When UCLA head coach Jim Mora addressed the media last week in advance of the Bruins' spring practices, most of what he had to say was rather run of the mill. But the one piece of info that stuck out like a sore thumb was that of Tevin McDonald's dismissal from the UCLA football program.
By now, the news of the junior safety's disciplinary fate has made the rounds. However, exactly how McDonald's absence will affect the Bruins on the field in 2013 hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
Last season, McDonald was UCLA's second-leading tackler for most of the year, ultimately ending up third after missing the Holiday Bowl due to suspension. The redshirt sophomore started at free safety for two seasons and was named a freshman All-American by a number of publications after the 2011 season.
Prior to the announcement of his dismissal, McDonald was expected to be the lone upperclassman in the Bruins' defensive backfield next year. And with the graduation of the other three starters from 2012, including team captain Andrew Abbott, many had McDonald pegged as Abbott's successor.
For obvious reasons, Mora's presser was initially met with great concern from the Bruin faithful. But when you take a step back, the loss of McDonald isn't as catastrophic as some may think.
First of all, head coach Jim Mora just pulled one of the strongest defensive back classes in the country, a haul that features four 4-star recruits. Among the bunch is ultra-talented prospect Tahaan Goodman, the No. 4 safety out of California in the 2013 class (according to Rivals). And while high school potential doesn't tell the whole story, Goodman appears to have a much higher ceiling than McDonald, so the sooner he can get on the field, the better.
Further, the Bruins are expected to welcome back highly touted safety Dietrich Riley, who should relish the opportunity to jump back into the starting lineup.
Riley, who will be a redshirt junior in 2013, came to UCLA in 2010 as a 4-star prospect out of La Canada, Calif. (St. Francis). After a very impressive season and a half with the Bruins, Riley went down with a potentially career-ending neck injury in October 2011. Following over a year of rehab and medical procedures, the 6'0", 200-pound heavy hitter is ready to get back on the gridiron.
Because Riley has been with the program for three years, he should be able to pick up the slack in terms of leadership and experience. The value of his presence can't be understated, especially considering UCLA may be starting multiple freshmen in the secondary next season. Without Riley, McDonald's departure would be significantly more daunting.
Even outside of the defensive backfield, UCLA looks to be okay on defense. The Bruins return three of their four top tacklers in linebackers Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. And if the Bruins' front seven is as dominant as it seems it could be, missing McDonald may prove inconsequential in the end.
The biggest issues that could arise in his absence stem from inexperience (which Riley should help remedy), and a lack of depth. The latter is probably the most relevant concern left for the Bruins to cope with, though the incoming freshmen should provide some stability there.
In the end, there's no doubt that McDonald being kicked off the team is bad news for UCLA. But if there is a silver lining, it's the fact that a wide-open depth chart gives the talented newcomers and returners, like Riley and sophomore Randall Goforth, a chance to shine.
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