UCLA Football: 5 Most Important Position Battles in 2013

Jeff PoirierCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2013

UCLA Football: 5 Most Important Position Battles in 2013

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    While the UCLA coaching staff is busy on the recruiting trail in January, the football team is set to begin winter workouts in preparation for the 2013 season.

    The roster for next year isn't settled, as national signing day is still a month away, and the deadline to declare for the NFL draft is January 15. If there are no surprise defections, and a few key pieces fall into place when pen hits paper, the Bruins could be set up for a special year in head coach Jim Mora's second season.

    Despite a solid core of returners and newcomers, a number of players are graduating from important positions. In addition to UCLA's all-time career rushing leader Johnathan Franklin in the backfield, five senior starters will need to be replaced from the defense.

    Toss in the loss of 6'7" wideout Joe Fauria and All-Pac-12 OL Jeff Baca, and it's clear that the Bruins need some youngsters to step into big roles and produce.

    This slideshow will rank each of the Bruins' 2013 position battles in order of importance using a metric determined by four distinct criteria.

    The first criterion is straightforward: the relative on-field importance of each position will weigh heavily in ranking the battles. For example, a quarterback controversy is significantly more meaningful than competition for the starting long snapper spot.

    The next three criteria pertain to the personnel returning at each position. A unit's returning (or incoming) depth, talent and experience are all considered in the rankings of these depth-chart duels.

    With the grading system in mind, let's get to the rankings of UCLA's most important position battles for the 2013-2014 season.

Honorable Mentions

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    These vacancies are worth keeping an eye on next season, but they weren't able to crack the top five in this slideshow. Here's a look at the honorable mentions for UCLA's most important position battles in 2013.

     

    Outside Linebacker

    The graduation of senior OLB Damien Holmes will open up a hole in the Bruins' starting front seven, and his replacement will be tasked with filling some pretty big shoes. The coaching staff will need to find a starter from a group of young prospects to pick up a portion of Holmes' consistent production (53 tackles, 10 TFL, 5.5 sacks).

    But the linebacker corps should be formidable in 2013, as the other three starters from this season are set to return. The Bruins will boast three upperclassmen at LB, including senior All-American Anthony Barr, so the loss of Holmes isn't as bad as it could have been.

    The list of potential successors for Holmes includes rising senior Keenan Graham, redshirt freshman Aaron Porter and incoming recruits Myles Jack and Deon Hollins.

    Graham looks to be the front-runner because of his experience in reserve the last couple seasons, but Porter, Jack and Hollins all have the talent to push the envelope. Overall, there should be plenty of depth and experience for UCLA at the linebacker position.

     

    Defensive End

    Another key loss to UCLA's front seven is the graduation of All-Pac-12 DE Datone Jones, a multi-year starter who finished 2012 with 62 tackles, 19 TFL and 6.5 sacks.

    Jones anchored the edge in the Bruins' 3-4 defense, providing a strong push and an ability to penetrate the backfield at will. Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos will be tasked with filling Jones' vacancy, and the leading candidate appears to be rising senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa.

    Owa has served a backup role for a few seasons, but in 2012 he saw major field time behind DE Cassius Marsh. Odighizuwa was a highly touted recruit out of high school and has shown flashes of extreme physicality since coming to Westwood.

    Behind Owa is prized 2012 recruit Ellis McCarthy, a monstrous youngster who should be stepping into his own next season (barring another injury setback).

    All in all, the return of Marsh and starting NT Seali'i Epenesa has the UCLA defensive line relatively settled. If Owa and McCarthy can pick up the slack from the other end position, the Bruins will be stacked in the trenches.

     

    Return Specialist

    Even though this position is not listed on the roster, Mora and Co. need to focus on finding a consistent returner for punts and kickoffs.

    At the beginning of the 2012 season, RB Steven Manfro was selected to field punts because of his shiftiness and ability to break tackles. Unfortunately, Manfro could not catch the ball consistently, losing four muffed punts during the season.

    True freshman safety Randall Goforth took over punt-return duties later in the year, and in limited action, he proved elusive and difficult to corral. While an athletic choice with the potential for explosive results, Goforth needs to stay healthy to bolster the secondary. Returning punts is inherently dangerous, and the Bruins cannot afford to lose Goforth, a potential starting safety.

    Several players returned kickoffs for the Bruins last year, including Manfro and true freshman WR Kenny Walker.

    Walker exhibited great speed and acceleration but was plagued by ball security issues. He should be a great option as he develops physically.

    Manfro had success returning kicks, but he still needs to prove that his catch-bobbling problem is behind him. He figures to be near the top of the depth chart this spring, so the job could be his for the taking.

5. Strong Safety

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    Despite UCLA's poor defensive performance against the pass last season, experienced players are graduating and will be missed in 2013. The Bruins' top priority has to be replacing a bona fide ball hawk in senior strong safety Andrew Abbott.

    The defensive captain is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four, including a game-sealing pick against Nebraska. Abbott was also active making stops downfield, finishing the year with 53 tackles and three pass breakups.

    The absence of Abbott will be a major blow to the Bruins' defensive leadership, and a suitable substitute will have to emerge this offseason.

    Rising sophomore Randall Goforth figures to compete heavily for playing time after serving as a backup for Abbott in 2012. Goforth started the Holiday Bowl at free safety in place of a suspended Tevin McDonald, but his performance was far from polished.

    Goforth's experience, as limited as it may be, makes him an obvious first look for the starting SS spot. His talents could be more valuable at cornerback, but he has been developing well as a safety under DB coach Demetrice Martin.

    Elite 2012 prospect Taylor Lagace will also factor into the competition after his redshirt season. Lagace is a high-motor athlete who loves to get physical and lay the wood to opposing players. After another offseason of development, Lagace should be ready to make an impact in 2013.

    Another name to keep an eye on is Dietrich Riley, a highly touted prospect from the 2010 class. Riley was forced to miss the past season because of lingering neck issues after a scary collision against Cal in 2011.

    Before going down against the Bears, Riley was carving out a nice start to his career in Westwood, marked by an abundance of hard-nosed hits (like this one). But after the tackle-gone-wrong at the Rose Bowl, it's unclear whether Riley will be able to get back to the game shape of his earlier years.

    In recruiting news, there is a blue-chip safety tandem that UCLA is trying to land in the 2013 class that could rearrange the two-deep in the defensive backfield. If Mora and Co. can snare Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis, those talented youngsters would be competing for serious snaps early on.

    The depth and experience at the safety position will be underwhelming next season, but there will be plenty of talent taking the field. Assuming McDonald can shoulder the load as a veteran leader in the secondary, the Bruins look plenty capable of making up for Abbott's departure.

4. Y (Slot Receiver/Tight End)

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    The UCLA offense is mostly intact heading into 2013, but one glaring vacancy has been left in the wake of Big Joe Fauria's graduation.

    Fauria locked down the Y position in Noel Mazzone's offense last year, hauling in 46 passes for 637 yards and 12 touchdowns. At 6'7" and 255 pounds, Fauria was a mismatch for linebackers and defensive backs. His presence in the red zone will be sorely missed, and his production will need to be picked up elsewhere.

    The bank of returners at the Y is pretty barren, as rising senior Darius Bell is the only player with significant collegiate experience. Despite being injured for the latter half of the season, Bell racked up 143 yards receiving and one TD in 2012. But Bell is undersized for the position at 5'10" and 205 pounds, so he isn't effective as a blocker.

    Expect Bell to see plenty of action in 2013, but don't be surprised if incoming freshman Thomas Duarte sits atop the depth chart at the Y.

    At 6'4", 225 pounds, Duarte has the size and strength to fill Fauria's role. The 4-star tight end out of Mater Dei has been touted as a skilled receiver with strong hands and serious jump-ball skills. If Duarte can transition to the speed of the college game quickly, he could become Brett Hundley's favorite target next year.

3. Offensive Line

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    The debacle in the Holiday Bowl exposed UCLA's lack of depth along the offensive line, as Baylor gobbled up the running attack and pressured QB Brett Hundley with ease.

    The offensive line was embattled all year, with the Bruins finishing ranked No. 118 in the nation in sacks allowed. Hundley was taken down 52 times for a total of 302 yards lost. Six of those sacks came against the Bears, a team that ranked No. 112 in sack production entering the bowl.

    The graduation of senior OG Jeff Baca is worrisome, as he was the lone upperclassman on UCLA's line last year. But thanks to a wealth of returning starters and an influx of talented youth, UCLA figures to improve overall in 2013.

    Assuming C Jake Brendel and OTs Simon Goines and Torian White can overcome injuries during the offseason, the O-line will have a solid starting group. Where those players will line up is not determined, and those choices could decide just how explosive the UCLA offense can be in 2013.

    One starter guaranteed a leading role next year is Xavier Su'a-Filo, a rising junior and offensive team captain. Su'a-Filo started at left guard all season but also has experience at left tackle. In the event that Torian White can't handle the tackle duties, Su'a-Filo could slide outside and protect Hundley's blind side.

    Losing Baca from the right interior spot and the possible shift of Su'a-Filo leaves two openings at the guard positions that will need to be shored up.

    Incoming freshman Caleb Benenoch could be an immediate replacement for Baca, as the 6'6", 320-pound space-eater is the No. 16 overall OG in the 2013 class, according to 247Sports. If Benenoch is able to handle the grind of college football, he could become a star in Westwood soon.

    Another current recruit who will compete for time on the offensive line is 6'5", 290-pound guard Alex Redmond. A former Oregon commit, Redmond could factor in at left guard if Su'a-Filo makes the move to left tackle.

    Despite a deep O-line class and a returning group that features four starters, the UCLA offensive line will lack experienced depth in 2013. If the injury bug bites again next season, the Bruins could be stuck relying on backups to pick up the slack. Developing the front line bears watching this offseason.

2. Cornerbacks

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    The position that was most affected by graduation is the cornerback spot, as multi-year starters Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have both exhausted their NCAA eligibility.

    The loss of two seasoned veterans at such an important defensive position could be devastating for UCLA, but there is a silver lining. Both Price and Hester had difficulties during their Westwood careers, from committing huge penalties to blowing coverage assignments on the edge.

    Their graduation can be viewed as an opportunity for young talent to develop rather than as a major loss.

    The leading candidates for the CB spots are rising sophomores Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios, two 4-star athletes from the 2012 class. Adams and Rios saw limited action as true freshmen last year, but injuries and a clogged depth chart prevented either from maturing significantly.

    In addition to Adams and Rios, Goforth could make the move outside to CB, while freshman Justin Combs will ramp up the competition. Potential newcomer Johnny Johnson, a high-value recruiting target, may toss his hat in the ring for immediate action as well.

    According to 247Sports, Johnson marks the Bruins and Stanford as finalists for his services, with Oklahoma a distant third. If Mora can get Johnson to commit to the True Blue, there will be a youthful resurgence in the UCLA secondary in 2013.

1. Running Back

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    The biggest loss that UCLA will need to overcome is the graduation of running back and offensive captain Johnathan Franklin.

    Franklin was a workhorse for the Bruins in 2012, rumbling his way to 1,734 yards rushing and 13 TDs. The 5'11", 195-pound bruiser boasted a yards-per-carry average of 6.1, thanks to an electrifying ability to shed would-be tacklers in the open field.

    But Franklin's value extended far beyond his production. The fifth-year senior was an emotional leader, taking pressure off first-year quarterback Brett Hundley's shoulders.

    Mora and Co. will have to sift through the RB talent in Westwood to find a replacement for Franklin, but the task may prove difficult.

    Statistically, the front-runner to pick up where Franklin left off is Damien Thigpen, a shifty back who piled up 849 all-purpose yards and four TDs last year. Unfortunately, the rising senior suffered a torn ACL versus USC, and his status for 2013 is uncertain.

    If Thigpen is unable to rehab his knee for next season, there are a few other capable backs who would be glad to showcase their skills.

    Rising junior Jordon James brings an element of experience to the table, but he lacks the ideal size to be an every-down rusher. Paul Perkins will also have a say in the running back battle, as the 5'11", 192-pound redshirt freshman has the speed and power to step in for Franklin.

    Finally, assuming his commitment to UCLA holds, incoming freshman Craig Lee is another RB who could get a shot at playing time. Lee has the physical tools to contribute at the college level immediately.

    The loss of Franklin will be difficult to cope with, as the Bruins lack depth and experience in the backfield. There is talent to work with, but none of the candidates has asserted himself as the go-to guy. If UCLA hopes to continue its offensive renaissance in 2013, the production, leadership and consistency of Franklin will need to be replaced.