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Friday, March 25, 2011
UCLA spring football primer: The defense

By Peter Yoon

UCLA officially begins spring football practice Tuesday with an eye toward improving on a disappointing 4-8 season last year.

We'll break down the Bruins' depth charts and coaching staff over the next few days and take a look at the positions that are up for grabs and well as those that are solidified. We begin with the defense.

LAST YEAR:

UCLA ranked 94th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and ninth in the Pac-10  in total defense, giving up 420.08 yards per game. The Bruins were 108th in the nation against the run and gave up an average of 262.13 yards in their eight losses.

The Bruins were decent against the pass, ranking 53rd in the nation and fifth in the Pac-10 by giving up 214.58 yards passing per game, but gave up 300 or more yards through the air in three of their final six games.

THIS YEAR:

Joe Tresey replaces the fired Chuck Bullough as defensive coordinator and promises to bring a more versatile and flexible scheme, though his base will still be a 4-3.

Tresey was defensive coordinator at South Florida in 2009, when his defense ranked No. 24 nationally in total defense. He spent 2007-08 as defensive coordinator for Cincinnati, where his defense led the nation in turnovers gained (42) and interceptions (26) in 2007, while finishing 13th in scoring defense (18.8 ppg).  The following year, Cincinnati ranked 31st nationally in total defense (321.9 ypg), 19th in rushing defense (115 ypg) and 25th in scoring defense (20.1 ppg).

DEFENSIVE LINE

Youth and inexperience were problems for this unit a year ago, but it won't have those issues in 2011.  Seven returning defensive linemen have starting experience and the positions here figure to be among the most hotly contested throughout the spring and fall camps.

This unit gets a big boost with the return of defensive end Datone Jones (6-4, 272), who sat out last season after breaking his foot on the first day of fall camp. Jones is a disruptive force at the end, who started all 13 games as a sophomore and tallied four sacks with 11 tackles for a loss.

Tackle Cassius Marsh (6-4, 295) and end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 264) have a year of experience under their belts after ending last season as starters as true freshmen. Nate Chandler (6-5, 298) made eight starts last season a s a junior, switching between end and tackle, and figures to get most of his action at tackle this season with the graduation of 12-game starter David Carter .

Justin Edison (6-4, 292), Keenan Graham (6-2, 250) and Damien Holmes (6-3, 265) also got some starting experience last season.  Seali'i Epenesa (6-2, 323) played quite a bit as a true freshman last season and Iuta Tepa (6-1, 259) returns after missing most of last season because of a shoulder injury.

It all adds up to the type of experience and depth that was sorely missing on the defensive line last season and ensures that nobody will take their positions for granted. Jones, Marsh and Odighizuwa have the inside tracks on starting jobs, but that other tackle job is wide open and the competition should make everyone better.

New to the mix this spring will be Wesley Flowers (6-4, 264) and Derrick Bryant (6-3, 249), both of whom were redshirts last season and Sam Tai (6-4, 264), an incoming freshman who enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

LINEBACKERS:

The biggest void to fill here is the vacancy left when strong side linebacker Akeem Ayers left school and entered the NFL draft. Glenn Love (6-4, 219) is penciled in for that position now, but by no means has it sewn up. Look for Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 230), who gave a solid performance as a true freshman at middle linebacker during the last quarter of the season, to possibly slide into that position when Patrick Larimore (6-3, 253), the starting middle linebacker, returns from shoulder surgery. Aramide Olaniyan (6-2, 208) was biding his time as a redshirt last season and made a good impression as a scout team player, so he will also get in the rotation on the strong side.

The middle spot is Larimore's to lose after a very impressive seven-game stint last season before injuring his shoulder. He will miss spring practice, but is expected to be 100 percent by the fall. Zumwalt will play middle linebacker for now but with Larimore out, Isaiah Bowens (6-1, 235) will get some extra reps at middle linebacker and will try to work his way into the rotation. Todd Golper (6-0, 240) will also get some time there after missing most of last season because of a back injury.

Sean Westgate (5-11, 223)  returns to the starting weakside spot after finishing second on the team with 90 tackles last season and earning honorable mention All-conference honors. Westgate's main competition will come from Eric Kendricks (6-1, 226), who was named outstanding defensive scout team performer last season as a redshirt freshman. Incoming junior college transfer Ryan Hofmeister (6-2, 220) has enrolled in time for spring practice and will also get a look at the weakside linebacker as will Jared Koster (6-1, 208), who broke his collarbone playing special teams early last season and will be limited to non-contact drills for the spring.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Free safety Rahim Moore left for the NFL draft and returning starting cornerbacks Aaron Hester (6-1, 209) and Sheldon Price (6-2, 178) had inconsistent performances last season, so competition in the secondary is wide open.

The most secure secondary spot belongs to Tony Dye (5-11, 205) at strong safety. Dye led the team with 96 tackles last season and is an All-American candidate heading into next season. Hard-hitting Dietrich Riley (6-0, 205) was impressive as a true freshman last season and is listed as Dye's backup, but don't be surprised to see one of them slide over into Moore's vacated free safety spot and win that job to get the top two safeties on the field at the same time. Stan McKay (6-1, 198) would benefit from that situation as he'd steal some minutes as the backup strong safety.

Dalton Hilliard, listed No. 1 on the depth chart at free safety, will not participate in spring practice after offseason knee surgery, so that hampers his chances of staying atop the depth chart. Alex Mascarenas (5-10, 188) will get some looks at free safety, too, but look for Tevin McDonald (6-0, 194), impressive in practices as a redshirt last season, to quickly work his way up the depth chart either at safety or at cornerback.

Hester led the team with three interceptions last year so he gets the starting nod at left corner for now, but he lost that job for a game because of poor play last season, so his grip on it isn't exactly tight heading into spring. Breathing down his neck is Courtney Viney (5-8, 167) who replaced Hester as a starter for a game last season. Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 183) is also a challenger, but will sit out spring practice as he recovers from a broken foot suffered last season.

Price was showing signs of improving, especially as a corner cover, until a knee injury sidelined him for three games. The right corner is his job to lose, but Andrew Abbott (5-10, 181) was impressive as his backup and as the nickel back last season and proved to be a very good run stopper. Brandon Sermons (5-11, 185) returns after missing last season because of a knee injury and will be in the mix for playing time at corner and free safety.  True freshman Anthony Thompson (6-1, 208) has enrolled early and will also compete for playing time at the corner.