A year ago, UCLA’s secondary was often called the team’s weakest link. Through that lens, the graduation of three starters wasn’t catastrophic.
Then, right before spring camp, the Bruins dismissed safety Tevin McDonald for a violation of team rules and lost their third-leading tackler. The planned return of safety Dietrich Riley would have softened that blow. The former four-star recruit was a hard hitter who lost 18 months to a neck injury, but said in April rehab had him feeling stronger than ever.
Last month, he medically retired, leaving the unit a near-blank slate. Still, there is reason to hope.
Key returners: Sophomore Randall Goforth may still be more widely known as the name attached to a fake Twitter taunt of USC receiver Robert Woods. That should change as he builds on his 39-tackle debut, one that included five starts as well as a stint on punt returns. He didn’t jump out during spring practices, so San Bernardino will be a chance for him to hint at his second-season potential.
After struggling with foot and back injuries for the past two years, junior Anthony Jefferson is finally feeling healthy again. A former four-star recruit in 2010, the rangy cornerback was the secondary’s MVP in spring — breaking up passes regularly and excelling in one-on-one coverage. If he does more of the same in preseason camp, he should lock down a starting spot. Standing at 6-foot-1, he has the short of size head coach Jim Mora likes to have patrolling the sideline.
Ishmael Adams doesn’t have the same genetic gifts at 5-foot-8, but shined through the first week of spring camp. Wearing a precautionary red jersey that did nothing to stop him from hitting, he even held his own early on against No. 1 receiver Shaq Evans. Though he tailed off a bit afterward, the Oaks Christian product did enough to show why the staff chose not to redshirt him until he injured his shoulder.
Brandon Sermons has great speed and has shaken off his own injury history, having lost the 2010 season to a broken leg. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior safety said he’s regained his confidence and feels comfortable doing everything without fear of another break.
Mini-linebacker Stan McKay is moving back to safety to help fill Riley’s absence. He carved out a niche for himself in the hybrid position last year with 34 tackles and two interceptions, so his adjustment could be worth watching.
Key newcomers: True freshmen could make a stronger impression on the secondary than any other unit. Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Johnny Johnson and Tyler Foreman all committed to UCLA within a four-day span, and all four are expected to play immediately. Rated a five-star cornerback by Scout.com, Willis is the group’s most touted member. Big and physical, he should push either Jefferson or Adams for a starting spot.
The 5-foot-9 Johnson is built similarly to Adams, but doesn’t have the benefit of a year’s experience in the program. Goodman and Foreman are both skilled tacklers, though the latter carries an extra nine pounds on the same 6-foot-2 frame.
Linebacker Jayon Brown could potentially shift back as a strong safety. Senior linebacker Anthony Barr pointed out the three-star recruit’s athleticism, mentioning that he kept up in one-on-one drills against running backs.
CB – Anthony Jefferson, Jr., 6-1, 185
CB – Ishmael Adams, Fr., 5-8, 190
S – Randall Goforth, So., 5-10, 190
S – Brandon Sermons, Sr., 5-11, 190