in the defensive backfield.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges will be the new system instituted under new defensive coordinator Larry Kerr. Not that Kerr's scheme is difficult to understand, but there is always a learning curve when any new system is implemented. In spring practice, however, the veterans said they had no problem picking up on Kerr's system and, by the end of spring, were operating on instinct and not thinking too much.
As much of a worry as a new system
is, it's also exciting for Bruin fans to think of the possibilities. Kerr has been considered one of the best
defensive coordinators in the west for a while. It's always been thought that
Kerr did so much at
Also exciting is that, every year, there are players that step up during fall practice and show that they deserve playing time. Here's a check list of what to watch for heading into fall camp at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday.
UCLA's d-line is senior laden, to say the least. The squad returns six seniors, which makes you shiver when you think of how potentially thin the line will be in the next couple of years. But for now, for this year, it provides the team with some great, seasoned talent.
DE – Mat Ball (SR, 6-6, 285)
DT – Rod Leisle (SR, 6-3, 294)
DT – Ryan Boschetti (SR, 6-4, 295)
DE – Dave Ball (SR, 6-6, 275)
Dave Ball had a very good junior year, where he led the team in sacks with 11, and was named to the all Pac-10 second team. It's believed that Larry Kerr's scheme will boost Ball's effectiveness, allowing him as the rush end to line up over the weak side offensive tackle. Rodney Leisle missed much of the 2002 season with a broken foot, which, now looking at it from today's perspective, can only be thought of as a good thing for UCLA football. Missing the season motivated Leisle to return for his senior year and not enter into the NFL draft. While he's been very good in the past, healthy now, it's Leisle's chance to step up into the realm of star. Boschetti was a back-up at defensive tackle last season, but looked just as good as the players he supported. In Kerr's system he's considered the nose tackle. He had a very good spring, where he impressed the coaches with his quickness. Mat Ball steps up into the starting strongside defensive end spot, and he's truly the perfect candidate for the job in Kerr's system – big, strong and able to hold down the end spot.
The depth at defensive line looks strong, if you combine the talent returning along with plugging in some of the newcomers to the team. Asi Faoa (SR, 6-4, 274) has been a workout warrior for the four years he's been in the program – meaning, he looks fantastic in practice in drills, but it has yet to really translate to consistent performance on the field. Faoa will back up Dave Ball at the rush end position, but his size and quickness make him capable of playing any of the d-line positions in a pinch. C.J. Niusulu (SO, 6-2, 295) showed some potential greatness at defensive tackle as a true freshman last year. Faoa and Niusulu will be the first two off the bench. David Tautofi (SR, 6-2, 265), also got some reps in spring practice, being tested at both strongside end and tackle.
One of the most interesting aspects of fall practice will be watching which young defensive linemen emerge potentially as viable playing options and the heirs to the starting positions, given how potentially young and thin the d-line should in the next couple of years. Kevin Harbour (R-FR, 6-4, 251), is thought to be one of the candidates to get some solid back-up minutes this year, looking good on the scout team last season before spraining a knee and sitting out most of spring practice. Getting a good look at Harbour is a top priority. Thomas Patton (R-FR, 6-3, 265) made improvements in spring practice at defensive tackle, and the word is that he has continued to improve physically over the summer.
The two true freshmen that many eyes will be watching are defensive end Junior Lemau'u (FR, 6-5, 240) and defensive tackle Kevin Brown (FR, 6-2, 285). Lemau'u looked very good in the recent Shrine game, with not only good strength but very good quickness and balance. There is room for him on the two-deep this season, and the coaches might want him to play as a true freshman to get him some experience and prepare him for next year. Brown comes to UCLA as an option at defensive tackle, as well as possible at offensive guard. The word right now is that he's slated for defensive tackle, and he definitely has a chance to make the two-deep, competing with Patton for the other defensive tackle back-up position next to Niusulu.
Bruce Davis (FR, 6-4, 220) and Aaron Whittington (FR, 6-3, 210) are called defensive ends but could end up as linebackers. Both look physically more like linebackers, but both are relatives of former NFL players who got quite a bit bigger in college. It's almost certain both will redshirt and then we'll see which way their body develops. Fall practice will be about checking out these two along with the other true freshman defensive lineman, Noah Sutherland (FR, 6-5, 250) who will almost certainly redshirt also.
UCLA's backer unit looks to be very good, replacing one departing standout starter with potentially another one, while two remain.
MLB – Justin London (SO, 6-1, 240)
WLB – Spencer Havner (SO, 6-4, 233)
Chillar has proven to be a warrior
and the leader of the linebackers, and one of the leaders of the defense. He had a very good junior year, looked
very good in spring practice, and the word is that he's continued to improve
over the off-season. Havner is a star in the making, coming off a big redshirt
freshman year where he had 96 tackles and was a first-team Freshman
Spring and the off-season have given fans even more to be excited about in terms of linebackers. Wesley Walker (SO, 6-2, 228) got playing time last season, looked very good in spring practice and has continued to develop physically over the off-season, according to many. He'll provide solid backup minutes behind Chillar. He received quite a few minutes playing the weakside position behind Havner in spring, too. Also, keep an eye this fall on another who is slotted at the strongside backer position, Xavier Burgess (R-FR, 6-2, 240). Burgess showed in spring that he had changed physically since last fall. The word is that he has continued to develop, and looked great in the off-season workouts – quick and instinctive. Incoming freshman William Snead (FR, 6-4, 215) is also on the depth chart at strongside linebacker, and it will be interesting to get a first look at Snead.
At weakside, Patrick Pierre-Louis (JR, 6-0, 218) will try to overcome a year of injuries to compete. When he was healthy during last fall's practice, he had some moments. A walk-on that has really proven himself to the coaches is Ben Lorier (JR, 5-11, 218). Lorier, with his work ethic and effort, has found a place listed on the depth chart at weakside linebackers, which is usually limited to scholarship players. If you remember, he was a member of the winning mat drill squad last winter that then had the honor of wearing the Bruin Club jerseys during spring practice.
Losing Ricky Manning, an All Pac-10 player, will be tough to overcome. But the fact that UCLA returns its other three starters in the defensive secondary, and projecting how much better they'll be a year more experienced easily makes up for the loss of Manning.
LC – Matt Clark (JR, 5-9, 170)
SS – Jarrad Page (SO, 6-1, 210)
FS – Ben Emanuel (JR, 6-3, 205)
RC – Matt Ware (JR, 6-3, 213)
There are a number of potential stars in this group, but leading the pack, based on his performance last season, is Ben Emanuel. Emanuel had a stellar sophomore year, with 58 tackles and four interceptions. At times, he looked dominating. The other "veteran," even though he's only going into his third season at UCLA, is Matt Ware. Ware, now settled at the corner position, after being switched back and forth from safety, is thought by the coaching staff to be on the verge of a truly breakout year. Page, actually, could have the most potential among the three. Starting as a true freshman, he struggled at times last season, but then toward the end of the season, was able to play more instinctually. He had an excellent spring, having gotten even bigger. The three of them – Emanuel at 6-3, Ware at 6-3 and Page at 6-1 – make for a very big and long secondary, able to cover a lot of ground with their running ability and length. Stepping into some big shoes at the other corner position is Clark, who held on to the starting position after some strong competition in spring. He has good experience, coming off two years of solid back-up playing time.
The depth is also impressive. The Bruins have a good stable of young and promising cornerbacks who all had good springs. Marcus Cassel (SO, 6-0, 180) might be the most athletic and have the most potential, and is coming off an impressive spring. Jebiaus Brown (R-FR, 6-0, 184) is a player the coaches like, with good size and quickness. He was injured last season but, again, had an impressive spring practice. Joe Garcia (R-FR, 6-0, 188) stepped up in spring and showed he'll be competing for time down the line. And probably the guy who had the most impressive spring given his former prospects was Keith Short (SR, 5-10, 185). Being a great special teams player since he arrived at UCLA, Short then had a terrific spring, where he showed that he was a viable option at corner. Coming in are Trey Brown (FR, 5-11, 185) and Mil'Von James (FR, 5-11, 185), both of whom are expected to redshirt.
At safety, Glenn Ohaeri (SO, 5-9,
196) is the first off the bench; he'll see time as the nickel back, which UCLA
could use quite often this year.
Ohaeri looked strong last year for a true freshman and in spring. Another pleasant surprise was the
performance of Eric McNeal (R-FR, 6-2, 205) in spring. McNeal got bigger,
stronger and the light turned on in April. He's expected to push Page. Kevin Brant (SR, 6-0, 195) will backup
Emanuel at free. Watch for possibly newcomer Dennis Keyes (FR, 6-2, 190), a
great all-around athlete, to add his name to the depth chart at safety, possibly
being groomed at the free safety position behind Emanuel. Chris Horton (FR, 6-2, 190) was a big
hitter in high school in