UCLA Football: Previewing the 5 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
It would behoove the members of the UCLA Bruins football team to truly savor the conveniences of Westwood, Calif., for the next few days. Starting on Aug. 7, the hellacious fall camp in San Bernardino, Calif., will commence.
There won't be any days at the beach, nor will there be the cool, ocean breezes coming in from the Pacific Ocean. What will be present will include extreme heat, isolation and a lack of distraction for close to two weeks.
Also taking place will be the various positional battles. There are a few fascinating questions, in particular, that will involve the indoctrination of multiple freshmen.
Here are five such intriguing positional battles heading into fall practice for the Bruins.
Johnathan Franklin won't be walking through that Bruins' locker room door anytime soon.
UCLA's all-time leading rusher has moved on to the NFL, meaning the amount of production he's brought to the table will not instantly be replaced, nor replicated.
However, there are some interesting options that exist at the position.
Damien Thigpen was Franklin's primary backup last season. He suffered a torn ACL against Southern Cal towards the end of the season and it's not exactly known whether or not he'll be back for the season opener against Nevada.
Without Thigpen, the next running back in line to potentially start could be Jordon James. Like Thigpen, James is a smaller, compact back with good quickness and speed. He was a bit tentative running the football last season, but that could have been due to an injury he had.
As the most experienced back who is healthy, James could have a leg up on the competition heading into the fall camp.
Paul Perkins is another option at the position. Redshirting last year as a freshman, he's very similar to Franklin in size. He might be more of an every-down back when compared to Thigpen and James.
The two remaining options are Malcolm Jones and Craig Lee.
A former Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Jones has underperformed during his collegiate career. After leaving the team last season, he's since rejoined. At this point, he's the big back in the rotation and could be solid in providing five to eight carries a game.
Lee is perhaps the most innately talented member of the group. He's got good size and great top-end speed, but it's unknown how the freshman will perform in camp.
Left Defensive End
UCLA received tremendous news on Tuesday when elite defensive line prospect Eddie Vanderdoes was made eligible for this upcoming season for the Bruins.
The addition of Vanderdoes is massive for multiple reasons. To be blunt, he's an exceptional talent. There aren't too many college freshmen at 6'4" and 305 pounds who possess his combination of strength and quickness.
Additionally, it's not known as to whether senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa will play this year. He's been battling a frayed rotator cuff in his hip and has been recovering from surgery. Having Vanderdoes eligible will certainly soften the blow should "Owa" not play this season.
In theory, Odighizuwa could take a redshirt year and come back healthy for the 2014 season.
Vanderdoes will likely be in the two-deep positional mix, should he not start right away. The other competitors for the left defensive end spot will include Brandon Willis and Keenan Graham.
Graham was moved to defensive end from his spot as an outside linebacker. While a bit undersized, he has a good motor. He was originally a defensive end in high school and could be more fluid at this position than he was at linebacker.
Willis hasn't really played since transferring from UNC. He does have good talent and should be a good option in a reserve role.
Odighizuwa's health will be the big question mark heading into the fall. Should he play, Vanderdoes will likely split time with him. If "Owa" decides to redshirt, Vanderdoes has a great shot at starting as a true freshman.
Left Outside Linebacker
UCLA's linebackers corps is absolutely stacked.
Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks all are on the Butkus Award preseason watch list. Barr is one of the best pass-rushers in the nation. Kendricks led the conference in tackles last season and Zumwalt is a very talented player in his own right.
As for the fourth linebacker in UCLA's 3-4 scheme, it's TBD at this point.
Two prominent options that will jockey for the spot include Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace. Both are absolute physical specimens with tremendous athleticism. Wallace saw spot duty last year in a reserve role and looked good.
Orjioke played mostly on special teams as a true freshman, but his upside is through the roof. He entered college at age 16. Now an 18-year-old sophomore, he's 6'4" and 240 pounds. He absolutely oozes with potential.
As for the incoming freshmen, the two who could make some noise include Deon Hollins and Myles Jack. Hollins was a pass-rushing dynamo during his high school days in Texas. Although on the smaller side, he has great quickness and agility.
Much like Wallace and Orjioke, Jack is a freak athletically. He's big enough where he could contribute right away. He could even potentially play on both sides of the ball—seeing time at running back in addition to outside 'backer.
Barr will undoubtedly be facing double- and even triple-teams most of the time. That should allow the eventual starter on the opposite side to encounter favorable scenarios off the edge. Regardless of whom actually starts at the position, it's looking likely that a very good athlete will be manning the spot.
It's anyone's guess as to who'll come out of Bruins' fall camp named as a starter.
As it's currently constituted, every single starting position in the secondary is open. Unfortunately for UCLA, highly touted safety Dietrich Riley was forced to medically retire. His departure hurts greatly from an experience standpoint.
Depth is an issue across the board for the Bruins. Past injuries have affected the experience among the returners and the sheer numbers available aren't great.
In an effort to compensate for Riley's retirement, senior Stan McKay was moved to safety. Other returning options at the position include Brandon Sermons and Randall Goforth. Goforth played a considerable amount last season as a true freshman and will likely be counted upon to play a leadership role.
At corner, a raw, but athletic, Fabian Moreau returns, as does Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson. Moreau is the most athletic, Adams is perhaps the best cover option and Jefferson is the long, rangy type. None of the three, ultimately, have much in the way of experience.
Fortunately for head coach Jim Mora and defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin, there's an extremely talented quartet of freshmen coming into camp.
Johnny Johnson and Priest Willis will figure heavily into the fold at corner while Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman will patrol at safety. All four figure to see playing time this season, either as starters or in reserve roles. Also watch for incoming freshman Jayon Brown from Long Beach Poly. He could see time at safety as well.
It's a truly wide open competition and perhaps the most intriguing of all the positional battles. UCLA could conceivably start as many as three true freshmen in the secondary. That wouldn't necessarily be ideal, but those freshmen could represent the most talented options available.
The Backup to Brett Hundley
One guarantee can be made: there's not one quarterback on the UCLA roster who will supplant Brett Hundley from the starting spot.
The second-string position, however, is completely up for grabs.
Returning options from a year ago include Jerry Neuheisel and T.J. Millweard.
Of the two, Neuheisel has a higher capacity from a mental standpoint. Much like his father, former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel, Jerry relies on his head as opposed to his physical tools.
He has below-average arm strength and athleticism and a slight build. However, he does possess a solid knowledge of the offense and could be good as a game manager.
Millweard is bigger and has better arm strength, although not great. Neither has any experience playing in an actual game, but both have been in the system for a season.
The wild card in this equation is Asiantii Woulard. The freshman from Orlando was the MVP of the prestigious Elite 11 camp. He has very good arm strength and above-average mobility. From all accounts, Woulard also has good mental makeup and is very adept at retaining information.
Based on pure talent, Woulard is far and away the best option. However, the Bruins would probably want to preserve a year of Woulard's services and redshirt him if possible.
Should Hundley suffer a major injury towards the end of the season, Neuheisel or Millweard would likely get the call. If Hundley is injured at the beginning of the year, all bets are off.
The offensive line will be fascinating to watch.
UCLA returns four starters on the offensive line, although realistically, only Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jake Brendel can be penciled in as concrete starters.
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm signed a stellar seven-man class in 2013. The majority of those seven freshmen will vie for starting spots. Returning tackles Torian White and Simon Goines will try to fend off the incoming members.
Both Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond figure to be in the mix at guard while Poasi Moala and Christian Morris should be in the running to play at tackle. Scott Quessenberry also could end up being the main reserve to Brendel at center. Ben Wysocki cannot be forgotten at guard either.
On the defensive line, look for Ellis McCarthy to battle incumbent starter Seali'i Epenesa at nose guard. McCarthy battled various injuries and weight issues during his freshman season, but he seems to be in great shape heading into his sophomore year.
McCarthy's overall talent is undeniable and he has a high ceiling of potential to take UCLA's defense to another level. Epenesa is a very solid option up front and has been relatively consistent. McCarthy, however, has the potential to be a true difference-maker.
At the "Y" position, Darius Bell and freshman Thomas Duarte should battle for a starting spot. Bell will most likely get the starting nod, but Duarte is very talented. This camp will give Duarte a chance to get acclimated to the college game and gain experience in catching passes from Hundley in practice.