After 10 grueling days of practice in San Bernardino, plus a few more days back on campus, UCLA has begun game prep for its season opener against Nevada. With less than a week to go until Aug. 31, here’s how each position group looks.
Offensive line: After struggling through 2012 with a patchworked line, the unit was a major target for UCLA on the recruiting trail. Position coach Adrian Klemm came through with a touted seven-man haul that ranked among the best in the nation.
Not everyone will perform right away. A few came into camp out of shape and are headed for redshirt years, while others still need time to adjust to the college level. Coupled with a few solid veterans, however, and UCLA should at least improve on a unit that allowed 52 sacks last season.
Junior Xavier Su’a-Filo is one of the best guards in the country, and is capable of moving to left tackle too if necessary. He’s stronger than he was last year, when he was coming off a two-year Mormon mission in Alabama and Florida, and will be the foundation for the Bruins’ running game.
Center is also solid with redshirt sophomore Jake Brendel, who earned Freshman All-America honors in 2012 and a team captain spot last week. Behind him is promising freshman Scott Quessenberry, who also played some guard during fall camp.
Caleb Benenoch is the most polished member of the seven-man recruiting haul, and has locked himself in at starting right guard. He has big-game experience playing in front of five-digit Texas crowds, and has earned praise from coaches and teammates for his knowledge of the position. Freshmen Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy also showed potential at guard, and should get plenty of rotations throughout the season.
Sophomores Torian White and Simon Goines earned starting nods at right and left tackle, respectively. Both have reshaped their bodies, though the later is still limited by a hyperextended knee.
Wide receivers: Even if the 6-foot-7 Joseph Fauria is no longer around, quarterback Brett Hundley won’t lack for targets.
Shaq Evans led the Bruins with 800 receiving yards last season, and returns now as the No. 1 receiver. The most exciting name in the group, however, may be sophomore Devin Fuller. A converted quarterback, Fuller just finished his first full offseason as a receiver. He has tremendous athleticism, and gains separation with ease working out of the slot. He hasn’t been used in any quarterback packages since a few Wildcat-type looks in spring, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone wouldn’t rule him out there.
On the outside, Jordan Payton has the spot opposite Evans. He isn’t the highlight reel some of his teammates are, but uses his size well and has sticky hands. Devin Lucien may have higher upside, but needs to become more consistent.
At Y receiver, freshman Thomas Duarte may have already earned himself the right to start. The Mater Dei product has good size at 6-foot-3 and a smooth, long stride. Senior Darius Bell is a savvy route runner who will split reps with Duarte. Nate Iese, who switched from defensive end, has intriguing potential but still needs to learn the playbook. At 6-foot-3, 243 pounds, he has little trouble posting up defenders to create an easy out for his quarterback.
Running backs: How many backs will it take to match Johnathan Franklin’s record-setting production? In what should be a much more pass-heavy UCLA offense, no successor has made a significant impression yet.
Jordon James is penciled in as the starter, though he has yet to prove himself as much more than an adequate runner. The junior is better in pass protection than his competition — a particularly important skill in Noel Mazzone’s offense — but averaged less than 3.4 yards per carry last season. He’s becoming more of a north-to-south runner, which coaches have harped on for all the backs, and has had his share of long runs in practice.
Paul Perkins is right behind James in the rotation, and Steve Manfro has also moved back to his natural position after being used primarily as an F-back his freshman season. Either one has a chance to unseat James, whose spot comes with — in position coach Steve Broussard’s word — a “big eraser.”
Malcolm Jones lost some reps in fall camp when a concussion sidelined him, but could at least carve out a role as a goal-line back. True freshman Craig Lee has star potential, though he’s in line for either special teams use or a redshirt year. Senior Damien Thigpen, third on the team in all-purpose yards last season, may return from his torn ACL in October.
Quarterbacks: Brett Hundley will be one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country. After a splendid debut season that saw him set multiple school records, the redshirt sophomore has added muscle and refined his decision-making. UCLA’s only worry is if Hundley gets injured; if he goes down, the drop in talent will be precipitous.
T.J. Millweard’s recent transfer out leaves Jerry Neuheisel and walk-on Mike Fafaul to compete for the backup job. Neuheisel, last year’s scout team quarterback, will likely secure the spot, but he had a rough fall camp pocked with awful, forced interceptions.
True freshman Asiantii Woulard has a big arm and tremendous upside, but is still a raw quarterback with little pocket presence. He’ll almost certainly redshirt unless Hundley misses significant time.
Defensive line: Eddie Vanderdoes’ successful appeal to play this season quickly bolstered what was a dinged-up line. If healthy, he’s good enough to fill in for Owa Odighizuwa, who is redshirting after hip surgery. Even though he was limited through most of camp with a tight back, Vanderdoes immediately began commanding double teams on nearly every snap he took. The primary worry is that his injury sounded like a herniated disc; even minor cases take several weeks to heal.
On the right side, Cassius Marsh is shaping up to be a third-round NFL pick next May. The defensive end has good speed off the edge, and should seize the limelight after being somewhat overshadowed by Datone Jones last year. After registering eight sacks as a junior, he could easily clear double digits.
Keenan Graham is a little undersized, but took most of the first-team reps opposite Marsh through camp. A 4-3 end under Rick Neuheisel, he switched to outside linebacker last season and is an effective rusher who relies more on finesse. Junior Brandon Willis and freshman Kylie Fitts will both rotate in on the line as well.
Defensive end Ian Taubler will likely redshirt the season after suffering a concussion for his second straight fall camp. He had switched positions from tight end.
At nose tackle, true freshman Kenneth Clark has played well enough that he probably won’t redshirt. Seali’i Epenesa returns after starting 10 games last season, and a slimmed-down Ellis McCarthy will back him up to start the season.
Linebackers: Almost certainly the deepest position group on the team, this is the area of least concern. All-American Anthony Barr is the lynchpin of the Bruins’ front seven, and could be a top-ten pick in May’s NFL draft. He suffered an undisclosed head injury Tuesday night, but likely won’t miss multiple games; UCLA still has 10 days until its season opener against Nevada, and 24 days until its trip to Nebraska.
Even without Barr, UCLA has an exorbitant amount of talent in this unit. Eric Kendricks led the Pac-12 with 150 tackles as a sophomore, while fellow inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt is a versatile, skilled athlete.
Opposite Barr, sophomore Aaron Wallace has performed well at outside linebacker, though he could be pushed there by sophomore Kenny Orjioke — a freak athlete — or versatile true freshman Myles Jack. Ryan Hofmeister took most of the first-team snaps through spring and fall camp while Kendricks was sidelined (ankle), and freshman Isaac Savaiinaea will contribute immediately. True freshman Deon Hollins will be useful as a third-down pass-rusher.
Secondary: This is by far the area of most concern. UCLA lost all four starters from a mediocre secondary, then took another blow when safety Dietrich Riley medically retired. Riley had been expected to return after sitting out 2012 following neck surgery.
The 2013 recruiting class included four talented defensive backs, but cornerback Johnny Johnson separated his shoulder during fall camp and will likely redshirt. The Bruins’ secondary still has some capable players, but little experience and even less depth. Randall Goforth, who started five games as a freshman, will start at safety alongside junior Anthony Jefferson — a former four-star recruit whose career has been hampered by back surgery and a broken foot.
For the season opener, Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams will likely start as cornerbacks. Moreau, a converted running back, has blossomed surprisingly since the tail end of spring camp. Adams is a very good cover corner, but struggles at times against bigger receivers. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound played two games in 2012 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
The reserves are even more unproven. Senior safety Brandon Sermons has great top-end speed, but often gets burned off the line of scrimmage. Freshman cornerback Priest Willis shined early in camp, but has fallen down the depth chart a bit since then. (He should still compete for a starting spot at some point in the season.) Fellow first-years Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman should both contribute at safety, but their inexperience still shows right now.
Special teams: Sophomore kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn looks automatic inside 40 yards, good from beyond that. He was decent as a true freshman last year, but struggled with distance until late in the season. Still, Jim Mora trusted him with a 52-yard try in their Pac-12 Championship loss to Stanford despite inclement weather.
Punter Sean Covington won’t make fans forget two-time Ray Guy semifinalist Jeff Locke, but the freshman from Florida has a big left leg with eventual All-Pac-12 potential. He’ll have some nice pin-downs as well as the occasional shank.
A few different players are rotating in on kick and punt returns, including Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Ishmael Adams and Steve Manfro. Manfro muffed a number of punts last season as a freshman, but insists he’s looking forward. Expect more clarity at this position come game week.
QB: Brett Hundley (So., 6-3, 222); Jerry Neuheisel (RS Fr., 6-1, 192)
RB: Jordon James (Jr., 5-9, 194); Paul Perkins (RS Fr., 5-10, 196)
WR: Shaq Evans (Sr., 6-1, 204); Devin Lucien (So., 6-0, 195)
WR: Jordan Payton (So., 6-1, 212); Eldridge Massington (Fr., 6-1, 205)
F: Devin Fuller (So., 5-11, 195); Darren Andrews (Fr., 5-10, 180)
Y: Thomas Duarte (Fr., 6-3, 221); Darius Bell (Sr., 5-11, 210)
RT: Torian White (So., 6-5, 290), Poasi Moala (Fr., 6-4, 265)
RG: Caleb Benenoch (Fr., 6-5, 320), Alex Redmond (Fr., 6-5, 305)
C: Jake Brendel (So, 6-4, 285), Scott Quessenberry (Fr., 6-3, 288)
LG: Xavier Su’a-Filo (Jr., 6-3, 305); Carl Hulick (RS Fr., 6-2, 278)
LT: Simon Goines (So., 6-6, 325), Connor McDermott (RS Fr., 6-8, 277)
DE: Cassius Marsh (Sr., 6-4, 260); Brandon Willis (Jr., 6-1, 275)
DT: Seali’i Epenesa (Sr., 6-1, 310), Ellis McCarthy (So., 6-4, 330)
DE: Eddie Vanderdoes (Fr., 6-3, 310); Keenan Graham (Sr., 6-1, 255)
OLB: Anthony Barr (Sr., 6-4, 255); Myles Jack (Fr., 6-1, 255)
ILB: Jordan Zumwalt (Sr., 6-4, 235); Isaac Savaiinaea (Fr., 6-2, 230)
ILB: Eric Kendricks (Jr., 6-0, 228); Ryan Hofmeister (Jr., 6-0, 222)
OLB: Aaron Wallace (So., 6-2, 240), Kenny Orjioke (So., 6-0, 240)
CB: Fabian Moreau (So., 6-0, 193); Priest Willis (Fr., 6-2, 185)
S: Randall Goforth (So., 5-10, 190); Brandon Sermons (Sr., 5-11, 190)
S: Anthony Jefferson (Jr., 6-1, 185); Tahaan Goodman (Fr., 6-2, 189)
CB: Ishmael Adams (RS Fr., 5-8; 190); Anthony Jefferson (Jr., 6-1, 185)