Among the more pressing concerns facing UCLA before the 2013 season was the development of a talented but wholly inexperienced secondary.
Fast forward to 2014, and the script is flipped. The Bruins open preseason camp in just four weeks. When they do, the secondary will provide one pillar from which to build their championship dreams.
Worries about the Bruins secondary a year ago were certainly warranted, coming off a season in which UCLA ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 against the pass. Compounding the problem: The Bruins did not return a single starter to the unit.
Head coach Jim Mora spoke last season of the team's collective inexperience.
In few phases was UCLA's youth more evident than in the secondary, where sophomores Ishmael Adams, Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth were the unit's grizzled veterans.
And Moreau was converted to defensive back from running back. Of course, Mora is starting to establish something of a track record for finding defensive talent in floundering running backs and helping to develop stars.
He did so with first-round NFL draft pick Anthony Barr, and it looks like Moreau will follow in a similar career arc.
Mora explained to Ryan Kartje of the Orange County Register:
Fabian is on the verge of being a great cornerback. And I’m not using that word lightly. I think he’s on the verge of being a great cornerback, like being one of the best in college football. If he has one of the years I think he’s capable of, he’s an All-American to me.
Moreau made significant strides in his new role in 2013, defending four passes and forcing a fumble. Opposite him is the unit's lone contributing senior, Anthony Jefferson.
Perhaps the most electrifying member of UCLA's defense is the junior Adams, a ball hawk who led the Bruins with four interceptions in 2013.
Mora's reliance on first-year contributors in 2013 translates to invaluable experience in 2014. In the secondary, Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman were two of the 18 UCLA true freshmen who saw playing time.
Goodman and Goforth handle safety duties. Willis was a highly touted 4-star recruit at cornerback in 2013, but after appearing in limited capacity last season, he could see an expanded role at safety.
It wasn’t the year I wanted. I wasn’t happy with it, but everyone learns differently. Sometimes, you can’t just be a Myles Jack. Sometimes, people learn much slower. That was the process for me.
Depth is a point of emphasis entering preseason camp with new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich taking over. Ulbrich is introducing a 4-2-5 scheme to replace departing Lou Spanos' 3-4 base.
That means more defensive backs on the field in nickel and dime packages and more defensive backs rotating in and out of the lineup.
Reinforcements arrive in another stable of talented prospects. Safety Jaleel Wadood and cornerback Adarius Pickett, two 4-star prospects, should compete for playing time immediately. The Bruins also return John Johnson, a 4-star recruit in the 2013 class who missed all of last season with a separated shoulder.
Expect to see the secondary also get plenty of help from the linebackers corps—namely sophomore Myles Jack.
The versatile Jack gained national attention in 2013 for playing both linebacker and running back, but he proved to be multidimensional well before seeing any action on offense.
Jack broke up 11 passes last season—some while bringing pressure, others in coverage. He also picked off two passes, returning one for a touchdown.
Ulbrich's new scheme should allow Jack the freedom to roam, including dropping back into coverage when the play necessitates it.
All told, pass defense in general and secondary play in particular is a decided strength for the Bruins heading into the 2014 campaign. Quite a difference just one year makes.