UCLA post-spring position outlook: Secondary

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog will cover the status of each position group moving forward. Next up …

Secondary

UCLA is very familiar with offense-to-defense success. With the last project off to the NFL as a top-ten pick, can the Bruins duplicate that sort of transformation?

Heading into the 2014 season, the best bet on the roster is Fabian Moreau — a former three-star running back who converted to cornerback as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles two years ago. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound soon-to-be junior earned an all-conference honorable mention in just his second year at the position — one in which he started 12 games. Continue reading

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VIDEO: Cornerback Priest Willis reflects on disappointing freshman season


Priest Willis entered UCLA last year as one of the Bruins’ most highly touted recruits, but didn’t live up to the hype with a nine-tackle season spent mostly on special teams.

“It wasn’t the year I wanted,” the cornerback said. “I wasn’t happy with it, but everyone learns differently. Sometimes, you can’t just be a Myles Jack. Sometimes, people learn much slower. That was the process for me.”

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Linebacker Eric Kendricks returns to first full practice since spring


After sitting out most of spring and fall camp, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks returned to 11-on-11 drills Tuesday morning, the most field action he’s seen in nearly four months.

Last year’s Pac-12 leader with 150 tackles, the 6-foot, 228-pound junior said he underwent ankle surgery four weeks ago. The procedure was optional, but he said he didn’t opt for it because of worsening pain. He just wanted to be fully ready for the season.

“It feels great to be back,” Kendricks said. “To be honest with you, I’ve just been taking it easy. I’ve been in the training room. I got a lot of treatment in San Bernardino.”

He said Tuesday that he had been instructed not to disclose the exact nature of the injury.

“It was just a little bit nagging,” he said. “It was annoying. It just wasn’t normal. I know how my body feels when it’s normal, and it was just a little bit off.” Continue reading

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Friday night notes: Eddie Vanderdoes commands double teams

Half a day after his first extended practice, Eddie Vanderdoes started turning heads.

Still working his way back from a tight back, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive end commanded regular double teams — quickly backing up his ranking as the No. 21 recruit in the country. Even when going up against starting offensive linemen Caleb Benenoch and Torian White, Vanderdoes more than held his own.

Vanderdoes looked more bothered by fatigue Friday night than by the back issues (likely a herniated disc) that had sidelined him for over a week. If the injury doesn’t flare up again, the Auburn, Calif., native will be a beast.

– Before practice started, quarterback Brett Hundley tried to drill a fast-moving camera drone from at least 40 yards away. As teammates and coaches formed an eager audience, he missed the target by just two or three feet. Even got plenty and oohs and aahs out of the crowd.

– Devin Fuller is such a difficult cover coming out of the slot. Continue reading

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Freshman Sean Covington takes first practice punts


SAN BERNARDINO — Early in Friday’s afternoon practice, Sean Covington launched his first punts wearing a UCLA jersey.

There was one that arced high and back, landing some 60 yards away. Another swung short and hooked left. He’s still a freshman, after all.

Ranked one of the top punters in the country, the St. Petersburg, Fla., native was the first member of the 2013 class to fax in his signed letter of intent on Feb. 6. He has the unenviable task of following Jeff Locke, one of the best punters in UCLA history and a recent fifth-round draft pick.

Locke may be the most difficult player to replace for the Bruins, who are trying to better a 9-5 record amidst higher expectations and a tougher schedule. That Covington worked with Locke earlier this summer is a good start. The freshman said the two, roughly 90-minute sessions at UCLA were very productive. For one, they share a dominant foot.

“You don’t see many lefties,” Covington said. “That was a lot, just seeing his form and his steps and just how he drops. You can critique what you do and what you’re not doing, what you need to work on.”

Covington acknowledged the pressure in following a two-time Ray Guy semifinalist and fifth-round draft pick, but said it won’t faze him. Still, there’s a long way for him to go before he can fill Locke’s shoes.

“I think the key with Sean is his operation time,” head coach Jim Mora said. “When you go from Jeff (Locke) and Kevin McDermott, the snapper, they were so efficient from snap to kick. … With Sean, it’s just that operation. That’s so critical. But he has an excellent leg.”

“I don’t know if he’ll be the Jeff Locke that we saw that could pin teams down inside the 10-yard line on a pretty consistent basis. That’s kind of an art.”

» Priest Willis has played cornerback so far in San Bernardino, backing up his status as a top-100 recruit. During his recruitment, however, some thought the 6-foot-2 Arizona native would be better off at safety.

Asked if he was glad Willis fit at corner, Mora began dropping his own credentials.

“I’ve coached defensive backs my whole career,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to been around some — Rod Woodson, he’s a pretty good corner. All-Century player. So I would think that people would trust my judgment when it comes to defensive backs. Continue reading

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Cornerback Priest Willis academically cleared by NCAA

Cornerback Priest Willis has received academic clearance from the NCAA, solidifying UCLA’s inexperienced secondary.

The Bruins heard the news at around 2 p.m., just a few hours before Thursday’s afternoon practice in San Bernardino. Arguably the most highly regarded of UCLA’s four freshman defensive backs, Willis has played well early on and should be a crucial piece of a secondary that returns no starters.

“He stands out,” head coach Jim Mora said. “He absolutely, positively can play corner at this level. He has the quickness. He has the burst. He’s got the length.”

– Safety Dietrich Riley is still working with the team as an undergraduate assistant. The junior had missed all of last season recovering from neck surgery, and took a medical retirement last month.

“I just think it’s important that we offer him that opportunity to see what he wants to do with his life,” Mora said. “For him to be out here with Tahaan (Goodman), with Tyler Foreman and some of those other (freshmen), it’s pretty selfless to me.

“He had big plans in terms of what his football career was gonna look like. It didn’t work out the way he wanted it. Rather than mourn, he’s just OK.” Continue reading

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Priest Willis talks about his wait for NCAA clearance


SAN BERNARDINO — Touted defensive back recruit Priest Willis joined the team early this week, but has yet to gain academic clearance from the NCAA. He has already been admitted to UCLA, and can practice for 21 days before a decision.

Willis took summer classes at home in Arizona to fulfill additional requirements, but said he isn’t sure why the process is taking so long. UCLA and his parents are taking the lead there.

“They’ll tell me some stuff, but I don’t know a lot,” he said. “They don’t want me to stress about it because I will stress about it. The craziest thing, I’ve been out of school for so long — almost two-and-a-half months — and I’m still not cleared to play football.”

Expected to vie for a starting spot, he played well in his debut practice and secured a tipped interception.

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Eddie Vanderdoes discusses his successful appeal process


SAN BERNARDINO — Rarely thought of as an efficient organization, the NCAA’s quick decision surprised even Eddie Vanderdoes.

The five-star defensive end had hovered in limbo for weeks after reneging on his signed letter of intent with Notre Dame. After a written appeal failed, he finally had a chance to speak directly to the NCAA last Monday. He didn’t waste his chance, laying out his case for nearly 90 minutes.

The next day, the NCAA cleared him to play immediately. If they hadn’t done so, Vanderdoes would have had to sit this fall, as well as lose a year of eligibility.

Now he is available to replace starter Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a would-be senior who will redshirt the season recovering from hip surgery.

“I was real surprised,” Vanderdoes said. “They actually had called me an hour after, talked to me and told me they would have a full decision tomorrow. They basically had a decision but they kind of wanted to cover their bases the next day.”

An All-American at Placer High in Auburn, Calif. — roughly 35 miles from Sacramento — Vanderdoes gave the NCAA four main reasons for his appeal. One was his grandmother’s breast cancer, but he declined to discuss the others. Continue reading

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Willis officially sends letter of intent

Defensive back Priest Willis officially joined UCLA’s 2013 recruiting class Saturday, calming anyone who worried about a last-minute defection. A star at Marcos De Niza High in Tempe, Ariz., Willis is the Bruins’ most highly rated recruit: Scout.com has him as a five-star prospect and the fourth-best cornerback in the country, while Rivals.com ranks him as a four-star safety and No. 56 overall in the country.

He had committed to UCLA in a press conference on Jan. 23, just hours after his friend Tahaan Goodman — a four-star safety out of Rancho Cucamonga — had done the same. However, Willis’ mother left town for a few days this week and had neglected to sign his National Letter of Intent; that left his paperwork out of the 23 faxes that the Bruins received Wednesday.

UCLA should now vault back into the top 10 of the Rivals.com rankings; the site had dropped the team to No. 11 because Willis didn’t send his letter in on National Signing Day.

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Priest Willis commits to UCLA

UCLA could have its best recruiting class in at least a decade. Defensive back Priest Willis, ranked a five-star cornerback by Scout.com and a four-star safety by rivals, committed to the Bruins this evening — giving the team two elite additions to its secondary in one day.

With defensive linemen Kylie Fitts and Eddie Vanderdoes still on the horizon between now and Feb. 6, UCLA could easily have a top-five class. The Bruins reeled in Scout.com’s No. 5 class in 2009, but Rivals.com had that haul at No. 14. That ranking also hinged on five-star tight end Morrell Presley, a bust who was later arrested for burglary after leaving the team. None of the recruits this year have that sort of baggage.

Scout and Rivals haven’t both doled out top-five rankings to UCLA since at least 2002, the end of their recruiting class archives. The Bruins were ranked seventh and ninth that year, with the biggest haul being Marcedes Lewis.

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