2013 UCLA Preview – Defense

Posted May 25, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - UCLA Bruin Defense

UCLA Bruins

Preview 2013 - Defense

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What you need to know: Lou Spanos' D was a microcosm for the entire program in 2012—major strides, yet a lot more work to be done. The Bruins took a gigantic step forward last fall, attacking incessantly to finish No. 8 nationally in sacks and No. 9 in takeaways. Under Spanos, a former running back, Anthony Barr, blossomed into a menacing pass rusher off the edge, and DE Datone Jones parlayed one big year into the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Barr is back, as is rising DE Cassius Marsh and tackle-happy LB Eric Kendricks. But so are many of the same issues that got exposed in last year's Holiday Bowl undressing at the hands of Baylor. UCLA still needs to showcase better fundamentals and an ability to slow down opposing ground games. Not to be forgotten, the secondary was garroted by graduations and the offseason dismissal of S Tevin McDonald. There'll be no glass ceiling for the rookies, who are both talented and needed. The staff stockpiled four and five-star recruits, some of whom are going to crack the two-deep before Labor Day.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Eric Kendricks, 150
Sacks: Anthony Barr, 13.5
Interceptions: Stan McKay, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Anthony Barr
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Anthony Jefferson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore NT Ellis McCarthy
Best pro prospect: Barr
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Barr, 2) Senior DE Cassius Marsh, 3) Junior LB Eric Kendricks
Strength of the defense: D-line, linebackers, getting pressure, creating turnovers, third-down stops
Weakness of the defense: The secondary, stopping the run, red-zone stops

Defensive Line

There'll be no simple way to replace the production of DE Datone Jones. But senior Cassius Marsh will do his best to impersonate the Bruin with whom he formed a bookend a year ago. Marsh, a one-time can't-miss recruit, enjoyed his version of a breakthrough season in 2012, starting every game, and chipping in with 50 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Marsh was a step quicker playing at 6-4 and 268 pounds last fall, while maintaining the upper body strength, intensity and mean streak that have become his trademarks.

The upcoming season is a huge one for the program's other starting end, 6-3, 265-pound senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa. The one-time five-star recruit from the 2010 class has started just eight games in his career, and problems with his hips kept him on the shelf in the spring. Fingers are crossed that he can operate at full-strength, while building on last season's career-best 44 tackles, six stops for loss and three sacks as a reserve.

If Odighizuwa isn't 100%, UCLA could turn to a pair of veterans on the bench, 6-1, 246-pound senior Keenan Graham and 6-1, 268-pound junior Brandon Willis. Graham, whose size and athleticism are fit for a situational pass rusher, tallied nine tackles and a sack in 2012. Willis, a transfer from North Carolina, appeared in six games in his return to Westwood. While not nearly as dynamic off the edge as Graham, his additional pounds can help support the run.

Clinging to nose tackle is 6-1, 316-pound senior Seali'i Epenesa, a 10-game starter a year ago. He made 21 stops in the first significant action of his career, yet rarely distinguished himself. Even worse, he was not in shape during the spring, which will need to be rectified in order to hold on to his job.

Epenesa was getting pushed by sophomore Brandon Tuliaupupu until an ACL tear ended the challenge. The incumbent, though, must still contend with sophomore Ellis McCarthy, one of the nation's top recruits of 2012. He came off the bench to make 10 tackles in nine games, adjusting to the speed of the game. But at 6-4 and 330 pounds, he is so quick and so strong that it's going to be tough to keep him out of the lineup this fall.

Watch Out For .... Marsh to be this year's Jones for the Bruins. The senior took a while to start playing like a former mega-recruit, but now that he's rolling, he's set to become one of the Pac-12's top defensive linemen. After posting good numbers a year ago, he could be eyeing double-digit sacks in 2013.
Strength: Generating edge pressure. Yeah, a lot of last year's sacks came from either linebackers or players now in the NFL, but don't underestimate the holdovers. Marsh has All-America potential, and Odighizuwa can be explosive off the snap when he's playing at 100%.
Weakness: Run-stuffing. Pending the ascent of McCarthy, the Bruins are just average at the nose entering 2013, a problem when opponents pound away at the middle of the line. Last year's D ranked 66th nationally against the run, struggling badly to hold the line against the likes of Nebraska, Arizona State, Stanford and Baylor.
Outlook: UCLA likes its D-line, but it'll love it if Marsh gets more help from this year's bookend. Odighizuwa—or whoever else is in the lineup at end—must take advantage of man-to-man blocking. McCarthy will be an essential component of the front three as well. The staff is eagerly hoping to witness a breakout year from their star of the 2012 recruiting class.
Rating: 7.5


The 3-4 was successful at UCLA in 2012 largely because of the play of the linebackers. Three starters from that unit will be looking to maintain a certain level of chaos once again this year. Two are All-American candidates. On the outside, senior Anthony Barr was nothing shy of transcendent in 2012. In his first year on defense, after two journeyman seasons at running back, he erupted into a pass-rushing beast with 83 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and five pass breakups. With zero warning, the explosive 6-4, 245-pound athlete ended the year as a member of the All-Pac-12 First Team and the All-America Second Team. Barr is off the charts athletically, so there's no telling how good he might become with another full year to really learn the nuances of the position.

Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks just isn't getting the attention he deserves. But that ought to start changing this year, his junior season as a Bruin. He's the proverbial tackling machine, ringing up a league-high 150 stops, including a half-dozen behind the line, two sacks, three fumble recoveries and a pair of forced fumbles. And yet he was only named honorable mention All-Pac-12. Odd. At 6-0 and 228 pounds, Kendricks isn't the prototype on the inside, but he more than compensates with tremendous range, closing speed and instincts. He'll be impossible to overlook when votes are cast this postseason.

The favorite to complement Barr on the outside is 6-2, 228-pound sophomore Aaron Wallace . He played sparingly on defense and special teams last year, making three stops. He impressed in the spring with his range, especially when dropping back into coverage. However, he's not quite as physical as sophomore Kenny Orjioke, who's currently running at No. 2. Plus, at 6-4 and 229 pounds, the backup has a frame that could easily accommodate another 10-15 pounds.

Next to Kendricks on the inside is senior Jordan Zumwalt, an underrated member of the group. He seasoned, savvy and one of the most complete all-around athletes on this side of the ball. He started nine games in 2012, posting a personal-best 71 tackles, eight stops for loss and two sacks. Zumwalt may not reach the heights of his teammates at linebacker, but he is a very solid performer from the second level.

Steady Ryan Hofmeister will caddy for Zumwalt and Kendricks on the inside. The 6-0, 222-pound transfer from Riverside (Calif.) Community College started three games and made 15 stops in his Bruin debut. While not starter-caliber, he's a terrific player to bring off the bench and to use on special teams.

Watch Out For .... the incoming rookies to make some of the sophomores feel uncomfortable about their job security. Oh, Barr, Kendricks and Zumwalt are opening day locks, but Wallace and the reserves better watch their backs when Deon Hollins and Myles Jack arrive. The four-star Jack, in particular, is capable of storming the gates at left outside linebacker.
Strength: Range and pressure. UCLA is going to boast one of the most athletic and explosive collections of linebackers in America. With Barr as the catalyst, the Bruins will erupt in all directions, most notably toward the backfield. This unit can do it all, from pressuring the quarterback to dropping back and blanketing his receivers.
Weakness: Consistency against the run. The Bruins are going to pin their ears back and wreak havoc in 2013. But how well will they handle the physicality of, say, a Stanford? UCLA was erratic in run defense last season, with the linebackers sharing some of the blame for the spotty overall results.
Outlook: UCLA's starting linebackers will be among the most elite in the FBS this season, an attacking unit that covers ground in a flash. Barr is an improbable superstar, whose NFL stock will rise exponentially throughout the fall. With Kendricks and Zumwalt also on the field at the same time, the Bruins will amass a huge number of money plays in the form of sacks, tackles for loss and takeaways.
Rating: 9


The UCLA secondary was already going to be a serious work in progress before S Tevin McDonald was dismissed and landed at Eastern Washington. Post-McDonald, it's essentially starting over. There's cautious optimism that junior CB Anthony Jefferson can develop into one of the new leaders of the defensive backfield. Injuries, specifically one to his back, has limited him to just 11 games in three year. However, the athletic 6-1, 184-pounder performed like UCLA's best cover guy in the spring, lending hope that he'll continue growing in the summer and fall.

Leading the way at the other cornerback opening is redshirt freshman Ishmael Adams, who has performed nearly as well as Jefferson this offseason. While he's only 5-8 and 185 pounds, he plays with the strength and the physicality of a much bigger defensive back. There'll be missteps along the way, but the staff likes the future of its young DB.

The most experienced backup corner, 6-0, 182-pound Fabian Moreau is only a sophomore. He earned a letter as a rookie, and was credited with five tackles, gradually getting accustomed to the pace of the Pac-12.

The competitions at safety have yet to be decided. At strong safety, 5-10, 187-pound Randall Goforth and 6-0, 198-pound senior Stan McKay are locked in a tight race. Goforth would have a slight advantage based on his debut and practice performances. He started five games as a rookie, and made contributed 40 tackles. McKay plays with the physicality and nastiness of a linebacker. In fact, he played some linebacker last fall, finishing the year with 34 tackles, three sacks and two picks. However, he's not the kind of defensive back the staff can rely upon in coverage.

Over at free safety, 5-11, 195-pound senior Brandon Sermons and 6-0, 200-pound junior Dietrich Riley are engaged in an interesting battle. Sermons has not seen significant minutes since arriving four years ago. But he's a veteran who can really lay the lumber on running plays. Riley is attempting to author a feel-good story, coming back from a serious neck injury that nearly ended his career. He hasn't played since late in 2011, and separated his shoulder in the spring, but has the size, experience and determination to again be a factor for the Bruins.

Watch Out For .... the incoming freshmen to not play like incoming freshmen. Jim Mora and his staff cleaned up in the secondary on Signing Day, landing five defensive backs, four that earned at least four stars. The star of the newcomers is CB Priest Willis, whose laundry list of offers included USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, LSU and Florida State.
Strength: Competition. The best that can be said about the UCLA secondary right now is that there will be a competitive environment in the summer and fall, especially after the freshmen come aboard. Although it doesn't always break this way, the staff hopes that having so many positions up for grabs will bring out the best in the numerous participants.
Weakness: Proven players. The Bruins ranked 82nd nationally in pass defense last year, while allowing 27 touchdown passes. Every starter from that underachieving group is gone. UCLA lacks consistency in pass defense and enough players who can be counted on when the ball is in the air.
Outlook: UCLA is heading back to the drawing board in the secondary, maintaining hope that a meld of lightly-used, oft-injured vets and incoming signees can exceed modest expectations. It could be a long year for this group, which will face a handful of potent offenses. Jefferson is being looked at as the possible stopper, and he has no career starts.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Sophomore Ka'imi Fairbairn performed in his debut as if he plans on being the Bruins' placekicker for four years. Highly-touted coming out of high school in Hawaii, he connected on 16-of-22 field goals, and was near-perfect from 35 yards and in. Beyond that threshold, though, he'll need to perform with more accuracy.

The graduation of ace P Jeff Locke has left UCLA with a hole at the position. Welcome aboard, Sean Covington. Barring some kind of disaster, the high school All-American from St. Petersburg, Fla. will win the job in August without facing a ton of competition.

The staff will continue to audition return men in the summer. Seniors Shaq Evans and Damien Thigpen, and sophomores Devin Fuller and Steven Manfro earned special teams reps in 2012, and are expected to do so again this fall.

Watch Out For… Covington to not perform like a rookie in his first year. UCLA is very particular about which special-teamers are granted a scholarship offer, and will travel across the country to find the right fit. Covington won't be Locke right away, but he'll be a nice addition for the Bruins.
Strength: Young legs. Special teams never seems to be a major problem for UCLA, because it consistently recruits the unit so well. Fairbairn did a nice job in his first year on campus, while big things are expected from Covington as well. Sure, both are young, but they're also very talented at their respective positions.
Weakness: Long-range kicking. The coaches expect Fairbairn to improve his accuracy, but there are no guarantees that that'll be the case in his second year. Outside of 35 yards, which is hardly a different zip code, the sophomore was only 2-of-7, a level of inconsistency that could force the staff to tweak its fourth-down strategy.
Outlook: No, this isn't a vintage UCLA special teams unit, but it ought to still be pretty good this year. The Bruins figure to be no worse than average in each area, including the return game and the coverage units. Naturally, their final grade will either swing north or south based on the maturation of Fairbairn and Covington.
Rating: 7
- 2013 UCLA Preview | 2013 UCLA Offense
- 2013 UCLA Defense | 2013 UCLA Depth Chart