2007 UCLA Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 24, 2007

Preview 2007 UCLA Bruin Defense

UCLA Bruins

Preview 2007
- Defense

- 2007 UCLA Preview | 2007 UCLA Offense Preview
2007 UCLA Depth Chart | 2006 CFN UCLA Preview 

What you need to know: Kudos to defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who did the improbable in 2006 by whipping a sorry Bruin defense into shape.  Ten starters are back from that unit, which finished No. 2 in the Pac-10 in total defense and tops against the run.  One All-American rush end, Justin Hickman, has departed, but one, Bruce Davis, returns to wreak havoc on league quarterbacks.  Although the linebackers look nothing like the ones across town at USC, they’re fast, instinctive and a nice fit for Walker’s defense.  Middle linebacker Christian Taylor is the definition of a hard-working college athlete that makes a ton of plays, but likely won’t be wearing pads beyond 2007.  The secondary is an enigma that’s loaded with returning talent, yet still vulnerable through the air.  Strong safety Chris Horton laid the groundwork last year for what should be a terrific final season at UCLA.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Chris Horton, 95
Sacks: Bruce Davis, 12.5
Interceptions: Trey Brown, 4

Star of the defense: Senior DE Bruce Davis
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Nikola Dragovic
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Reggie Carter
Best pro prospect: Davis
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis 2) S Chris Horton 3) CB Trey Brown
Strength of the defense: Pass rush, stopping the run, experience
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Even without the production of All-America end Justin Hickman, the Bruin line will be just fine thanks to the return of four seniors that’ll comprise the starting lineup.  Leading the way is the defense’s other All-American, senior end Bruce Davis, who speed rushed his way to 17.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in 2006.  Just 6-3 and 237 pounds, he’s a blur coming off the edge with the explosive first step and equally incendiary demeanor that’s often too much for opposing tackles to handle. 

Replacing Hickman will be Nikola Dragovic, a senior that made a successful return from knee surgery to letter last season.  A workaholic that’s better rushing the passer than stopping the run, he had actually beaten out Hickman in 2005 before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

On the inside will be the tackle tandem of seniors Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell.  Brown hasn’t quite had that one knockout year that’s commensurate with his combination of quickness and raw power.  That could happen, however, in 2007.  He returned to mixed reviews last year after missing all of 2005 with an ankle injury, but it was no coincidence that the Bruins went from one of the nation’s worst run defenses when he was shelved to one of the best in 2006. 

Entering his third season as a starter, Harwell will be looking to build on last year’s 31 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss.  At 6-2 and 282 pounds, he’s vulnerable against big, physical lines, but possesses the quickness to shoot the gap and makes plays for minus yards.       

Projected Top Reserves: On his way back from knee surgery, junior Kenneth Lombard leads a deep and experienced group of second team linemen into the upcoming season.  A versatile defender that can line up at either end or tackle, he earned his second letter last season, making 15 tackles and three for loss.

Inside, the Bruins most experienced backup is junior Chase Moline, who has played in 22 games during his first two seasons.  Undersized at 6-2 and 280 pounds, he continues to get stronger and plays with an intensity that’s infectious to his linemates. 

At 6-3 and 294 pounds, sophomore Jess Ward is the biggest member of the B team and a contender for increased playing time after appearing in seven games as a freshman.  

Watch Out For… incoming freshman Brian Price. Can a rookie penetrate a rotation that’s steeped in veterans? When they have as much upside as Price, you bet.  He’s an immense talent with the quickness off the snap to earn reps as soon as he learns the system and polishes up his technique.
Strength: The interior.  Yes, there was plenty of help from the back seven, but UCLA was No. 9 nationally in run defense last season largely due to the play of tackles Brown and Harwell.  While they don’t form the thickest tandem around, they do a nice job of absorbing blocks, so others can make plays.
Weakness: The opening at end.  The wonderful thing about last year’s defense was that you couldn’t double either Hickman or Davis without severely paying for it.  Unless Dragovic unexpectedly morphs into a beast, that luxury won’t exist for the Bruins this fall.
Outlook: Just how much will Hickman and his 19 tackles for loss be missed this year? If the Bruins can find a way to keep the heat off Davis in 2007, they’ll again boast one of the toughest defensive lines in the Pac-10.  
Rating: 8.5


Projected Starters: After enduring a series of growing pains in 2006, the UCLA linebackers return virtually intact with six lettermen and five players with starting experience back for another year.  The small, feisty unit is led by senior middle linebacker Christian Taylor, whose debut as a regular included 83 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and 4.5 sacks.  While not an elite athlete at 6-0 and 222 pounds, the scrappy former Air Force walk-on plays with a passion and intensity that belie his pedestrian stature. 

On the weakside is sophomore Reggie Carter, a 6-1, 218-pounder that authored a building block Freshman All-American campaign in 2006.  Flashing the great range and tenacity that made him a top recruit in 2005, he had 48 tackles and six tackles for loss.  The good news for the defense is that Carter played well last year despite not knowing where he belonged on many plays. 

Holding down the fort on the strongside will be senior Aaron Whittington, who started ten games last season, missing three with an ankle injury.  Consistent with the rest of the Bruin starters, he’s only 6-2 and 215 pounds, sacrificing some brute strength for quickness and agility.                 

Projected Top Reserves: When Whittington was sidelined last fall, junior John Hale stepped into the lineup, and played rather well.  The biggest and strongest of the linebackers at 6-4 and 226 pounds, he’ll challenge for the job at strongside, while providing depth in the middle for Taylor. 

Now in his third season with the program, the Bruin staff is hoping that the light starts to go on for sophomore Shawn Oatis, who chose UCLA over Notre Dame and Ohio State, among others, in 2005.  A weakside linebacker with the size and athleticism of a safety, the hope is that he’ll eventually evolve into Eric McNeal, a hybrid that can defend the pass or blitz the quarterback with equal success.     

Watch Out For… Taylor to be the most valuable member of the defense not to get any post-season recognition.  While NFL scouts won’t have much interest watching the senior play this fall, he’ll continue making plays from sideline-to-sideline and inspiring the rest of the unit with his feisty demeanor.
Strength: Range.  Small and quick, the UCLA linebackers have a tremendous amount of range to along with above average skills in pass coverage.  Locate the ball, and it’s a safe bet that one of these three is nearby.
Weakness: Size.  Although the system is designed to feature undersized, athletic defenders, it does make the smallish linebackers vulnerable to offensive lines that can get to the second level, engage, and overwhelm them.
Outlook: While Carter has a chance to break the mold, the Bruin linebackers are a workmanlike, lunch pail crew that’s going to make plenty of stops in 2007.  If the team plays up to expectations, Taylor could have a cult following by November.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: While USC is in a class by itself, the UCLA secondary isn’t far behind with nine letterman and all four starters back from last year’s squad.  The anchor in pass defense will again be senior Trey Brown, a fourth-year starter and lockdown corner that plays smart and much bigger than his 5-9 and 185-pound frame.  An all-league candidate that’ll draw the other team’s best receiver, he led the Bruins with four picks and nine pass breakups in 2006. 

At the other cornerback spot will be senior Rodney Van, a bigger, yet less consistent complement to Brown.  Van is a sure tackler that had 57 stops in his debut as a starter, but needs to turn some of his tipped balls into picked balls.  Last year, he had no interceptions.

The senior duo of strong safety Chris Horton and free safety Dennis Keyes is as good as any in the Pac-10.  The enforcer of the defensive backfield, Horton was everywhere in 2006, leading the Bruins with 95 tackles and picking off three passes.  An outstanding open field tackler, he figures to be even more disruptive in his second year as the starter.  Although he can get exposed at times in coverage, Keyes is another imposing hitter and a valuable asset in run defense.  The 6-2, 195-pounder had a career high 79 tackles in 2006, 60 of which were unassisted.          

Projected Top Reserves: The future at cornerback in Westwood belongs to sophomore Alterraun Verner, who’ll have an integral role in the secondary whether or not he starts.  As a true freshman, he was a revelation, making 59 tackles and taking back two interceptions for touchdowns.  With his ball and cover skills, it won’t be easy keeping Verner on the bench in 2007. 

The Bruins also return the services of junior corner Michael Norris, who sat out the 2006 season with a knee injury.  A valuable reserve on passing downs in 2005, he’ll add depth and a veteran presence to an already solid situation at cornerback. 

The top reserve at safety will be Bret Lockett, a junior that played in all 13 games last year on special teams and as the nickel back.  At 6-2 and 206 pounds, he has decent cover skills and can dish out the pain like one of the Bruin linebackers.    

Watch Out For… Horton.  Watching him play in 2006, it was hard to believe that it was Horton’s first season as a full-timer.  Like having a fourth linebacker on running plays, he’s returned this season intent to making last season look like an off year.
Strength: Experience.  With every defensive back returning to the 2007 squad, the Bruins boast a plethora of experience that’ll serve the defense well, especially when the Pac-10 schedule gets cranking in October.
Weakness: Inconsistency in pass defense.  Yeah, everyone is back, but the secondary still needs to tighten up in 2007, and prevent the big play.  Last season, UCLA allowed more than 2,600 yards passing and seven quarterbacks to throw two or more touchdown passes in a game.
Outlook: Although big, physical receivers could present a problem against the undersized corners, UCLA should still be home to one of the nation’s best secondaries west of the Mississippi.  Horton, in particular, could attract honors beyond just the Pac-10.
Rating: 9

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The job of replacing All-American kicker Justin Medlock belongs to Kai Forbath, a redshirt freshman that was one of the most decorated recruits of 2006 at his position.  While his leg strength is terrific, he was erratic throughout spring, creating some concern about the upcoming season. 

Junior Aaron Perez returns for his third season as the Bruins’ punter.  Yeah, he’ll shank a punt every so often, but his average rose considerably to 42.6 yards a punt in last season, and his best football is still ahead of him.

Before getting injured last year, sophomore punt returner Terrence Austin flashed long ball potential, taking one back 79 yards against Washington.  Neither Derrick Williams nor Jeremy McGee are with UCLA, so there’ll be open auditions to see who’ll handle kickoffs.  One option is Ryen Carew, a speedy sophomore that’s also looking for time in the backfield.  

Watch Out For… Forbath.  Yes, he struggled with his accuracy in April, but Forbath is a perfectionist that’s been motivated by his recent struggles.  Once he finds a zone and gets comfortable in his new role, he’ll begin taking the first steps toward becoming the next really good Bruin kicker.
Strength: The closest thing to a sure thing on special teams this year, he has a strong leg and the distinction of pinning USC in the waning seconds last December, ending any thoughts of a come-from-behind win.
Weakness: Uncertainty at kicker.  Forbath has a bright future, but he’s just a freshman, and when Medlock exhausted his eligibility, UCLA lost its most dependable offensive weapon from 2006.                   
Outlook: Although Dorrell’s teams have traditionally done well on special teams, 2007 is shaping up as a transition year.  Not only does it sting losing Medlock, but also Williams, who averaged more than 26 yards a return in 2006, but was forced to retire for medical reasons.
Rating: 7


Related Stories
2007 UCLA Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 24, 2007
2007 UCLA Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 24, 2007
2007 UCLA Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 27, 2007

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