UCLA Football: 5 Freshmen Who'll Have the Biggest Impact in 2013
With UCLA's spring football practice officially in session, the returning Bruins and early enrollees are gearing up for weeks of competition and collective growth.
Head coach Jim Mora, entering his second season in Westwood, has far fewer questions with this go-around than he did in 2012. Most notably, the fact that UCLA has a starting quarterback lined up in Brett Hundley is a huge weight off Mora's shoulders.
But as is always the case in college sports, graduation and defection have hurt the Bruins' roster, specifically in the defensive backfield. Mora and Co. have done all they can to rectify the issue, trying to find answers through recruitment and development. Hauling in a top-10 class is a certainly a step in the right direction, especially since the crop includes a number of plug-and-chug prospects.
Which UCLA recruits are most likely to see the field as true freshmen? Well, there's plenty that goes into that discussion, but we'll try to sort through it all right now.
The following list ranks the five freshmen who could have the biggest impact for the Bruins next year. The ranking was determined by comparing what each player brings to the table (skill, size, stats, ratings, etc.), as well as what UCLA returns at their respective positions. Without further ado, let's get to it!
Note: All recruiting information, including rankings and statistics, is based on the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
5. Thomas Duarte
Measurables: 6'4", 225 pounds
Hometown: Santa Ana, Calif. (Mater Dei)
Stats: 52 rec, 819 yards, 7 TDs (2011)
The five spot, which is effectively the "last one in" for this ranking, was incredibly hard to choose. There were a lot of UCLA signees that could make an argument for inclusion, coming from position on both sides of the ball. But when it came down to it, TE Thomas Duarte stood out above the rest.
There are no tight ends in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense, but the Y is considered to be the equivalent in terms of responsibilities (i.e., blocking, route running and receiving).
Given the graduation of the beloved Y Joseph Fauria (and his 637 yds, 12 TDs), the Bruins will need to find a suitable substitute in his stead. The only returner with significant in-game experience is Darius Bell, but he is undersized for the position at 5'11". For that reason, a 4-star recruit like Duarte has the potential to make a splash immediately.
According to 247Sports, Duarte is the No. 11 TE in the nation, which makes his selection to the Semper Fi All-American Bowl unsurprising. If he can adjust to the speed of college ball quickly, Duarte will undoubtedly see the field as a true freshman. And once he's on the gridiron, his hopefully incredible impact will begin to take shape.
4. Sean Covington
Measurables: 6'2", 195 pounds
Hometown: Saint Petersburg, Fla. (St. Petersburg)
Stats: 43.2 yd punt avg., 72 yd long, 27 touchbacks (2011)
Most people wouldn't include a purely special teams player on this list, but Sean Covington appears to have the starting role at punter locked up already. Even though Covington won't be on campus until fall camp, he is the heir apparent to graduating stalwart Jeff Locke.
Locke, who started 53 games over the course of his UCLA career, has finished his degree and is now testing the waters of the NFL draft. And considering he now holds the No. 2 spot on the Bruins' all-time punting average list (44.23 yards), Locke has a good chance to get into the league.
But for his alma mater, it's back to square one in the kicking game. Thankfully, that's where Covington enters the picture.
On the current UCLA roster, there are only three kickers listed, and none of them are considered true punting prospects. Rising sophomore Ka'imi Fairbairn figures to maintain control of the field-goal duties, but kickoffs and punts are up for grabs. Because Covington is widely regarded as a top-flight specialist (ranked No. 1 by some outlets), it's obvious that he will get a fair share of the reps once he arrives in Westwood.
Covington has some massive cleats to fill as Locke's successor, but if he can step up to the challenge, he will provide the Bruins an important advantage in the field-position battle.
3. Caleb Benenoch
Measurables: 6'5", 321 pounds
Hometown: Katy, Texas (Seven Lakes)
Stats: Probably a lot of pancakes
The offensive line is another positional unit that doesn't get the kind of respect and admiration it deserves, at least not from the common fan. But as we've learned time and again, and as UCLA exhibited in the Holiday Bowl massacre, the success of the O-line can make or break a team.
For the Bruins, talent and depth in the offensive trenches has been a serious problem for many years, and has been a major reason for their underachievement this decade. However, with a solid group of returners and a loaded incoming class, the UCLA offensive line could be a dominant force in the coming seasons.
Right at the top of that list is Caleb Benenoch, a 4-star OG committed to come to Westwood this fall. According to 247Sports, Benenoch is the No. 16 guard in the Class of 2013, which makes him an incredible get for Mora and the Bruins.
With the graduation of All-Pac-12 right guard Jeff Baca, there will definitely be a chance for Benenoch to earn himself some snaps as a freshman. Coach Mora listed redshirt senior Alberto Cid as the spring starter at RG, but Benenoch has the size and skill to snatch Cid's role. At the very least, Benenoch will provide quality depth behind the starting five, which makes his presence on the roster invaluable.
2. Priest Willis
Measurables: 6'2", 200 pounds
Hometown: Tempe, Ariz. (Marcos De Niza)
Stats: 57 tackles, 8 pass break-ups (2011)
If you've been following UCLA recruiting this cycle, you were probably well aware that this name (and the next one) would pop up at some point in this list.
Priest Willis is thought, nearly unanimously, to be the Bruins' top overall recruit with 5-star rating in some rankings. The ultra-talented defensive back can play anywhere in the secondary, but will likely end up at cornerback once he arrives on campus.
The depth chart at CB is pretty wide open right now, courtesy of the graduation of both starters from last season, so Willis will definitely get a shot. UCLA does return some skilled youngsters in Ishmael Adams, Marcus Rios and Fabian Moreau, but the competition for starter's minutes will be fierce all around.
Willis is going to play next season; there's really no doubt about it. Whether he can work his way into the first unit is unclear, but it's completely believable that he does. With his lockdown cover skills and nose for the ball, Willis could be the next Alterraun Verner at UCLA...and that is reason enough to have the Bruin faithful pumped up.
1. Tahaan Goodman
Measurables: 6'3", 195 pounds
Hometown: Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (Rancho Cucamonga)
Stats: 45 tackles, 1 INT TD (2011)
For most of their recruitment, Willis and Tahaan Goodman were rumored to be a package deal. Needless to say, UCLA fans are glad the hype was for real.
Just like his DB counterpart, Goodman is expected to step foot in Westwood and compete right off the bat. The 4-star safety is an exceptional cover man and loves to get physical over the top, two traits that have been lacking in the Bruins' secondary for quite some time.
With the graduation of Andrew Abbott and the dismissal of Tevin McDonald, the starting slots at safety are ripe for the taking. There are only four safeties on the official spring roster, and only two of those have legitimate experience to count on. Rising sophomore Randall Goforth and redshirt junior Dietrich Riley (who is returning from a multi-year injury) are the returners most likely to end up starting. But the two-deep is far from settled, and Goodman will certainly push the others for time.
It wouldn't be a shock to see Goodman starting next season, and it's pretty much guaranteed that he will see snaps. As with any freshman, it may take time for him to get used to football at this level, but Goodman has the making of a superstar. UCLA fans should grow accustomed to hearing his name called out over the Rose Bowl speakers.