As the college football season inches closer by the day, the anticipation for UCLA’s opener vs. Nevada at the Rose Bowl will continue to build.
A traditional part of that preseason excitement—at least for sports writers—is to project and predict anything and everything for the coming season. From win-loss picks to position battle previews, the wealth of potential stories is enormous this time of year. Today, we’ll dip our feet in those waters for the first time with a roster projection of the UCLA secondary.
The Bruins welcome back two safeties with significant starting experience in sophomore Randall Goforth and redshirt junior Dietrich Riley, but the CB positions will likely be manned by first-year players. In addition to a pair of talented returners ready to make an impact, UCLA will bring in four 4-star defensive backs, two of whom will play corner.
Regardless of the combination Jim Mora goes with, the secondary will be short on experience next season. The skill and athleticism should be an upgrade compared to the departed senior class, but youth can always get ugly on the football field. That’s not to say the Bruins can’t succeed with a completely green defensive backfield, but it will definitely be a critical story line to watch with this team.
Without further ado, here’s the projected starting secondary for UCLA in 2013.
Cornerback: Ishmael Adams
When Ishmael Adams signed with UCLA in 2012, he was pegged as the cornerback of the future for the Bruins. But after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in September, Adams was forced to sit and watch a year of his college career pass by. Thankfully, he was granted a redshirt despite seeing the field before his injury, so he has four seasons of eligibility remaining.
Given the graduation of both starting CBs from 2012, the door is wide open for Adams to step up and take over. Listed at a slight 5’8″, 185 pounds on the UCLA roster, Adams doesn’t have the size expected of a true cover corner. But that didn’t stop him from wreaking havoc at Oaks Christian and in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Barring another physical setback, I would be shocked if Adams doesn’t top the depth chart for the season opener in August. This highlight reel gives a glimpse of what this kid is capable of, and the explosiveness he possesses as an athlete.
Free Safety: Randall Goforth
The only returning defensive back who started a game in 2012 is rising sophomore safety Randall Goforth, a former 3-star recruit out of Long Beach Poly. As a true freshman, Goforth became a crucial reserve for the Bruins, often bringing fresh legs to back up Andrew Abbott and Tevin McDonald. Goforth started five games last season, including the Holiday Bowl loss to Baylor after McDonald was suspended for violating team rules.
Now, following McDonald’s dismissal from the team and Abbott’s graduation, Goforth will be thrust into not only a starting spot, but also a leadership role. Some projected Goforth to make the switch to CB this season, but given the lack of experience available to choose from, he’ll likely stick with safety.
His knowledge of the play book and field time with the rest of the UCLA defense make him a viable candidate for free safety. And considering he is more adept in coverage than in run support, that seems like his destination. From center field, Goforth will have the responsibility of calling out coverage schemes, keeping his young corners locked in and providing the last line of defense for the Bruins. If he can show the kind of improvement he did in his first go-around, Goforth could become a reliable anchor point in the UCLA secondary in 2013.
Strong Safety: Dietrich Riley*
You may be wondering why there’s an asterisk after Dietrich Riley‘s name, but if you think about it, the answer is pretty obvious. Riley is returning from a devastating spinal injury that occurred over 1.5 years ago, so his ability to step into a starting job is surrounded with questions. I believe that he will start against Nevada if he can stay healthy and get back to full speed on the field. But needless to say, that’s a big if.
In his first two seasons in Westwood, Riley built a reputation as a physical safety with a knack for heavy hitting. He created a few YouTube masterpieces with some bone-crushing blows, and became a fan-favorite quickly. However, after going down in October 2011, his future at UCLA was left hanging in the balance.
A successful surgery and recovery has brought Riley to the verge of a valiant return, but the hardest work is left to be done. Riley will need to get himself into game shape again, which includes delivering some pop against the run from the strong safety position. Assuming everything goes smoothly through summer camp, I fully expect Riley to get the nod when UCLA takes the field this fall. Until then though, he is stuck with an asterisk of uncertainty.
Cornerback: Priest Willis
While I expect a redshirt freshman to take the reins at one CB spot, the other will probably be filled by a true freshman like Priest Willis. Aside from late-addition Eddie Vanderdoes, Willis is the prized cow of the 2013 recruiting class. His game is projected to the cornerback position at the college level, which fits nicely with UCLA’s biggest need next season. Willis’ value as a pure athlete is enough to land him a starting role, but it’s the specifics of his skill set that have fans excited for his arrival.
Unlike Adams, Willis doesn’t have elite abilities in deep coverage, though he has flashed excellent ball skills when contesting receivers in the air. Rather, Willis brings a physical, bump-and-run brand of football to the table, something the Bruins haven’t had in years.
With Adams locking down the opposition’s No. 1 vertical threat and Willis jamming the under routes, UCLA could have a lethal pair of CBs in 2013. However, as is always the concern with inexperience, their ability to transition to the game at this level will tell the tale in the end. At this point, Willis seems a clear-cut favorite to get first look on the edge alongside Adams come camp.
Think I missed a pick? Don’t hesitate to voice your opinion in the comment section below!