UCLA Football: Projecting the Bruins' Team Captains in 2013
As spring practice heats up for UCLA, the excitement for the 2013 season will continue to build.
Head coach Jim Mora has a lot of work to do, from running practices and dealing with the media to picking starters and evolving the playbook. But one set of important decisions is beyond his control and instead falls on the players—team captain voting.
Last season, the captain selection was pretty straightforward. The roster featured prominent upperclassmen in almost every positional unit. Seniors Andrew Abbott (SS), Johnathan Franklin (RB), Damien Holmes (LB), David Allen (FB/ST) and Jeff Locke (P) were all given passes to the captains' huddle in 2012, along with sophomore Xavier Su'a-Filo (OL).
But with the graduation of five out of six team captains, the Bruins will need to select a whole new crop of leaders this year. The process may prove more difficult since so many young players will be getting serious playing time across the board.
Operating on the assumption that Mora will use the same methods as last year, this slideshow breaks down which Bruins are plausible candidates for captainship. Read on for projections of the Bruins' team captains for the 2013-14 season.
Offensive Line: Xavier Su'a-Filo
This is by far the easiest projection to make, so let's get it out of the way first.
Rising junior OL Xavier Su'a-Filo is the only returning team captain from 2012, and his role as leader in the offensive trenches should be even greater next season as the eldest lineman.
Su'a-Filo, who is also known by the easy-to-identify acronym of "XSF," is one of the most mature and cerebral players on the UCLA roster. The 22-year-old is an Eagle Scout, which provides immediate validation of his character and work ethic.
But in case you need more evidence, here's a quick glimpse into his career as a Bruin.
After coming to Westwood and starting all 13 games as a true freshman in 2009, XSF elected to take a two-year hiatus from football to pursue an LDS mission. His work with the church brought him to Alabama and Florida, where he learned to speak Spanish and contributed to local communities in need.
Then, in spite of the firing of his recruiter and coach Rick Neuheisel, XSF returned to UCLA and anchored a freshmen-laden offensive line in 2012. In addition to starting all 14 games at left guard, XSF filled in at tackle on a few different occasions, and that versatility was invaluable to the coaching staff.
Without him, the Bruins would have been in a tight spot on the offensive line, so his ability to step back into a starting role immediately was vital to their success.
His performance in 2012 earned him All-America honors from quite a few national publications, as well as an All-Pac-12 first-team selection from the conference coaches.
However, even with the various accolades he received, XSF is never one to boast or brag. He is a humble, hard-working kid who puts the team first and his own aspirations a distant second.
For that reason, Xavier Su'a-Filo is a no-brainer to serve another season as team captain for UCLA in 2013.
Offensive Skill Positions: Shaq Evans
UCLA has a number of viable captain candidates from the offensive skill positions (i.e. QB, RB, WR and TE), including redshirt sophomore signal-caller Brett Hundley.
The young quarterback embraced his role as a leader last season, so he would be a sensible pick for team captain in 2013.
Then there are the upperclassmen running backs, Damien Thigpen and Jordan James, who have both been major contributors over the course of their careers in Westwood. Thigpen could end up a captain because of the adversity he has faced on the injury front.
However, when you take a step back to consider the options, one redshirt senior stands out above all the rest.
Wide receiver Shaq Evans, a former transfer from Notre Dame, has been with the program for three seasons and is a leader in the Bruins' offense. He has the age and experience factor over Hundley and James, and he could be a bigger component of the UCLA game plan compared to Thigpen.
Evans was the team's leading receiver in 2012 and was also an emotional spark plug who could get the crowd going at any moment. With his knack for playmaking, Evans seems a logical choice to guide the team in the huddle and on the sidelines.
As a result, Evans is a solid pick to succeed Johnathan Franklin as offensive team captain for UCLA.
Front Seven: Anthony Barr
The front seven was the most difficult unit to project a team captain possibility. Not only are there a myriad of upperclassmen returning with starting experience, but many are bona fide field generals in the UCLA defense.
From leading tackler Eric Kendricks to senior linemen Cassius Marsh and Owa Odighizuwa, the Bruins are stacked with experience and leadership along the defensive front. Toss in senior linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt and you get a collection of potential captains that makes the decision difficult.
But at the end of the day, the standout player that should get the selection is outside 'backer Barr.
Despite playing his first season on the defensive side of the ball, Barr emerged as a superstar in 2012, claiming second-team All-America and first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He also played himself into the NFL draft discussion, reaching as high as No. 15 in some mock scenarios thanks to his insane motor.
Yet Barr will hold off going pro and return to Westwood for his senior season, which by itself is enough to earn him the captaincy. As a fan favorite and household name in the front seven, Barr should find himself among the Bruins at the coin toss come September.
Secondary: Dietrich Riley
The UCLA secondary, which has been an embattled unit for the last few years, will have a very steep learning curve in 2013. Heading into spring practice, there are only three upperclassmen listed amongst the safeties and cornerbacks, which makes selecting a team captain a tough task.
Redshirt junior CB Anthony Jefferson has been injured for most of his Bruin career, while senior safety Brandon Sermons is almost exclusively a backup and special teams player.
So the third and final option is redshirt junior Dietrich Riley, and he should be the captain when all is said and done.
Riley originally came to UCLA as a freshman in 2010, seeing the field in limited action as a reserve. But even in that role, the highly touted safety made a name for himself with highlight plays like this one. Riley had a successful first go-round with the Bruins, winning the UCLA Award for Academic and Athletic Excellence at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, Riley's sophomore campaign would take a drastic turn towards devastation. In a game against California in 2011, Riley went to make a stop against Golden Bear running back Isi Sofele, only to crumple to the Rose Bowl turf.
After laying motionless for several moments, Riley was taken away in an ambulance with an apparent neck or spine injury. He would not return to the field in the 2011 season and underwent single-level fusion surgery in April before sitting out the whole 2012 season. The procedure, which fused a part of his hip bone with his neck bones, has allowed Riley to recover and has him on pace to play next season.
Assuming he can return to the form of his pre-injury self, Riley has the on-field and life experience necessary to be the Bruins' team captain in the secondary.
Special Teams: Ka'imi Fairbairn
With the graduation of 2012 team captain Jeff Locke, the UCLA special teams loses not only a multi-year starter, but also the leadership and guidance of a seasoned veteran. And when you look at what's left on the Bruins roster on special teams, it becomes clear that this year's captain will likely be an untested underclassman.
The only plausible choice to replace Locke would be placekicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. The rising sophomore out of Honolulu (Punahou) started every game for the Bruins last season and showed steady progress as the year went on.
The highlight of his season was a game-winning 33-yard field goal versus Arizona State that sank the Sun Devils as time expired in Tempe. That experience alone is worth more than what the other candidates bring to the table, so he seems like the obvious choice.
And when you consider he worked closely with Locke all season (his holder), Fairbairn appears to have the special teams captainship locked up for 2013.
Utility: Stan McKay
For the sixth and final team captain slot, the Bruins are likely to choose from a collection of utility men—players that have contributed to the team in a reserve and special teams role.
Last year, fullback/gunner David Allen was picked to fill this post, and his successor in 2013 could be another redshirt senior in Stan McKay.
McKay has spent most of his UCLA career as a special teams contributor, though he saw the field in the defensive backfield and linebacking corps last season. He has gotten progressively better over time, finishing with 34 tackles and two interceptions in 2012.
Now, as he prepares for his final season in Westwood, McKay has the potential to be a source of leadership and experience for the young studs in the secondary. There are other viable options for this utility captain spot, including Isaiah Bowens and Ryan Hofmeister, but ultimately McKay looks to have the inside track.