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. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Linebackers

UCLA linebackers watch during the Bruins' "Spring Showcase" at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

UCLA linebackers watch during the Bruins’ “Spring Showcase” at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

A program vying for the title of “Linebacker U” is about to enter what could be a very interesting season.

Anthony Barr needed just one offseason to turn himself into a dynamic pass rusher, and helped anchor the defense in Jim Mora’s first two seasons. Eric Kendricks was quietly consistent throughout his career, but peaked last fall on his way to a Butkus Award and UCLA’s all-time tackles record. Can Myles Jack seize that leadership role as well as his two predecessors?

All signs point to yes. Jack has impressed from almost the first practice snaps he took as a Bruin, and has proven himself to be one of the best cover linebackers in college football. While his sophomore season didn’t fulfill the all-world expectations set by his incredible two-way debut in 2013, he still finished with 87 tackles and seven pass breakups. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Defensive line

Enjoy watching Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes while you can. Both could be signing NFL contracts by this time next year.

UCLA will enter this fall with arguably the best defensive line duo in the conference, a pair that last season combined for 108 tackles, including 11 for loss. All-Pac-12 nods aren’t the most accurate measures of talent and/or performance, but of the eight defensive linemen that made first or second team last fall, Clark is one of two that return. (The other is Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, who like Clark is making NFL mock drafts as a potential first-round pick.) Vanderdoes followed right behind as an honorable mention.

Clark in particular was vital to the Bruins’ run defense, and is about as stout a nose tackle as you can find in college football. Looking back at his impact the last two seasons, it’s incredible that UCLA was considering redshirting him back in August 2013, during his first camp in San Bernardino. There were several times last fall when opposing offenses noticeably directed the ball away from the middle, where he and Vanderdoes stood as imposing obstacles. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Quarterbacks

UCLA quarterbacks work on drill during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA quarterbacks work on drill during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

Much has already been made of UCLA’s quarterback situation over the past several weeks. Through 15 practices, the consensus among observers was this: Josh Rosen looks like the Bruins’ best starting option this season.

Jim Mora and the rest of the coaching staff has declined to officially name a starter, which is unsurprising for a two main reasons: it’s not a good look to have a true freshman, however talented, zoom to the top of the depth chart; it might persuade those who lose the competition to think longer and harder before potentially deciding to transfer out.

For those still skeptical, here’s the quick argument for UCLA to start a first-year player at a position where first-year players have historically struggled. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Receivers

UCLA's Mossi Johnson catches a pass during spring football practice on April 2 at Spaulding Field.(Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA’s Mossi Johnson catches a pass during spring football practice on April 2 at Spaulding Field.(Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA has not produced a 1,000-yard receiver since 2011. Looking at the state of the Bruins’ offense, it’s a good bet that the drought will extend for another season.

Such is the nature of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s scheme. For three years, UCLA has divvied up targets between bevy of receivers, racking up significant total yards without creating a dominant No. 1 wideout. In 2014, Jordan Payton became the first Bruin to record more than 60 catches in the Jim Mora era; that same season, 12 others in the Pac-12 cleared that same threshold.

Payton might crack four-digit yardage as a senior, but the chemistry he built with Brett Hundley might not necessarily carry over when UCLA picks a new starter. (Even last year, Payton’s production tailed off as the season progressed; he didn’t top 58 yards or catch a single touchdown in his last four games.) This is not to say that the receiving corps are in any real trouble. After all, they return all but one member, and add a few others. Continue reading

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