See your team in your mind's eye -- 24 starters, including specialists.
If you could put an absolute halo of safety -- perhaps a girdle of indestructibility -- around just one, who would it be?
We're rating each team's most indispensable player. And when the choice is too obvious -- say, Stanford -- we'll try to offer a second choice.
Up next: UCLA
DE Datone Jones
We already know what UCLA's defense looked like without Jones -- the rotten one that stunk it up in 2010, despite two high NFL draft choices in linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore. We're not typing that it is certain that the Bruins defense would have been dramatically better last fall with Jones, but the suggestion isn't unworthy of entertaining. And, by the way, it is the position held by the Pac-12 blog. Start with this: If you can't pressure the opposing quarterback, you're in trouble, and the Bruins had just 25 sacks last season. Jones during 2010 spring practices -- and again this past spring -- looked like a guy who could get 10-plus sacks himself.
Of course, some defenses are good even without a lot of sacks because they stuff the run -- Arizona State last season, for example -- but the Bruins were equally inept at that, ranking ninth in the conference -- and 108th in the nation -- in run defense. Jones, at 272 pounds, is big enough to hold up against the run. That combination of skills is why Jones is firmly on the NFL radar and may not be back in 2012. As a true sophomore in 2009, he had four sacks and 11 tackles for a loss, and his breakout in 2010 seemed like a near-certainty before his injury.
Further, when you look at the Bruins depth chart, you don't see many players who stand out as much as Jones in his position group. Johnathan Franklin is a 1,000-yard rusher, but the Bruins are deep at tailback. Tony Dye is a fine safety, but the Bruins have lots of young talent there. Center Kai Maiava was considered, but that was more about a lack of depth on the line. The Bruins actually are solid on the defensive line, and there's good talent at end. But Jones is a difference-maker, perhaps more so than any other player on the team. If he stays healthy, expect him to make a big difference on a unit that should be much better this fall.