UCLA football post-spring: Defense and special teams

Defensive line

Can UCLA’s defensive front survive the loss of a first-round pick — the team’s first since 2006? Cassius Marsh, pegged as a third-round talent in some early projections, now succeeds new Green Bay Packer Datone Jones as the Bruins’ best defensive end. By most observations, he’s matured since 2011, a year that saw him storm out of spring practice and later suspended two games for an October brawl at Arizona.

“Sometimes, he may stop on that line, but not over it,” said defensive line coach Angus McClure. “I call it a ‘controlled insanity.’ You want to go to that line but you don’t want to go over it. Certainly, he’s learned to manage it.”

The rest of the line, however, is a muddled with injuries. Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Ellis McCarthy both sat out spring while rehabbing from their respective hip and knee surgeries, while nose tackle Brandon Tualiaupupu tore his ACL in mid-April.

McCarthy, who said he’s dropped 30 pounds since last season, will likely back up Seali’i Epenesa at the tackle spot. If Owa isn’t able to return in full by the start of the season, true freshman defensive end Kylie Fitts could be forced into some early action. Senior Keenan Graham, who moved to back to end from outside linebacker, looked promising through spring. Brandon Willis should be a contributor there too.

Linebackers

Anthony Barr is an absolute star. But you knew this already — as did NFL scouts, draft analysts, and more or less the entire Pac-12 conference. The task now, then, is for Barr to make himself a household name as far away as Austin or Norman, Tuscaloosa or Columbia.

Only entering his second season at outside linebacker, the 6-foot-4 athlete should leave UCLA as a top-10 pick. Already known for his hard-hitting ways (see: Matt Barkley, Daniel Zychlinski), Barr said he focused on improving his pass coverage abilities this spring.

Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks return to stablize the inside, though the latter missed most of spring with a sprained ankle. Kendricks’ injury opened up spring reps for Ryan Hofmeister, who actually didn’t look too shabby. Taylor Lagace is a mini-backer for now, but has the potential to grow into a full-fledged inside linebacker as well.

The spot opposite Barr outside was the biggest question mark heading into April. Aaron Wallace seems the best bet to start there for now, though coaches also spoke glowingly of 17-year-old rising sophomore Kenny Orjioke — now up to 237 pounds. Incoming freshmen Myles Jack and Deon Hollins should both push for reps there, giving UCLA a deep group to work with in year two of the Jim Mora era.

“It’s tough, year one. You bring a new system in, so there’s going to be some bumps and bruises just with the brand new system,” said linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. “And then you add depth, so you’ve got a group that understands the defense now. And you’ve got guys they can learn from that understand the system. All of a sudden, you’ve got a lot more options.”

Secondary

Fans can afford some cautious optimism, even after UCLA ranked eighth in pass defense last year in a season plagued by pass interference penalties. Junior Anthony Jefferson, long plagued by injuries, was one of April’s most surprising performers and said he finally feels fully healthy. Redshirt freshman Ishmael Adams also had strong moments. Both could potentially start at cornerback for the season opener.

Randall Goforth and Dietrich Riley are at the top of the depth chart at safety, although the latter suffered in pass coverage through spring and missed time with a separated shoulder.

Touted freshmen Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson and Tyler Foreman are all expected to contribute even if they don’t immediately earn starting spots. If they can perform up to their four- or five-star billings, the Bruins should have little trouble weathering the loss of all four starters.

Special teams

Jeff Locke will soon be some 1,800 miles away, having become the Minnesota Vikings’ fifth-round draft pick last week. Without the two-time Ray Guy semifinalist, UCLA’s best punter this spring was the JUGS machine.

When situations required a human body, everyone from backup kicker Justin Moreno to fullback Phillip Ruhl pitched in with mixed results. One of Moreno’s punt during the spring game traveled about 10 yards in the air before rolling another 11.

This hardly signals panic mode. The Bruins knew they wouldn’t have a punter yet, and Mora didn’t list one on the pre-spring depth chart. Still, they can’t wait for the arrival of freshman Sean Covington, one of the best prospects at his position.

Head coach Jim Mora said kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has All-American potential. The rising sophomore was automatic inside 35 yards last season, and said he spent most of winter working to strengthen his leg. The Bruins do have to find a new longsnapper after graduating Kevin McDermott, who signed to the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent. Competition is still open on kick and punt returns.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/sakatalaw Cliff Sakata

    Nice write up Jack. Thanks.

  • miker%buffspec.com

    Honest question, maybe for your next Q&A: Is Cliff Sakata a paid flack or a blood relative. (I’m ruling out the possibility it’s actually you using a pseudonym)
    MichaelRyerson

    • Hogsman

      Sure seems like it – never saw his name on this blog before Jack started.

      • http://www.facebook.com/sakatalaw Cliff Sakata

        I’ve actually never met or talked to Jack and I visited this blog for several years before Jack joined. You can Google me if you want, but I graduated from UCLA in 1995. I am a partner in an immigration law firm in San Diego. I’ve worked for the US government (Justice Department, State Department) and Japanese government prior to becoming an attorney. I am a huge UCLA fan and a fan of Jack’s work if you really want to know. So no, we are not related even though we’re both Asian and I have a regular job, so don’t need to get paid to write a comment once every week. Sorry if you guys have a problem with that.

        • miker%buffspec.com

          For me, it would lend more credibility to your comments if you were occasionally critical of Jack and this blog. It isn’t like he doesn’t give you the opportunity. Your endless atta boys are tiresome, not because they’re atta boys but because that’s all there is.
          MichaelRyerson

          • http://www.facebook.com/sakatalaw Cliff Sakata

            No hard feelings Michael. I just prefer to be positive I guess (except when it comes to Dan Guerrero).

          • miker%buffspec.com

            And you call yourself an attorney?
            MichaelRyerson

          • http://twitter.com/FatBooster Joe Blow

            Don’t pay attention to our fellow Bruins. Some are not so smart if you know what I mean.

        • Jjwin

          so you’re a fan of the Wang, are ya?

  • http://twitter.com/have2comment have2comment

    I think we’re going to miss Jeff Locke this year. The guy was an artist.

  • Sam C

    Al Freeman gives up ucla for Baylor in Texas? What’s Moser doing, collecting jerseys?