Pac-12: Damien Holmes

UCLA Bruins season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
10:30
AM ET
We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season in reverse alphabetical order with the UCLA Bruins.

UCLA

Coach: Jim Mora: (9-5)

2012 record: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12 South)

Key losses: RB Johnathan Franklin, OL Jeff Baca, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
James Snook/US PresswireCoach Jim Mora's Bruins have a brutal two-game stretch in late October.
Key returnees: QB Brett Hundley, OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Anthony Barr, WR Shaq Evans, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Jordan Zumwalt.

Newcomer to watch: Now that the NCAA has signed off on his Irish exodus, five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes might be able to jump in immediately and help restore some depth to UCLA’s defensive front, which has suffered some attrition through injury and graduation.

Biggest games in 2013: There are plenty of them, as the Bruins' schedule figures to be tougher than last season. At Nebraska (Sept. 14) highlights the nonconference slate and the back-to-back games at Stanford (Oct. 19) and at Oregon (Oct. 26) is a vicious two-week stretch. They close with ASU (Nov. 23) and at USC (Nov. 30) in a span that will likely decide the South Division.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are more than most fans would prefer to see -- like a youthful secondary that’s without Tevin McDonald (dismissed from team) and Dietrich Riley (medical retirement) and gaps across the defensive front. But replacing Franklin -- or at least replicating most of his production through a committee -- has to be a top priority. The Doak Walker finalist departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher and was a comforting and stabilizing presence for Hundley in his first season as a starter. Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Craig Lee, Malcolm Jones and Steven Manfro make up the crowded committee – which will get even more crowded when Damien Thigpen returns from injury sometime in October.

Forecast: Picked by the media to take the Pac-12 South for the third straight year, the Bruins aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this season. Mora had a fantastic first season as a collegiate head coach and Hundley proved to be as advertised -- if not better. But he loses his favorite red zone target in Fauria, the aforementioned Franklin, and there are still holes on the offensive line that need to be sorted out.

The defense, as noted above, also has holes, but there are some exciting young players in the secondary eager to make a name for themselves. And, of course, Anthony Barr returns as one of the nation’s premier defensive players and a probable first-round draft pick -- possibly even top 10.

The schedule ramps up significantly in 2013. The Bruins go to Stanford for a rematch of the 2012 Pac-12 title game and also face Oregon for the first time in the Mora era. Almost all of their toughest games are on the road, including Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC. With some of the previously mentioned offensive stars gone, Hundley will be asked to do more with the offense than he did last year -- which includes better decision-making and command of the offense.

Yet despite all of their success in 2012, the blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl lingers. As does the fact that the Bruins were the most-penalized team in the country last year and they gave up an unhealthy amount of sacks. Mora is making sure his players know they haven’t arrived yet.

The Bruins are a fascinating balancing act of proven playmakers and untested youth. If their youth matures quickly, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them in the title game for the third straight year.

UCLA Bruins spring wrap

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
8:00
AM ET
UCLA Bruins

2012 record: 9-5
2012 conference record: 6-3 (First in South Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; Defense: 6; Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners: QB Brett Hundley, OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Anthony Barr, WR Shaq Evans, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Jordan Zumwalt.

Key losses: RB Johnathan Franklin, OL Jeff Baca, TE Joseph Fauira, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes.

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Johnathan Fraklin (1,734)
Passing: Brett Hundley* (3,745)
Receiving: Shaq Evans* (877)
Tackles: Eric Kendricks* (149)
Sacks: Anthony Barr* (13.5)
Interceptions: Andrew Abbott, Sheldon Price (4)

Spring answers
  1. When in doubt, form a committee: There is no replacing Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s all-time leading rusher and a finalist for the Doak Walker award last season. But the hope is that a group of backs can combine to replicate his production. Jordon James looks like he might have a leg up as the leader of the committee, though Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones had solid springs. Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen shouldn't be counted out, either, heading into fall since the coaches have said they are fine with using five backs in a game.
  2. The corps stepping up: The coaches were extremely pleased with the production of the wide receiver corps this spring. Devin Fuller might have had the strongest spring of the group -- though returning leader Shaq Evans (60 catches, 877 yards, three touchdowns) still figures to be the primary target. Jordan Payton, Kenneth Walker, Eldridge Massington and Devin Lucien round out what should be a solid group.
  3. LB depth: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt make up a fantastic linebacking unit. Barr and Kendricks were among the national leaders in production last year. But this spring the Bruins saw the emergence of players like Aaron Wallace, Kenny Orijoke and Taylor Lagace and Aaron Porter. Defensive depth was a big concern for the Bruins last year. And for now, at least, it looks like they have solidified the two-deep at all the linebacking spots.
Fall questions
  1. Speaking of depth: The Bruins return the bulk of their offensive line -- but as we learned in the Baylor game when two linemen went down -- you can never have enough depth on the line. Finding backups will be key. And while players like Ben Wysocki stepped up this spring -- showing he can fill in at tackle or guard -- there will be plenty of competition with some good offensive linemen joining the team this fall. The starting five might be close to set -- but nothing is solidified.
  2. Secondary issues: As in issues in the secondary, not secondary concerns. Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson looked solid at cornerback and Brandon Sermons and Randall Goforth stepped up at safety. Though it’s likely that several, if not all four spots, will still be up for grabs come August. A highly-rated group of recruits join the secondary in the fall and playing time in the secondary is expected to be highly contested.
  3. Looking for leaders: Franklin, gone. Jeff Baca, gone. Datone Jones, gone. Damien Holmes, gone. These were leaders who rallied the troops when times were tough and, in their own ways, pulled their respective units together. Head coach Jim Mora talked about the importance of leadership and said it can’t be forced. Rather, it has to happen organically. He said he started to see some guys develop this spring, but the next few months before they meet for fall camp will be very telling in regards to who takes this team on their shoulders.

Lunch links: Oregon State No. 1?

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
2:30
PM ET
I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 5

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
10:00
AM ET
Taking stock of the fifth week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Arizona State has been operating under the radar, in large part because it has posted good wins as it climbed to 4-1, but not one that distinguished it nationally. Still, the 27-17 victory over California had an impressive solidity to it, with the Sun Devils making critical plays on both sides of the ball. Further, you can't forget you can no longer type that ASU hasn't won in Berkeley since 1997, as I did 457 times this past week.

Best game: Oregon State's 38-35 win at Arizona wasn't over until the final minute. It featured six second-half lead changes and 1,158 yards of offense. It featured a lot of gumption from both teams, too. Probably the most entertaining game so far this year. Of course, if you subscribe to DirectTV, you didn't see it. Sorry.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireBeavers quarterback Sean Mannion had a stellar game against Arizona on Saturday.
Biggest play: In a game dominated by the offenses, it was a defensive play that gave the Beavers the prize at Arizona. With less than a minute left, Arizona had a first down on its 42, needing a field goal to force overtime and a TD to win. A minute is plenty of time for the Wildcats' fast-paced offense, which had gashed the Beavers throughout the second half. But Beavers cornerback Rashaad Reynolds jumped in front of a Matt Scott pass and grabbed the game-clinching interception.

Offensive standout: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion completed 29 of 45 throws for a career-high 433 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against the Wildcats. It was the fifth most passing yards in school history. Further, on the game-winning drive, he was 6-for-6 for 52 yards with a 9-yard TD pass to Connor Hamlett.

Defensive standout: UCLA's Damien Holmes moved from defensive end to inside linebacker this year. Then, when Jordan Zumwalt got hurt, he moved to outside linebacker against Colorado. All he did was record seven solo tackles -- five coming for a loss -- with three sacks in UCLA's 42-14 win.

Special teams standout: Washington State true freshman Teondray Caldwell had eight kick returns for 220 yards against Oregon, including a 92-yard effort that set up a Cougars TD. It was the second most kickoff return yards in a single game in school history.

Smiley face: The way Week 5 played out helped the conference end up with six teams ranked in the AP poll. Now-No. 23 Washington's win against Stanford was impressive enough for voters to forget the debacle at LSU. No. 25 UCLA, which shouldn't have been voted out in the first place, bounced back from its loss to Oregon State by winning in an appropriately dominant fashion at Colorado. UCLA joined No. 2 Oregon, No. 13 USC, No. 14 Oregon State and No. 18 Stanford. It's been a long time since the conference earned this much respect for its depth.

Frowny face: With its loss to Arizona State, California fell to 1-4 and 0-2. It was the second defeat so far in newly remodeled Memorial Stadium. The Bears' bowl hopes are feeling increasingly unlikely. QB Zach Maynard doesn't look improved as a second-year starter. The offensive line is getting pushed round. Even the defense has been spotty at times. Things are not going well for coach Jeff Tedford, who will only hear the grousing increase if his team can't find a way to avoid a losing season.

Thought of the week: Conference of quarterbacks? Only one Pac-12 QB, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, at No. 16, ranks in the top 25 in the nation in passing efficiency. Meanwhile, seven conference teams rank among the top 25 in sacks per game: No. 5 Arizona State (4.2 sacks per game), No. 6 USC (4.0), No. 10 UCLA (3.4), No. 13 teams Washington State and Oregon (3.2) and No. 25 teams Stanford and Utah (2.75).

Questions for the week: Will the Pac-12 start eating itself up or will the final regular-season rankings still feature five or six teams? How many teams are capable of winning nine or 10 games? There are some interesting misses of note: USC and Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford, Oregon and UCLA, Washington and either Arizona State or UCLA. When good teams don't play, it makes it easier for multiple teams to remain in the rankings. That's a secret you learn from conferences with eight-game conference schedules.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Damien Holmes is on the move.

Again.

With the news that middle linebacker Patrick Larimore -- UCLA's 2011 defensive captain -- opted to take a medical retirement, the coaching staff looked to Holmes to once again switch positions and plug a hole.

After moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in UCLA's new 3-4 scheme during spring drills, Holmes has now been moved to the middle linebacker position. He has 20 starts over the past two seasons, so the experience is there. But all 20 have been at defensive end.

"With the coaching staff we have, I trust their judgment," Holmes said. "If they believe I can do it then I believe I can do it. I think I've gotten comfortable as a linebacker through training camp so I'm excited."

The move not only marks yet another significant shift in technique and mentality, but it also involves a deeper knowledge of the defense. As a middle linebacker, Holmes will be helping align the defensive front and making calls to the secondary.

"The only thing I'm focused on is getting the calls out there, being aggressive, staying low and flying around," he said. "I've always prided myself on is having a motor. Whether that's at D-end or inside linebacker or outside linebacker, that's what I want people to know me as."

Just a few days into his new gig, Holmes said he's adjusting quickly. Instinct helps.

"Outside, you have to hold an edge and you are only worried really about one side," he said. "Inside you have the whole field. As far as leverage goes, as far as the point of attack, I think it's different. Also, you get a different perspective being over the ball. Linemen are coming at you and have to shed them. There is definitely a difference. At the end of the day, it's football. It's getting to the ball and making a play. There is only so much that's different."

Practice notes

Growing up: After a sluggish start to Tuesday's late-morning practice, the Bruins picked up the pace in a goal-line drill, which head coach Jim Mora took as evidence that his team is growing up: "I think that’s the sign of a team that’s maturing. It’s hard to come out here every day and just pound on each other the way we do and sometimes it gets sloppy. But the teams that aren’t making progress, the sloppiness continues. The teams that are making progress -- like I believe our team is making progress -- they find a way to pull it together and that’s what they did today."

Holding out hope: Mora said he had big plans for freshman offensive lineman Simon Goines, but concussion/dehydration issues have kept him off the practice field for a good chunk of camp. But he's not ready to declare the 6-foot-7, 324-pounder from Keller, Texas, a redshirt yet: "I think it's too early to say that. It's obviously a possibility. He's close to being back. If he can come back and show some real progress then we'd like to continue to try to factor him in."

The next 'Y' guy: No one is going to knock Joseph Fauria off his spot as starting "Y" receiver -- which is essentially a hybrid tight end. But Mora has been impressed with freshman Ian Taubler, a 6-4, 250-pound tight end from Fresno, Calif.: "Ian looks good. Blocks well, you can stretch him out ... he's a matchup problem. I think he's going to be a guy that could contribute early. Ian could be one of those guys. I like him in all phases, blocking, running routes and catching the ball."

Live, but not live: After a spirited spring session with plenty of hitting, Mora has been keeping fall camp to what he calls "thud" sessions: "The risk that you take when you don't go live is in that first game there are some missed tackles. The risk that you take if you go live is you get somebody hurt this close to the season. I think if we do a good job of focusing through the end of the play -- not necessarily taking a guy down -- we're going to get the best of both worlds.

"When you say live to a football player, it’s hard to say 'Hey, live, but don’t cut-block. Live, but don’t tackle low. Live, but don’t take a shot on your teammate.' Your mindset changes when you say live."

UCLA spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
5/14/12
8:00
AM ET
2011 record: 6-8
2011 conference record: 5-4 (first in South)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 7; kicker/punter 1

Top returners
RB Johnathan Franklin, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, LB Damien Holmes, S Tevin McDonald.

Key losses
WR Nelson Rosario, OT Mike Harris, C Kai Maiava

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnathan Franklin* (976 yards)
Passing: Kevin Prince* (1,828 yards)
Receiving: Nelson Rosario (1,161 yards)
Tackles: Patrick Larimore* (81)
Sacks: Datone Jones* (3)
Interceptions: Andrew Abbott* (4)

Spring answers
1. Nice to meet you: Step one for a new coaching staff is to acclimate their players to not only their systems, but how they go about running their program. UCLA's players learned quickly that Jim Mora and Co. don't waste time. Players were introduced to a high-tempo practice session that took some getting used to, but ultimately they figured it out by the end of spring.

2. New look-offense: Players seemed to pick up new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's pass-happy scheme rather quickly -- and by the spring game, the quarterbacks were tossing multiple touchdowns. Each quarterback has said the new offense is less complex, but allows him to make quicker decisions. Because it's so pass-oriented, it caters to the talents of the quarterbacks. Which one starts, however, is still up for grabs (see below).

3. Defensive depth: The move of Holmes from defensive end to outside linebacker has opened up another spot on a fairly deep defensive line. Jones should flourish as a pass-rusher in the 3-4 scheme. Cassius Marsh, Brandon Willis and Owamagbe Odighizuwa bring depth and talent to a position group that should be the strength of UCLA's defense.

Fall questions
1. To be continued ...: Mora said he was hoping to name a quarterback by the end of spring. No dice. He wants a longer look at Brett Hundley, Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut before deciding. Each brings his own skill set and talents. Brehaut put up impressive numbers in the spring game and Hundley is oozing potential. This is the most important decision of Mora's young career as a college coach. No need to rush it.

2. Depth needed: The Bruins can fill out most spots, but there are still depth questions on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. Xavier Su'a-Filo returns -- which helps at tackle -- and linebacker Eric Kendricks had a good spring. But there are competitions other than quarterback to keep an eye on as they spill over into the fall. Which leads us to ...

Incoming help? It's possible that some of the players coming in could make an immediate impact. Which ones, however, remains a question. Defensive end Ellis McCarthy is likely to contribute right away; Ishmael Adams could pitch in in the secondary. Offensive linemen Simon Goines and Carl Hulick could also be in the mix.

Video: UCLA's Damien Holmes

April, 23, 2012
4/23/12
5:30
PM ET

Kevin Gemmell talks with the outside linebacker about his position switch from defensive end, and his overall impressions of UCLA's spring.
LOS ANGELES -- Damien Holmes came out of this whole position change thing looking pretty selfless. Truth be told, it's what he was hoping for all along.

When the UCLA defensive end heard that the Bruins were planning to switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 under Lou Spanos, his imagination began to run wild with thoughts of jumping hook-to-curl routes and pick-sixes. At 6-foot-4 and a leaner 260 pounds, he would be a perfect outside linebacker, he thought to himself.

[+] EnlargeDamien Holmes
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDamien Holmes on switching to OLB: "It's so fun. You get more responsibility and you get to show off a little more of what you have as a player."
“Once I knew there was going to be an emphasis on the 3-4, I decided in my mind I wanted to do the switch,” Holmes said. “Going up to the coaches’ office, I was going to talk to them about it and express how I was feeling. It turned out that’s the day they told me about the switch.”

It ended up being a mutual decision -- and likely one that will benefit a rush defense that ranked 11th in the conference last year and gave up slightly more than 190 yards per game.

"I’m loving the switch," Holmes said. "It’s so fun. You get more responsibility and you get to show off a little more of what you have as a player. I love that I can rush one play and then drop into coverage on the next play. It’s been a lot of fun."

Spanos stressed that UCLA won't be "pigeonholed" into a the 3-4 and that they'll be multiple. That's what makes a dynamic player like Holmes so valuable. He can set the edge standing up, rush with his hand on the ground or drop back into coverage.

"He's versatile and he'll do both in our scheme," Spanos said. "He has a nice balance. Very smart, very instinctive. Hardworking. Takes to coaching. He's doing a very good job for us."

In other news:

  • Librado Barocio -- a walk-on cornerback -- is out indefinitely after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament, head coach Jim Mora said after practice on Thursday. The non-contact injury occurred on Tuesday when the sophomore planted his foot during a coverage drill.
"It's really unfortunate when anyone gets hurt," Mora said. "But a kid like that, he dies out here every day to be great. And you hate to see that."

  • Running back Johnathan Franklin, who has struggled with fumbling demons throughout his career, said he's taken some more drastic steps this year to ensure ball protection. Aside from the 5-10 minutes of ball security drills at practice, Franklin now either walks around campus with a football -- daring teammates to try to get it -- or he's constantly flexing a tennis ball to improve his grip.
"Ball security is really something I'm focused on this spring," he said. "I'm just working on keeping it high and tight."

  • Thursday was not a watershed day for the quarterbacks -- all of whom either made bad decisions or threw interceptions during the live session. And the fact that the defense is playing well is making it that much tougher for Mora & Co. to gauge the QBs.
"It's a little difficult for our quarterbacks because our front seven is playing tenacious football," Mora said. "They are pinning their ears back and coming after it. So, you love it, but at the same time you need to see the quarterbacks."

Does that mean he'll tell the defense to back off so he can get a better look at the QBs?

"I will never tell those guys to back off," he said. "That's against my nature. I'm a defensive guy. I'll tell them to heat it up a little more."

  • Mora said that Saturday's scrimmage will be more like a "modified" scrimmage, citing all of the injuries. Rather, they'll do some situational scrimmaging -- such as an overtime period.
"For us to come out and run a 91-play scrimmage right now wouldn't be prudent just with the guys that we have missing," Mora said.

Pac-12 lunch links: Beavers getting healthy?

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:30
PM ET
What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

Preseason position reviews: defensive end

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
1:30
PM ET
The best way to neutralize the impressive quarterback talent in the Pac-10 this fall is to get someone in their faces as much as possible. That's what pass-rushing defensive ends do, and there is a solid cast of them coming back.

Even the two teams that fall in the "We'll see" category here don't lack for talent or experience. They just have obvious questions heading into preseason camp.

So how do things stack up?

Great shape
  • Arizona: The Wildcats were in great shape at the spot last year with the same two players, though Ricky Elmore eclipsed Brooks Reed when he recorded 10.5 sacks while Reed was hurt (ankle) much of the season. Word on the street is Reed has been a maniac in the weight room this offseason. Solid depth here, too.
  • USC: Two players worth buying stock in: Armond Armstead and Nick Perry. Perry had eight sacks as a backup in 2009 and Armstead was dominant this spring. Transfer of Malik Jackson hurts depth.
  • Oregon: Kenny Rowe led the Pac-10 with 11.5 sacks in 2009, while Dion Jordan was perhaps the breakout player of the Ducks' spring practices.
Good shape
  • California: Cameron Jordan has been good, but he has a chance to be great: Is 2010 his year? Trevor Guyton is the leader to replace first-round draft pick Tyson Alualu, while Deandre Coleman and Ernest Owusu provide high-quality depth.
  • UCLA: Datone Jones had a great spring, while Keenan Graham looks like the favorite to start on the opposite side. Solid depth with Damien Holmes, Iuta Tepa and touted incoming freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers struggled to rush the passer in 2009 and returning starter Matt LaGrone quit, but Gabe Miller is a talented athlete who came on late and had a good spring. Sophomore Taylor Henry is No.1 on the other side.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils must replace four-year star Dexter Davis. James Brooks and Greg Smith are the likely starters. Solid depth here but no standouts.
  • Washington State: The Cougars are sneaky good with sophomore Travis Long and senior Kevin Kooyman.
We'll see
  • Stanford: The Cardinal is hard to rate because they are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas, returning starters at end, are now outside linebackers and don't qualify. Meanwhile, Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke are experienced tackles but are new to end.
  • Washington: This is as pure of a "we'll see" as you can get. Four-year starter Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is off to the NFL and potential starter Andru Pulu got kicked off the team. If Everrette Thompson and Kalani Aldrich are healthy and ready to play 12 games, the Huskies are solid. Maybe even better than solid. If not, things are iffy.

Pac-10 lunch links: Why did Bob Gregory leave Cal?

April, 16, 2010
4/16/10
2:30
PM ET
Happy Friday.

Next step for UCLA LB Ayers is stardom

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
6:57
PM ET
A pick-six interception is just about the best thing a defensive player can do. Some players, however, never experience one over their entire career.

UCLA's Akeem Ayers got two of them last year. But that's not even the best part.

Ayers, an outside linebacker, wasn't in coverage when he made the plays. He produced his two pick-sixes while rushing the passer. Yes, he reached up and snagged balls that were intended to sail over his head.

Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesUCLA's Akeem Ayers has potential to be an all-conference player next season.



Against Oregon, he was right in quarterback Nate Costa's face when the ball was released from the back of the endzone. Ayers jumped, grabbed the ball and then showed the presence of mind -- and nimbleness -- to drop both feet in bounds before he fell out of the back of the endzone.

Then, in the EagleBank Bowl against Temple, he added a new element, falling on his face as he charged out of his stance before leaping into the errant pass and jogging four yards for the TD.

While most would rate the Oregon play higher in degree of difficulty, Ayers prefers highlight No. 2.

"Just because of the whole situation, being down [UCLA trailed 21-20 at the time] and being in a bowl game," the rising junior explained.

Those are notable sentiments: Ayers cares more about the team's situation than his own spectacularness. That's the sort of team-first mentality the Bruins will need if they expect to take another step forward in year three under Rick Neuheisel.

While just about every Pac-10 team must replace key defensive players this spring, UCLA perhaps takes the hardest hits of all: It loses six starters, including three first-team All-Pac-10 players, including conference Defensive Player of the Year, defensive tackle Brian Price.

Of course, Ayers doesn't see it that way.

"We have a lot of young talent on defense," he said. "We lack playing experience, but as far as talent we have players who will step up in spring ball and fill the gaps."

Ayers ticks off linebacker sophomore Patrick Larimore, a candidate to replace Reggie Carter at middle linebacker, and sophomore defensive lineman Damien Holmes as two examples.

He could toss himself into the mix, though he's no newbie. Ayers ranked third on the Bruins in 2009 with 75 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for a loss, which ranked second on the team and fifth in the conference. Playmaking? He recorded six sacks, grabbed four interceptions, forced four fumbles and recovered two.

If you're looking for a defender to rise from mostly unknown to first-team All-Conference in 2010, Ayers might be your man.

But he's still got areas to improve. For all his instincts and athletic ability, the 6-foot-4, 252-pound Ayers has a tendency to freelance outside of his assignments in the specific defensive scheme, something that used to infuriate Carter.

"If the guy is not near the play or ball, Akeem doesn't always want to be bothered with it," Carter told the LA Times last year. "That's understandable when you're young. As you get older, you realize you have to work in the scheme. He could hurt us one day."

Ayers, who saw Carter as a mentor on and off the field, is as aware of this as anyone. When asked what he needs to do to ascend from young talent to star, he said, "It's not so much physical. It's more the mental aspect, getting the defense down pat."

Despite the new starters on defense, that may not be the side of the ball that most worries Bruins fans. The offense ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring a year ago (22 points per game), and that's got to improve if the goal is to win more than seven games and to push into the top half of the conference standings.

Ayers said he's seen sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince working hard and taking a leadership role this offseason. As for the Bruins offensive line, which has been among the worst in the conference for the past three seasons, Ayers said he expects dramatic improvement.

"That's probably the least of my worries this season," he said.

Despite replacing several key starters, Ayers believes the Bruins are moving up in the Pac-10 and closing in on rival USC for one important reason.

"We have players who can play now," he said.

Catching up on some odds and ends

June, 8, 2009
6/08/09
10:43
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Picking up some Pac-10 odds and ends that got overlooked while I was on a mission in a galaxy far, far away ...

  • Bud Withers on the death of former Washington coach Jim Owens. 
  • UCLA's redshirt freshman defensive end Damien Holmes underwent surgery to remove a bone fragment from his right elbow Friday. He is expected to be ready for fall practices.
  • Arizona State defensive end Dexter Davis is writing a blog as part of requirements for a summer class. It's called "Sack Lunch with Dexter Davis."
  • Three Pac-10 players made the top 10 of The Sporting News' Matt Hayes' list of the nation's best players in 2009 and a fourth ended up in the top 25.
  • Details of new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian's contract were revealed by the Seattle Times.
  • The U.S. military is interested in Pete Carroll's "Win Forever" philosophy, according to his Web site: "Carroll was a specially invited attendee and speaker at the military's Conference on Small Unit Excellence, a first-of-its-kind seminar in Alexandria, Va., in late April that has since laid the foundation for revolutionary shifts in the actions and attitudes of the country's armed forces."
  • The Pac-10 is going to stick with round-robin scheduling and focus on cutting costs.
  • Tom Luginbill believes touted quarterback Jake Heaps (Sammamish, Wash./Skyline High) made the right decision by picking BYU over Washington and others, and the Huskies have other QBs on their radar.

SPONSORED HEADLINES