UCLA preseason preview: Defensive backs

July, 31, 2012
7/31/12
9:43
PM PT
With UCLA training camp set to begin Saturday at Cal State San Bernardino, we're taking a preseason look at the roster and breaking down the Bruins position by position.

We went through the offense first, looking at quarterbacks, offensive line, receivers and running backs. Special teams came next and now we begin our breakdown of the defense with the defensive backs.

DEPTH CHART AT THE END OF SPRING PRACTICE:

Left Cornerback
Sheldon Price (6-2, 180, Sr.)
Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 184, So.)
Erick Zumwalt (5-10, 170, Fr.)

Strong Safety
Andrew Abbott (5-8, 180, Sr.)
Dalton Hilliard (5-11, 198, Sr.)
Dylan Price (5-10, 206, So.)

Free Safety
Tevin McDonald (5-11, 185, So.)
Stan McKay (6-1, 205, Jr.)
Anthony Thompson (6-1, 208, Fr.)

Right Cornerback
Aaron Hester (6-1, 207, Sr.)
Brandon Sermons (6-0, 195, Jr.)
Marcus Rios (6-0, 180, Fr.)

PROJECTED OPENING-DAY DEPTH CHART:

Left Cornerback
Sheldon Price (6-2, 180, Sr.)
Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 184, So.)
Marcus Rios (6-0, 180, Fr.)
Erick Zumwalt (5-10, 170, Fr.)

Strong Safety
Dalton Hilliard (5-11, 198, Sr.)
Andrew Abbott (5-8, 180, Sr.)
Taylor Lagace (6-1, 200, Fr.)
Dylan Price (5-10, 206, So.)

Free Safety
Tevin McDonald (5-11, 185, So.)
Stan McKay (6-1, 205, Jr.)
Kenny Orjioke (6-4, 222, Fr.)

Right Cornerback
Aaron Hester (6-1, 207, Sr.)
Ishmael Adams (5-8, 186, Fr.)
Brandon Sermons (6-0, 195, Jr.)
Randall Goforth (5-10, 173, Fr.)
Justin Combs (5-7, 162, Fr.)

KEY LOSSES:
Tony Dye, safety, team leader in tackles in 2010. Graduated.
Alex Mascarenas, safety, key reserve in 2011. Medical retirement.
Dietrich Riley, safety, five-game starter in 2011. Injured.

THE SKINNY:
The defensive backfield was in tatters by the end of spring practice as injuries further thinned a position group that wasn't all that deep to begin with. The good news is that the incoming freshman class boasts some of the top talent of any position coming in this fall and they could help turn this group into one of the deepest units on the team.

There is little doubt that cornerback mainstays Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will begin the season as starters. Price, the top cover corner on the team, has started for the last three seasons and Hester, who has a very desirable combination of size and speed, is a two-year starter. That experience will be invaluable and make it difficult to unseat them during training camp.

That's not to say they won't be pushed. Anthony Jefferson seems to have overcome his numerous injuries and had a terrific spring showing and will certainly give coach Jim Mora something to think about should he continue to progress. Incoming freshman Ishmael Adams enters as one of UCLA's top-ranked recruits and has the skills to immediately challenge for playing time if he proves he can handle the mental jump from high school to college.

Marcus Rios enrolled in school in time for spring practice and while his play was a little shaky early on, he seemed to adjust to the college game and made enough progress that he'll be a player to watch in camp. Brandon Sermons played a key role off the bench last season and will be counted on to do the same this year.

Randall Goforth could also make a push. He's an explosive athlete with excellent cover skills, but is a bit on the light side and might need a redshirt year to bulk up so he can better handle tackling responsibilities at the Division I level. Justin Combs is also a bit undersized and is probably looking at a redshirt season.

At free safety, Tevin McDonald took over the starting spot last season after Tony Dye was injured and he never let it go. He led UCLA with nine passes defended and tied a school record with three interceptions in a game against California. He's an instinctive player who is developing into a team leader and is in line to hold that spot for at least two more seasons.

Stan McKay will probably back up at free safety after playing in 13 games as a reserve last season and making two starts at strong safety. McKay developed nicely as the season went on and became a valuable contributor down the stretch.

Incoming freshman Kenny Orjioke is listed as a defensive back but his size says linebacker. He's a tough-nosed player with good athleticism, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him redshirt this season and try to add 15 or 20 pounds so he can take a shot at linebacker next season.

Team leadership will definitely come from the strong safety spot with seniors Dalton Hilliard and Andrew Abbott bringing both experience to the position. Hilliard is back at safety after a brief spring experiment at running back. He started five games at the safety last season and ended up sixth on the team with 50 tackles. Abbott also made five starts as the nickel back and led the team with four interceptions. They are also among the most high-character guys on the team.

Incoming freshman Taylor Lagace is the prototypical strong safety. He's physical, has a good nose for the ball and is athletic enough to cover receivers. He's got enough size to play right away but with Hilliard and Abbott in front of him is biggest impact this season will probably come on special teams.

Playing in the Pac-12 will force the Bruins to use a nickel package quite a bit, so look for Abbott to continue getting that duty after performing so well there last season. Adams, the incoming freshman, may also get a look as the nickel back.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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