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2012 UCLA Preview – Defense
UCLA P Jeff Locke
UCLA P Jeff Locke
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 26, 2012


CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - UCLA Bruin Defense


UCLA Bruins

Preview 2012 - Defense


- 2012 UCLA Preview | 2012 UCLA Offense
- 2012 UCLA Defense | 2012 UCLA Depth Chart

What you need to know: The Bruins lost very little from last year’s defense, lending genuine hope that this could be one of the surprise units in the Pac-12 this fall. For all of the problems that the prior regime had, recruiting talent to this side of the ball was not one of them. UCLA will boast an ideal blend of youth and experience as it makes the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment. While nose tackle might be a little vulnerable this fall, the team’s depth and talent at defensive end has allowed Damien Holmes to move back a level to outside linebacker, where he’ll join a solid group highlighted by Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt and Patrick Larimore. Defensive ends Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh and Owamagbe Odighizuwa are ideal fits for the new system, strong enough to stuff the run, yet quick enough to get backfield penetration. All four starters are back in the secondary, a unit that needs to step it up in the red zone. Andrew Abbot and budding sophomore Tevin McDonald form an athletic tandem at safety. Cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester possess the size and physicality to match up well with some of the conference’s bigger wide receivers.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Patrick Larimore, 81
Sacks: Datone Jones, 3
Interceptions: Andrew Abbott, 4

Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Eric Kendricks
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Datone Jones
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore FS Tevin McDonald
Best pro prospect: Jones
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Kendricks, 2) Senior LB Patrick Larimore, 3) McDonald
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, budding stars, first-line talent
Weakness of the defense: Sacks, depth, durability, pass defense, stopping the run, third-down stops, red-zone stops

Defensive Line

With the shift to a 3-4, the UCLA linemen will have new assignments and fewer worries about depth. While the situation is fluid on the outside, the staff believes it has found its nose tackle in 6-3, 275-pound sophomore Brandon Willis . Okay, so the transfer from North Carolina lacks ideal size, but he has compensated with an explosive first step and sudden moves into the pocket. He has the strength of a prototypical interior lineman to go along with the quickness and athleticism of some defensive ends. Behind Willis, 6-2, 313-pound senior Donovan Carter will provide veteran leadership and a much tougher body to toss around. Despite starting just one game in 2011, he made 36 stops and 3.5 tackles for loss.

At defensive end, three Bruins are competing for two openings. Although 6-5, 280-pound senior Datone Jones is getting pushed hard for the job he held throughout last season, he’s done everything in his power to keep it. He’s big and quick, with the size to stuff the run and the agility to continue being the school’s best pass rusher. A year after sitting out 2010 with a foot injury, he returned last fall to lead all linemen with 41 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and three sacks.

Over on the other side, junior Cassius Marsh is hoping to put it all together this season. The 6-4, 295-pound junior is a former can’t-miss recruit who has 12 games in two years, but is still looking to achieve a higher level of consistency. He showed hints in 2011, making 22 tackles, four stops for loss and a pair of sacks. Marsh is still learning the end position in this system, an education that’ll continue in the summer.

Pushing both Jones and Marsh is 6-5, 278-pound junior Owamagbe Odighizuwa , who is going to get on the field one way or another. A lot like Marsh, he’s yet to approach his high school hype, but that seems to be changing during the offseason. A year after making just 21 tackles and three stops for loss, the freakishly good athlete is on the verge of parlaying his physical ability into more big plays on the field.

Watch Out For .... the arrival of mega-recruit Ellis McCarthy . The gem of a very good first recruiting class for Jim Mora is too talented to remain idle or, heaven forbid, redshirted. Even at 6-5 and 311 pounds, the Bruins are so enamored with his athleticism and explosiveness that they plan to use him as a super-sized defensive end.
Strength: Physical ability. They are big, athletic and move extremely well for their size. The UCLA defensive linemen harbor the foundational physical tools, the measurables, to excel in a Pac-12 littered with quality offensive linemen.
Weakness: Results. It’s not enough to look good on paper or coming off the bus. It’s high time that the defensive linemen actually begin to produce up to their potential as a group, and not just in spurts. Last year’s, for instance, which is basically the same ensemble as this season, was the first line of defense for a D that was 112th nationally in sacks, and yielded more than five yards a carry.
Outlook: The potential is clearly there, especially with the addition of a possible instant star in McCarthy. Now the Bruins just need to go out and begin fulfilling it. There are future pros embedded in this unit, and the coaches recognize it. Their job will be to maximize the linemen’s potential where the previous staff was unable to do so.
Rating: 7

Linebackers

The move to a 3-4 means that there will be another available opening for one of the squad’s linebackers. The Bruins feel particularly set on the inside, where the starters have been set since the beginning of spring drills. Senior Patrick Larimore was a fringe All-Pac-12 performer a year ago, making a team-best 81 tackles. At 6-3 and 253 pounds, he has the size and the strength needed to excel as a run defender from the inside. While not an elite athlete, or air-tight in pass coverage, the captain is just heady and instinctive enough to be one of the team leaders on this side of the ball.

While Larimore is at or near his ceiling, sophomore Eric Kendricks has only just begun to approach his on the inside. Despite starting only three games, the 6-2, 230-pounder delivered an auspicious debut in 2011, making 76 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and two sacks. The best all-around athlete of the linebackers, he showcases terrific range, both in run defense and pass coverage. Kendricks is the kind of dynamic playmaker the UCLA defense can build around in the coming seasons.

There’s going to be a little more competition and intrigue at outside linebacker this summer. The team’s depth at defensive end allowed it to relocate 6-4, 260-pound Damien Holmes from the line to outside linebacker. So far, so good on the experiment. He’s played well in the offseason, quickly adjusting after having started 20 games up front over the last two seasons. The senior is coming off his most productive season as a Bruin, chipping in 32 tackles, six stops for loss and a sack.

The other outside spot will be decided by a couple of juniors, 6-4, 235-pound Jordan Zumwalt and 6-3, 252-pound Keenan Graham . Zumwalt has started four games in each of the last two seasons, highlighted by last year’s 60 tackles and six stops for loss. He’s a terrific all-around athlete, with the flexibility to contribute either on the outside or on the inside if needed. Graham, like Holmes, has spent the past couple of seasons lining up at defense, starting seven games over that time. Although he made just 20 tackles, 2.5 behind the line, the team feels as if his speed and quickness will be an asset on the blitz.

Watch Out For .... Kendricks to become the face of the linebackers by mid-season. He’s not the oldest, but he’s quickly on the verge of becoming the best on the second level, if not the entire D. The sophomore has a terrific mix of the physical and intangible, and shows an insatiable desire to get better in his second year.
Strength: The starting four. Assuming everyone can remain healthy, a big concern, the Bruins believe they harbor five quality linebackers now that Holmes and Graham have been moved off the line. When the program’s best players are on the field, UCLA boasts a physical contingency that figures to do a much better job versus the run than it did in 2011.
Weakness: Coverage skills. Yeah, it’s improving, but the Bruins have a long way to go when the ball is in the air. Kendricks aside, there aren’t many elite athletes in the mix, and the downside of the moves of Graham and Holmes is that neither has done much in pass defense since arriving from high school.
Outlook: Fingers are crossed regarding a unit that has been hit hard by injuries, and has a declining margin of error. The rotation has substantial upside, but if anyone goes down, there could be serious problems at linebacker. While the upperclassmen are very steady, Kendricks is the one to watch. He has a trajectory that’s going to wind up with a lot of support on the All-Pac-12 Team.
Rating: 7.5

Secondary

After struggling to contain the better passers on the schedule, UCLA is hoping four returning starters can be parlayed into a stingier pass defense. The likely starting lineup consists of three seniors and one precocious sophomore, budding superstar Tevin McDonald . The 6-0, 202-pound sophomore free safety, whose older brother T.J. is a starting safety across town at USC, took over after Tony Dye was injured. He held up well, making 56 tackles in 11 starts, and tying a school record with three picks versus Cal. The total package at the position, he’s a premier athlete, with the hips and ball skills of a cornerback.

Providing cover for McDonald is his backup, 6-1, 205-pound junior Stan McKay , a seasoned veteran who made 32 tackles in 2011. He has an ideal combination of experience and physicality coming off the bench and contributing on special teams.

Senior Andrew Abbott is moving from cornerback in order to fill the void at strong safety. The one-time walk-on has fashioned quite a career as a Bruin, earning 13 career starts. A year ago, he made 44 tackles, while picking off four passes to earn an improbable honorable mention All-Pac-12. He has good wheels, and at 5-10 and 200 pounds, just enough pop and want-to to make this move work.

Backing up Abbott will be 6-0, 205-pound senior Dalton Hilliard , a three-time letterwinner who had a career-high 50 stops last season. After flirting with a possible move to running back, his old high school position, he plans to stay put in order to bolster the secondary’s depth.

If the offseason is any indication, 6-2, 185-pound senior Sheldon Price could be on the verge of a statement finale as an amateur. The 32-game starter brings experience and a veteran presence to the defensive backfield, playing with a degree of intensity that becomes contagious. He made 47 tackles, and broke up seven, but the best may be ahead as he learns from a new set of coaches who are encouraging him maximize his aggressiveness and physical nature.

Senior Aaron Hester is a well-sized defensive back, a bump-and-run corner who’ll jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. The 6-1, 205-pounder led all defensive backs with 57 tackles, adding seven broken up passes. He has the requisite speed and backpedal to keep pace with dangerous receivers, now needing to tighten up his instincts and fundamentals.

Watch Out For .... McDonald to take his game to another level in 2012. The sky is the limit for No. 7, who served notice that he’s the next member of his athletic who’s going to have a brilliant career in the conference. More than just a dynamite athlete, he really gets the game and the position, a recipe for rapid growth in Year 2.
Strength: First-line experience. Yeah, the unit needs to play better as a whole, but the individual parts are loaded with experience and talent. There’s a lot to be said for chemistry, something this group owns after playing together throughout the 2011 season. There’s NFL talent here, but now they have to start performing like it.
Weakness: Lapses. The Bruins had a nasty habit of playing well against the marginal passing teams, yet getting badly exposed by the good ones. The team gave up 28 touchdown passes in 2011, or two times its number of interceptions. Case Keenum, Case McCoy, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley absolutely toyed with UCLA’s secondary, combining to throw 16 scoring strikes and just one pick.
Outlook: The Bruins secondary needs to put it all together, and start producing with a higher level of consistency. There’s too much talent in the starting unit for the pass defense not to be markedly tighter than a year ago. Of course, it’ll also help to get a little more support from a necrotic pass rush that produced more than one sack in just three of 14 games.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

UCLA has had a long and illustrious history of producing elite specialists, a trend the new staff is hoping to continue in 2012 and beyond. The headliner of the group will be senior P Jeff Locke , who also handles kickoffs for the program. He has a strong and accurate leg, ranking second all-time in school history with a career average of 44.6 yards. Locke also ranked 16th nationally in 2011 with a kickoff average of more than 66 yards.

After using three different placekickers, the Bruins are hopeful that only one will be necessary this fall. The frontrunner for now to handle the duties is sophomore Joe Roberts , a former walk-on who was erratic throughout spring drills. He’ll need to put April behind him in order to be the choice in September.

The staff has yet to decide on the return game pecking order, and will continue to audition as many as seven players in the summer.

Watch Out For… Roberts to bow to rookie Ka’imi Fairbairn in the summer. The sophomore hardly instilled confidence in the coaching staff, which will give Fairbairn every possible opportunity to win the job in the summer.
Strength: Locke. Aptly-named, he’s UCLA’s sure-thing on special teams. He supports the defense as a strong-legged punter and kickoff specialists, giving the Bruins an underrated, yet crucial, edge in field position.
Weakness: The coverage teams. Phew, this has been a problem in Los Angeles for the past three years now, with no end in sight. The Bruins have gradually regressed into one of the Pac-12’s most generous special teams units, ranking 105th nationally in kickoff return defense, and sitting 77th overall on punts.
Outlook: Fair or not, Fairbairn is going to be a pretty important cog in his debut. After connecting on just 11-of-17 field goals in 2011, the Bruins are seeking more stability from their placekickers. Locke, on the other hand, is one of the program’s steadiest players—at any position—and will be a strong contender for the Ray Guy Award.
Rating: 7
 
- 2012 UCLA Preview | 2012 UCLA Offense
- 2012 UCLA Defense | 2012 UCLA Depth Chart