UCLA spring camp position reviews: Defensive backs

UCLA Bruins defensive back John Johnson (7) during a NCAA college spring football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, April 24, 2015. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)

UCLA cornerback Johnny Johnson runs with the ball during the Bruins’ “Spring Showcase” at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015.
(Keith Birmingham/Staff)

Like UCLA’s offensive line, the secondary is a unit that has grown significantly during the Jim Mora era. Back in 2012, the Bruins were maligned for their pass defense, one that ranked eighth in the Pac-12. In the last two years, they haven’t ranked lower than fourth.

With every starter returning, there’s plenty of depth in the defensive backfield, one that has emphasized positional versatility to facilitate the use of shifting schemes and to better secure against injuries. This fall, the X-factor will be whether or not any one player makes the leap into becoming a dominant, shutdown corner.

The best candidate is likely still senior Fabian Moreau, who looked fantastic in spring and fall camp last year before a very uneven 2014 season. The former running back was burned repeatedly through the first half of his junior campaign, but eventually found more a rhythm as the year wound to a close. Position coach Demetrice Martin said in April that Moreau often appeared to be in great position for a play, then explicably stopped running all the way through. The Florida native has since made an effort to work on his ball skills and fix that habit.

Marcus Rios might have the lead on starting opposite of Moreau. The junior, who missed all of the 2013 season battling a life-threatening fungal infection, looks like he’s again at full health. Now up to around 185 pounds, he played well enough in spring to seize a spot at first-spring cornerback, forcing Ishmael Adams to shift to nickel. Adams — who is prone to both big plays and big mistakes — can still play his way back into a primary role, but UCLA runs with five defensive backs often enough that the move shouldn’t significantly reduce his snaps.

The safety position is very secure assuming good health. Randall Goforth returns as a redshirt junior after missing nearly all of 2013 and undergoing surgeries on both shoulders. He’s not a physically imposing player at 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, but he has been one of UCLA’s most prolific tacklers throughout his career. He hit the playbook harder while out, and is now a veteran presence who functions as an extra coach on the field.

Next to him is sophomore Jaleel Wadood, who slid into the starting lineup seamlessly after Goforth’s injury last season. Wadood is even smaller, listed at 5-foot-10, 175, but has a nose for finding the ball. There were certain practices in April where the St. John Bosco product looked like the best defensive player on the field.

The backup situation is a little more fluid, with a bevy of once-touted recruits battling to carve out spots on the depth chart. Junior safety Tahaan Goodman might be the biggest hitter in the secondary, but has at times given up big plays. Priest Willis hasn’t looked completely comfortable at cornerback since an outstanding first week in San Bernardino almost two years ago, when he was able to get by purely on athleticism. Former four-star recruit Johnny Johnson has essentially had his whole career sidelined by shoulder injuries, but Mora said his feet still look as “magical” as ever.

There are a first-year players to keep an eye on as well. Three-star safety Nathan Meadors enrolled early and should get a healthy amount of snaps immediately. Incoming four-star cornerback DeChaun Holiday could be the team’s future at the position.

Projected two-deep
Cornerback: Fabian Moreau, Denzel Fisher/Johnny Johnson
Safety: Jaleel Wadood, Tahaan Goodman
Safety: Randall Goforth, Nathan Meadors
Cornerback: Marcus Rios/Ishmael Adams, Priest Willis

Previous position reviews:
Offensive line
Running backs
Defensive line