FS Tevin McDonald is key to the Bruins' success in 2013
After signing a highly-ranked recruiting class for 2013, the UCLA football program is primed for a breakout year in head coach Jim Mora's second season.
Part of the reason for the Bruins' steady climb up the recruiting rankings was the commitment of a handful of elite defensive backs. And considering how the already-thin UCLA secondary was ravaged by graduation, inking these top-flight DBs was an enormous win for Mora's staff.
The Bruins will be without both starting cornerbacks and the starting strong safety from 2012, but they may end up being better in the big picture. Despite relying almost exclusively on underclassmen next season, UCLA should benefit from an increase in talent and depth in the defensive backfield.
Read on for a look at why the Bruins' young secondary is poised to overachieve, and what to expect from the UCLA defense in the 2013-2014 season.
Despite the Bruins' extremely poor stats against the pass last season, there was talent aplenty in the UCLA secondary, and much of it will return in 2013.
The biggest weakness in the Bruins' defensive backfield was at cornerback, but the issues there may be remedied next year. Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios, a pair of ultra-talented prospects, will be taking over for the departed starters. And given the struggles on the edge in 2012, the infusion of young skill should help UCLA considerably.
Adams was a 4-star CB from the class of 2012, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in September after seeing action in three games. Returning as a sophomore, he should be at the top of the depth chart at cornerback when spring ball begins based on athleticism alone.
Across the field, fellow 4-star recruit Rios figures to assert himself as a leading candidate for the other CB spot. Rios saw the field in nine games as a freshman, serving on special teams and as a reserve DB. On the year, Rios was only credited with three tackles, but he's still the obvious first-look to start.
As far as experience, UCLA welcomes back redshirt junior Tevin McDonald and sophomore Randall Goforth, a safety tandem that will be looked to lead a young, talented bunch of DBs. McDonald has locked down center field for the Bruins for two seasons, and could very well be a defensive captain next season from the free safety spot.
Alongside him is Goforth, an explosive talent that could work into either the strong safety or cornerback rotation. The 5'10", 173-pound youngster worked closely with graduating senior Andrew Abbott all season, and even started the Holiday Bowl in place of a suspended McDonald.
If Goforth can continue to add mass to his frame while maintaining his speed and quickness, he could be one of the most exciting defensive backs in the Pac-12.
Other returning Bruins that will compete for time are CB Fabian Moreau and safety Taylor Lagace.
Moreau saw action in 11 games in 2012 as a reserve in the secondary and on special teams, tallying five tackles and a fumble recovery. Lagace redshirted last season, but the 3-star safety should provide quality competition behind McDonald, Goforth and the talented newcomers.
Mora and Co. made recruiting DBs a priority in 2013, and ended up with one of the strongest secondary classes in the country.
UCLA welcomes four 4-star defensive backs into the fold, two at the cornerback position and two at safety. The headliner of the haul is Priest Willis, a speedy and physical CB out of Tempe, Ariz. (Marcos De Niza).
Willis was a late addition to UCLA's class, faxing his letter of intent long after national signing day because of issues with his mother traveling out of town. But at 6'2" and 190 pounds, Willis was well worth the wait. He will undoubtedly push Adams and Rios for snaps at cornerback, and could work his way into a starting role as the season progresses.
The other defensive back recruits are safeties Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman, and cornerback Johnny Johnson. Each of these new Bruins is incredibly adept roaming the secondary, but none will have more of an immediate impact than Goodman.
According to the 247Sports Composite Ranking, Goodman is the No. 8 safety in the class of 2013. The 6'2", 185-pounder plays a smash-mouth brand of defense, and he's never afraid to come up and put a body on the ball-carrier. Goodman has a very good chance to see the field as a true freshman, and could factor in as a key reserve at safety.
In all, the Bruins have to be extremely satisfied with the newly-found depth and talent in the secondary, especially considering how dominant the UCLA front seven could be.
Perhaps the most concrete reason to buy into the hype of the Bruins' young secondary is the coaching staff, as defensive masterminds Jim Mora and Lou Spanos will have a field day with all the talent competing for time.
Mora has been around football his entire life, including a 25-year stint as a coach in the NFL. Over the course of his time in the professional ranks, Mora served as a defensive backs coach and a defensive coordinator on four different teams.
Spanos, UCLA's defensive coordinator, also boasts an impressive coaching resume, highlighted by 17 seasons in the NFL. Spanos provided defensive quality control with Pittsburgh, helping the Steelers claim two Super Bowl wins during his tenure.
And if their experience alone doesn't sell you, just look at what they did last year.
Under the tutelage of Mora and Spanos, UCLA's defense was revolutionized in 2012, improving from one of the least productive units in the country to No. 8 nationally in sacks. The catalyst for the Bruins' defensive success was junior LB Anthony Barr, a former offensive player that Mora flipped to D last spring.
After one season, the move has paid dividends for all parties involved...except for opposing players of course.
Barr proved to be an instinctual defender, finishing the season No. 8 in sacks and No. 14 in tackles for loss nationwide. Barr's play fueled his furious climb up the NFL draft boards, and could have landed him a spot in the first round. Part of that is just raw talent, but a major piece is the personnel management and development of Mora, Spanos and LB coach Jeff Ulbrich.
Had it not been for poor play in the secondary, UCLA could have gone a lot further than 9-5 in Mora's first season. And with five starters returning in the front seven, it's clear why a deep, talented defensive backs class has the Bruin faithful enthused.
If Mora and Co. can mold the talented crop of DBs into a solid unit, UCLA would have one of the most suffocating defenses in the Pac-12. The Bruins don't need perfection from the secondary, nor should they expect it given the youth there. The front seven will carry the defense, and a young unit just needs to hold strong. Coach Mora can make that happen.