UCLA football really is quite the unknown.
Such is the state of flux in Westwood that a defense that loses its best pass rusher (Takkarist McKinley), its best interior lineman (Eddie Vanderdoes), its do-it-all linebacker (Jayon Brown), a three-year starting safety (Randall Goforth) and best cornerback (Fabian Moreau) is still considered to be far more settled than the offense.
It helps to have the same coordinator for three years (take note, offense), and in the previous two seasons, Tom Bradley’s defense has steadily improved.
It’s easy to forget, but UCLA’s defense was borderline great last season, finishing 26th in S&P+ and 25 spots better from their 2015 finish at 51st. UCLA’s run defense in particular really improved (Utah game aside), and Bradley’s retooling of the run defense after the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl drubbing against Nebraska paid off.
In particular, UCLA’s defense excelled at limiting explosive plays in both run and pass. The Bruins were a top 5 defense in S&P+’s Isolated Points Per Play category, which measures both how little you ceded to an offense and how often you did it. UCLA was downright stingy and rarely got gashed for big plays.
It both makes sense and no sense when you consider UCLA’s season. The Bruins finished 4-8, but outscored their opponents until being pasted by USC and Cal. UCLA’s defense gave its woebegone offense every chance possible to win games that they ultimately squandered.
As mentioned before, a lot of the front line talent on defense is gone. However, UCLA’s defensive talent continues to overflow and includes two new five-star freshmen who are already on track to contribute.
Let’s project UCLA’s starting defense on September 3rd and go by position group.
Razor sharpens Razor
UCLA’s defensive line features a wealth of experience alongside a future star at the Razor.
Razor - note: Razor is the nickname for the weakside DL/primary outside pass rusher
Jaelan Phillips (fr.)
Keisean Lucier-South (rs.so.)
Marcus Moore (rs.fr.)
Boss Tagaloa (so.)
Nick Terry (rs.sr)
Matt Dickerson (sr.)
Osa Odighizuwa (rs.fr)
Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (sr.)
Rick Wade (rs.so.)
The obvious headliner is Phillips, the nation’s number one recruit who enrolled early for spring ball. He entered spring ball level with former 5-star Keisean Lucier-South for starting Razor, but it looks like Phillips has won the job. Even though he may not start, Lucier-South is primed for a breakout of his own after two years of finding his footing. A rising tide lifts all Razors.
Dickerson and Tuioti-Mariner have steadily improved every year. Tuioti-Mariner is especially versatile, having lined up on all four spots in his career. Tagaloa is the linchpin for UCLA’s run defense; if he can be close to what Eddie Vanderdoes was in 2016, UCLA’s starting 4 will be one of the Pac-12’s best.
This is arguably UCLA’s deepest position group. Defensive line coach Angus McClure will often rotate 8 or 9 guys in during a single game, so everyone on the 2 deep will contribute. Rick Wade and Nick Terry had key moments last year, and Marcus Moore emerged from spring ball to force his way into the rotation.
Lest we forget two of UCLA’s other prized recruits, defensive tackles Greg Rogers and Martin Andrus. Both were 4-stars close to home, and if they continue to grow and develop, McClure won’t hesitate to play them too.
LBU keeps on truckin’
A recent emergence in fall camp has forced a reshuffle that suddenly improves UCLA’s young linebacker depth:
Kenny Young (sr.)
Krys Barnes (so.)
Mike (middle) - note: the Mike sits on passing downs when UCLA plays nickel or dime
Lokeni Toailoa (so.)
Krys Barnes (so.) (?)
Josh Woods (jr.)
Dechaun Holiday (rs.so.)
Breland Brandt (r.fr.)
This is an entirely different depth chart from when spring ball ended. Dechaun Holiday emerged as a first-line Sam linebacker after dropping down from cornerback, but a shoulder injury has forced him to miss most of fall camp. If he can return healthy soon, UCLA will have 4 quality starters for 3 spots. Holiday at Sam would allow either Young or Woods to rotate and stay fresh.
But that was even before the emergence of Lokeni Toailoa, whose rapid rise to starting Mike moved Kenny Young from Mike to Will and Josh Woods from Will to Sam. Toailoa is a thumper - he’s the biggest backer at 260 pounds - and moving Young and Woods to his flanks fits both much better. Young excels in pursuit and Woods is freaky quick for a 240 pound linebacker, and it allows both to play fast and hunt in tandem.
Krys Barnes figures to be the first linebacker off the bench in two positions. Before Toailoa’s emergence, he worked his way into being the first call behind Young and Woods at Mike and Will.
And we would be remiss to not to mention Mique Juarez, the former 5-star recruit who missed all of last season. He is reportedly healthy and doing well, which is great news for him personally. But reports also have emerged that he’s working his way up the depth chart at Mike, and if he can start to play at the level he was recruited at in high school, that is a definite win for the Bruins.
A definite no fly zone
For my money, UCLA’s secondary is the roster’s deepest position group and one of the Pac-12’s best. After turning in an elite performance last year, they added 5 new recruits, including the nation’s top cornerback, and figure to build off a stellar 2016:
Nate Meadors (jr.)
Keyon Riley (fr.)
Colin Samuel (rs.so.)
Mo Osling III (fr.)
Adarius Pickett (rs.jr.)
Mossi Johnson (rs.sr.)
Quentin Lake (fr.)
Jaleel Wadood (sr.)
Octavius Spencer (jr.)
Denzel Fisher/Darnay Holmes (fr.)
Keyon Riley (fr.)
Elijah Gates (fr.)
Jaylen Shaw (fr.)
Nickel/Slot Corner - note: UCLA plays 5 defensive backs often on passing downs
Darnay Holmes (fr.)
Jaleel Wadood (sr.)
The starting corner position opposite new number one Nate Meadors has been one of fall camp’s fiercest battles. Right now, Fisher seems to have the slightest edge, but it could change as soon as today. But all-world athlete Darnay Holmes will play somewhere; he is too good to be left off the field, and he is good enough to start at any three corner positions as a true freshman.
UCLA’s safety tandem will be fun to watch. Wadood is only 5’10” and 185 pounds, but he plays much bigger than his size. A new wrinkle has been his run as the first nickle corner ahead of Holmes, which would allow Octavius Spencer to fill in at safety. Adarius Pickett is the thunder and flat-out awesome in run support. He is a bruiser, and the duo could be among America’s best safety tandems this season.
Defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin is one of the West’s best recruiters, and his 2017 recruiting class is further proof. Keyon Riley has gotten the most run with the starters so far in fall camp. Mo Osling has emerged as a potential gunner on special teams, and Elijah Gates is the most talented corner behind Holmes. Jay Shaw and Quentin Lake may be the likeliest redshirts behind the established depth, but don’t be shocked if they play and hold their own.
We need to show love to Mossi Johnson, a converted wide receiver now playing at safety in his final season. After suffering a horrendous knee injury and soldiering on, he made the switch in spring and will figure into the rotation. Mossi has been with the program 5 years and is the heart and soul of the UCLA program. It’s so nice to watch him look healthy and give it one last go.
The bad news is that UCLA has a lot to replace at all three levels. Takk McKinley was a force, Eddie Vanderdoes was a bull, Jayon Brown did it all, Randall Goforth was a leader and Fabian Moreau locked down half of the field. That is a lot to replace.
The good news is that UCLA has talent on hand. Jaelan Phillips and Darnay Holmes will be stars. The defensive line is steady, the staring linebackers are experienced and the secondary’s ceiling has never been higher.
Is a drop off from being a top 25 unit last year likely? I think so - it’s hard to replace production like that without losing something. But will the drop off be steep? It’s unlikely, and will the defense be asked to carry such a heavy load with a deeply dysfunctional offense?