UCLA Spring Football Outlook
March 18, 2010
The Bruins begin the third season of the Rick Neuheisel Era having won four of their last five games a year ago, including a victory in the EagleBank Bowl. They enter Spring Practice with the coaching staff virtually intact and a third straight Top Ten recruiting class. A total of 44 lettermen (one from 2008), including 12 positional starters and the best kicking tandem in the nation, give Neuheisel and his staff reason for optimism entering Spring drills.
'I expect us to continue to build on the growth and progress we made on offensive a year ago,' said the Bruin head coach. 'Most of our young players have now gained starting experience and are entering the third year of our system. That experience, combined with their continuity in our system, leads us to believe we are ready to take a step forward offensively, especially in the area of the big play. With all that said, I expect there to be great competition at virtually every position during Spring drills and it will be fun to watch us continue to develop as a unit.'
'Defensively, we lost some important contributors but we are excited about our returning nucleus of starters and our young talent that we will work to develop during Spring Practice. Our staff on this side of the ball will continue to tweak our system to fit the strengths of our players. In addition, we have made great strides in speed and strength due to our recruiting and off-season conditioning.'
'When it comes to special teams, no team has a better pair of kickers than Kai Forbath and Jeff Locke. We have made great strides in our coverage units and we will be looking for new return candidates during Spring.'
Offensively, UCLA returns players with starting experience at nine of the eleven positions. Quarterback Kevin Prince started 11 games and threw for over 2,000 yards in his first season on the field. The top two wide receivers in terms of receptions and receiving yards -- Taylor Embree (45 for 608 yards) and Nelson Rosario (42 for 723 yards) -- are also back, as is tight end Cory Harkey, who started four games. Last season's top two rushers, Johnathan Franklin, a starter in eight games who totaled 566 yards on the ground, and Derrick Coleman, who ran for 244 yards, are both set to return. Four starters along the offensive line are also back -- left guard Jeff Baca, center Kai Maiava, right guard Eddie Williams and right tackle Mike Harris. The coaches will look at several talented young players this Spring to fill the openings at left tackle and fullback and compete for playing time at all of the positions.
Defensively, UCLA returns five starters, plus a 2008 starter and several other key performers from a unit that ranked near the top of the Pac-10 in pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. All-America free safety Rahim Moore, who led the nation with 10 interceptions, and outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, who scored three defensive touchdowns, are the leaders of this group. UCLA returns three players who started a majority of the games in the secondary - Moore, strong safety Tony Dye and cornerback Sheldon Price, and another cornerback, Aaron Hester, who won the starting job but played in just two games due to injury. End Datone Jones, who made 11 tackles for loss, is the leader on the line. Several talented yougsters will compete for open spots and playing time during the Spring.
On special teams, Forbath led the nation in field goals per game, won the Lou Groza Award, and earned consensus All-America honors. Jeff Locke ranked second in the Pac-10 in punting and was the only freshman among the semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award. Christian Yount was the first-ever long snapper named to the Playboy pre-season All-America team.
The schedule features trips to BCS Championship Game participant Texas and Kansas State, both of the Big XII, and a non-conference home date with high-scoring Houston from Conference USA. Five of the nine Pacific-10 conference games are at the Rose Bowl this season, beginning with a contest vs. Stanford on September 11 and culminating with the regular-season finale versus USC on December 4. It also features a Thursday night game at Oregon and a Friday encounter at Arizona State.
The Bruins return three quarterbacks who each took their first snaps in a game last season. All now have experience and familiarity with the system and will be looking to provide a consistent level of production and efficiency within the system.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Prince (6-2, 229) was named the starter prior to the end of 2009 Spring Practice. He went on to open up under center against San Diego State and started all 11 games he played in during the season. The strong-armed signal-caller completed 173 of 308 passes (56%) for 2,050 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. His completions and passing yards rank No. 2 on UCLA's all-time freshman list. He ranked seventh in the Pac-10 in total offense (202.64) and eighth in passing efficiency (115.45) and passing yards (186.36). In addition to his exploits in the air, Prince netted 179 rushing yards.
Prince became just the second freshman quarterback in UCLA history to pass for over 300 yards three times (311 v. Cal, 323 at Oregon St., 314 at Wash. St.) in a season (Tommy Maddox in 1990). In fact, only Cade McNown, with six as a senior in 1998, and Tom Ramsey, with four as a senior in 1982, have produced more 300-yard passing games in a season. Prince's total of 323 passing yards at Oregon State rank No. 5 on UCLA's freshman passing list and 28th overall. His 390 total yards of offense at Washington State rank No. 2 among Bruin freshmen (Tommy Maddox 445 v. USC in 1990).
True sophomore Richard Brehaut (6-2, 225) entered school for the 2009 Spring Quarter and was able to get a head start on the season by participating in last year's Spring drills. He went on to see action in six games off the bench and completed 11 of 17 passing attempts for 124 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. His year of experience should put him in better position to compete for playing time this season.
Redshirt sophomore Nick Crissman (6-3, 212) is now healthy and able to show he is ready to add depth to the position. He was sidelined during the 2008 season by a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and spent part of 2009 rounding back into competitive shape. He saw his first game action with 10 snaps last season at Washington State. As a prep senior in 2007, he totaled 2,048 yards passing.
Walkons Clayton Tunney (6-4, 212), a redshirt junior who transferred in last year from UC Davis, and Ted Landers (6-5, 196), a redshirt freshman, will add depth to the mix after working with the scout team in 2009.
'Our quarterbacks are still rather young, but now they have that most valuable ingredient of all, experience, on their resumes. We must continue to improve our play at this position and I am confident that we will,' said coach Neuheisel. 'Kevin has been impressive at times and his play and leadership seemed to get better as the season unfolded. It will be interesting to measure his progress as he has now had a chance to fully process the experience he gained last season. We threw a lot at Richard in his first year in the program and he responded well. His experience will certainly benefit him going forward. We want to take a good look at Nick this Spring and gauge his progress.'
The Bruins return four running backs who carried the ball last season, two of whom started at least one game. The competition figures to be intense right through the fall. The fullback position is wide open after the graduation of Chane Moline, who also contributed at tailback, and Trevor Theriot.
Redshirt sophomore Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 200) appeared in all 13 games last season, starting eight times. He led the Bruins in rushing (566 yards), including a pair of 100-yard games versus Kansas State (23 carries for 119) and California (11 carries for 101), and scored five touchdowns. His total of 566 yards rank as the sixth-best total ever by a Bruin freshman and his average of 43.54 rushing yards per game ranked 12th in the Pac-10.
True junior Derrick Coleman (6-0, 231), who offers a good speed and size combination, has been the team's second-leading rusher in each of the past two seasons (244 yards in 2009; 284 in 2008). He saw action in all 13 games and made one start (at Washington State).
Speedy true sophomore Damien Thigpen (5-8, 180) saw action in all 13 games last season. He carried 26 times for 62 net yards and caught seven passes for 41 yards. Thigpen also contributed on special teams, returning four kickoffs for an 18.0 average and doing a good job in coverage.
Redshirt sophomore Milton Knox (5-8, 202) is a tough, hard-nosed runner with a good burst who will also look to make an impact at the position. He appeared in seven games a year ago and carried 29 times for 134 yards to rank fifth on the team.
Several candidates will look to impress this Spring at the fullback position. Redshirt senior Tobi Umodu (5-11, 243), who made the move from linebacker in the Spring of 2008, figures to provide depth at fullback. He did not see game action last season, but appeared in two contests in 2008. Redshirt freshman Jayson Allmond (6-0, 256), from Fontana, CA, is a bruising blocker and runner who displayed his talents on the scout team last season while adjusting to the college game.
Incoming recruits Jordan james (5-10, 190), a highly regarded speedster from Corona, CA HS; Malcolm Jones (6-1, 220), who was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year after a big season at Oaks Christian HS in Westlake Village, CA; as well as, athlete Anthony Barr (6-4, 225) from Loyola HS, will join the team in August. Each earned numerous prep-All-America honors a year ago.
'We have a lot of talent and experienced depth in the backfield and we will watch them continue to push each other each day at practice in the battle for playing time,' Neuheisel said. 'We need this group to become consistently productive and more efficient. Johnathan showed he has the ability to be a prime time player for us, but must eliminate mistakes that can undo the good he can provide. Derrick has played well for us at times and can be a big plus. Damien has speed to burn and we must get him in position to utilize it. Milton goes to work each day with a blue-collar attitude. Christian is a gifted athlete who needs to put it all together to get on the field. It will be interesting to evaluate this group on a daily basis leading up to the season. At fullback, Tobi and Jayson give us a nice combination to work with.'
The wide receiver position returns the top two receivers, each of whom made over 40 catches last season, and a group of young up-and-comers who will try to replace Terrence Austin. A talented transfer is also looking to inject himself into the mix.
True junior Taylor Embree (6-3, 207) has enjoyed two straight highly-productive seasons. He made 12 starts a year ago and led the team with 45 catches, after ranking second, with 40 receptions, as a freshman. Embree's 608 receiving yards were second-best on the team in 2009 while his 45 catches led to 29 first downs or touchdowns. His two-year total of 85 receptions ranks No. 22 (tied) on the UCLA career list. Embree ranked 12th (tied) in the Pac-10 in receptions (3.46) and was 13th in receiving yards (46.77).
True junior Nelson Rosario (6-5, 216), who blossomed during the latter half of the season, appeared in all 13 games and made two starts. He was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 after leading the team with 723 receiving yards and his average of 17.2 yards per catch. His total of 42 receptions ranked second on the team and produced 30 first downs, including two touchdowns. Rosario ranked 12th (tied) in the Pac-10 in receiving yards (55.62) and 18th (tied) in receptions (3.23).
Two young speed receivers will be looking to expand their roles on the team. True sophomore Randall Carroll (5-10, 184) appeared in 10 games during the 2009 season and made three receptions for 21 yards. Redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray (5-11, 188) earned the attention of the coaching staff last season while performing on the scout team. He earned All-Region acclaim after leading Centennial HS to a State championship as a prep senior.
Two players with good size and speed also figure to compete for spots in the receiver rotation. Redshirt sophomore Jerry Johnson (6-4, 208) came off the bench in two games in 2009, but did not make a catch. True junior Antwon Moutra (6-2, 197) saw action in four games off the bench in 2009 and made one catch for four yards.
Redshirt junior transfer Josh Smith (6-0, 203) will look to find his way into the mix after joining the Bruins last fall following a transfer from the University of Colorado. He was a dangerous receiver and return man (honorable mention All-Big 12 in 2008) for the Buffaloes. Smith caught 52 balls for three touchdowns in his two seasons at CU. He averaged 10.4 yards on 28 punt returns amd 25.5 yards on 50 kickoff returns.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Jerry Rice, Jr. (5-11, 202) will also look to add depth at wide receiver.
Incoming freshman Paul Richardson (6-1, 175) will join the receivers in August after an All-American career at Serra HS in Gardena, CA.
'This group has a nice combination of experienced talent and youthful potential,' said the head coach. 'Taylor and Nelson each had outstanding seasons for us a year ago. Jerry and Antwon are not far off from joining them in the rotation. Our young receivers, Randall and Ricky, continue to develop and I am looking forward to seeing them back on the field. Josh gives us a wild card at the position. He is a talented performer who we will put through the paces this Spring.'
True junior Cory Harkey (6-5, 262) is a big, athletic youngster who saw action in all 13 games and made four starts in 2009. He can be a force at the point of attack and also caught eight balls for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Redshirt sophomore Joseph Fauria (6-7, 259) joined the Bruins in the Fall of 2009 after transferring from Notre Dame, where he played in three games as a freshman in 2008. He impressed the Bruin staff with his work with the scout team and appears ready to step right in and contribute.
True sophomore Morrell Presley (6-4, 220) enrolled at UCLA for the 2009 Winter Quarter. He played in six games last season and made one start. Presley caught six passes for 43 yards on the year.
Redshirt sophomore walkon Kevin McDermott (6-3, 241) could add depth at this position. He has also served as the back-up long snapper. Another walkon, redshirt freshman Andrew Yelich (6-3, 224) is also back. True freshman John Young (6-4, 250), from Loyola HS, will also look to get in the mix in August.
'I am excited about our group of tight ends,' said Neuheisel. 'Cory has done a nice job for us in his first two seasons and now it is his time to step up. Joseph is a great addition and gives our quarterbacks a large target as a receiver. Morrell has a full year of experience under his belt and we anticipate his productivity rising.'
The offensive line brings plenty of quality starting experience to the table. The unit returns four players who started a majority of the contests a year ago and three others who have started games. Last year's starting left tackle, Xavier Su'a Filo, is currently serving his two-year Mormon mission.
True junior Jeff Baca (6-4, 307) will be looking to start for the third straight season. An athletic big man, he was on the field for the opening offensive snap at left guard in all 13 games last season and has 21 career starts to his credit.
Redshirt junior Mike Harris (6-5, 331) has started the last 18 straight games at right tackle. He looks to continue to build on a solid sophomore campaign.
Redshirt junior Kai Maiava (6-1, 300) started all 12 regular-season games last year at center. A transfer from Colorado where he started nine games at guard in 2007, he also brings plenty of experience to the table.
Redshirt senior Eddie Williams (6-1, 327), who transferred in after earning junior college All-America honors at Mt. San Antonio College, started the first six games of 2009 at right guard until sidelined by a fractured left ankle.
Redshirt senior Ryan Taylor (6-3, 300) figures to add depth along the line at the center and guard positions after appearing in three games last season. A transfer from Tyler (TX) College, he started contests last season at right guard against Oregon State and Washington before being sidelined by a foot injury.
A trio of redshirt seniors will also look to join the mix. Tackle Micah Kia (6-5, 331), who started 15 games in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, returns and is working himself back to playing condition after suffering a knee injury which kept him on the sidelines last season. He will be limited to non-contact work during Spring drills but should compete for the left tackle spot in Fall camp. Darius Savage (6-4, 330) is another experienced candidate at the guard position. However, he is not expected to be ready for action this Spring following back surgery. He saw action in all 13 games in 2009 on special teams and some limited duty at guard after starting seven games there in 2008. Sean Sheller (6-5, 290) has returned to offensive tackle after spending the 2009 season on defense. He saw action in three games on special teams and will compete for playing time this Spring.
True sophomore Stan Hasiak (6-5, 315) also figures to compete at the guard positions. A youngster with potential, he appeared in three games last season, missing most of the year with personal medical issues.
Redshirt sophomore Connor Bradford (6-5, 260), like Sheller, returns to the offensive side of the ball this season and will offer depth at a tackle position.
Redshirt sophomore Brett Downey (6-7, 298) saw his first game action last season at Washington State. He has impressed the coaches with his hard work and will get a long look at tackle this Spring.
A pair of redshirt freshmen are also ready to compete for playing time. Nik Abele (6-7, 276) spent a productive season on the scout team in 2009 and is ready to battle for a spot in the rotation at tackle. Greg Capella (6-4, 320) is a strong young player who will put his year of scout team experience to work for him this Spring at a guard spot.
Redshirt sophomore walkon Austin Hill (6-5, 266) will also look to catch the coach's eye at a tackle position this Spring.
True freshman Wade Yandall (6-4, 300) from Carson, CA HS has already enrolled and will compete at guard or tackle in Spring drills. Two incoming freshmen, Kody Innes (6-5, 273), from Saguaro HS in Scottsdale, AZ and Chris Ward (6-5, 300) from Santa Ana, CA Mater Dei HS, join the mix in August. All three were highly-recruited prospects.
'The offensive line has grown and developed together the last two seasons,' Neuheisel said. 'A lot of the guys have gained significant starting experience which will pay dividends this season as most of them have now been through the wars together playing along side one another. We will look to identify our best unit and combinations this Spring and work to make them the best they can be for the Fall.'
UCLA returns five starters on this side of the ball plus many talented youngsters who will compete for playing time and starting jobs during Spring Practice.
This unit returns one full-time starter and the competition for jobs should be interesting to watch.
True junior left end Datone Jones (6-4, 267) is the lone returning starter on the line. A year ago, he developed into an impact player and will now be looked upon for leadership in 2010. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games and ranked third on the squad in quarterback sacks (4.0) and fourth on the team and 12th in the Pac-10 with his 11.0 tackles for loss. On the year, he made 30 tackles and earned Sophomore All-America honorable mention.
Three youngsters - redshirt sophomore Damien Holmes (6-3, 270), redshirt freshman Keenan Graham (6-2, 243) and true sophomore Iuta Tepa (6-1, 244) - will compete throughout Spring drills at the right end spot vacated by Korey Bosworth (14.0 tackles for loss).
A year ago, Holmes played well in a reserve role, appearing in all 13 games. He made 11 tackles, three for loss. Graham, suffered a fractured jaw last year in pre-season camp and ended up redshirting, while Tepa saw action in five games on defense or special teams in 2009. All three possess outstanding pass-rushing skills and the competition between them should be intense.
Redshirt senior Reginald Stokes (6-3, 260) will miss Spring Practice due to January surgery on his right knee. It is anticipated that he will be ready by August and will add depth at the position. In 2009, he appeared in eight games after returning from torn cartilage and contributed 10 tackles.
Redshirt sophomore walkon Ryan Medina (6-3, 246) will add depth at end.
With the departure of All-American Brian Price (23.5 tackles for loss) and fellow tackle Jerzy Siewierski, redshirt senior David Carter (6-5, 292) enters Spring drills as the most experienced of the tackle candidates. Carter has been a valuable reserve the past few years and has worked hard during the off-season to prepare himself for a starting role. He played in all 13 games a year ago and was one of the most improved players on the defense. He occupied linemen so the linebackers could make plays, a key on the fourth-and-goal stop at Tennessee, and also made nine tackles himself.
Redshirt junior Nate Chandler (6-5, 291) will get a long look at one of the tackle positions. Chandler, strong and athletic, has made the switch to defense after contributing at tight end and offensive tackle over the past two years. He appeared in 10 games a year ago, mostly on special teams, and made one reception.
Redshirt junior Justin Edison (6-4, 289), redshirt senior Andy Keane (6-2, 281) and redshirt sophomore Donovan Carter (6-1, 271) all figure to compete for playing time at tackle. Edison appeared in six games a year ago and made two tackles, while Keane did not see game action but played well in practice situations. Carter, who played in a handful of games on special teams, has moved from linebacker to tackle and will add depth at the position.
Six highly-recruited freshmen - three tackles and three ends - will add to the competitons in August. Cassius Marsh (6-4, 270) of Westlake Village, CA, Wesley Flowers (6-5, 253) from Fresno, CA, and Seali'i Epenesa (6-2, 300) from Honolulu, HI, will begin their Bruin careers at tackle while Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 240) from Portland, OR, Derrick Bryant (6-5, 240) from Columbus, OH, and Josh Shirley (6-3, 220) from Fontana, CA, will line up at end/linebacker. All earned numerous prep honors and several could make contributions this coming season. Odighizuwa was rated among the top two or three ends nationally, while Marsh rated among the nation's Top 10 at tackle.
'One of our Spring Practice goals is to rebuild the defensive line,' said Neuheisel. 'Datone is one of the top ends in the Pac-10 and our leader in this area. We have some talented youngsters who are looking to step up and prove they can follow in the footsteps of last year's starters. I expect the competiton to be intense and it will raise up another notch when the freshmen arrive in August.'
One starter from 2009, plus one starter from 2008, return to form the nucleus of the linebacker corps.
Redshirt junior outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (6-4, 254) blossomed into a big-play performer a year ago and is a legitimate All-America candidate this season. Last season, he scored three touchdowns - two on interceptions and one on a fumble return. An outstanding all-around athlete with great quickness and range, he is adept at pressuring the quarterback. Ayers finished 2009 with 14.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback sacks and four interceptions to rank second on the squad in all three categories. He also ranked third with 75 tackles, most among 2010 returnees.
Redshirt junior Steve Sloan (6-4, 232) has the most experience among the middle linebacker candidates seeking to replace Reggie Carter, who led the team in tackles (79) in 2009 for a second straight year. In 2008, Sloan moved into the starting lineup for the year's third game (Arizona) and went on to start in nine of the final 10 contests, missing only when the Bruins began in the nickel formation. He made the defensive calls and was a solid overall performer, totaling 29 tackles, including a career-best six versus USC. Last season, he appeared in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, and made three stops.
True junior Sean Westgate (5-11, 216), a standout performer on special teams his first two seasons, is the most experienced of the other outside linebacker candidates looking to replace the steady Kyle Bosworth (77 tackles). In 2009, Westgate played in all 13 games, including seven on defense, and started once. He made 18 tackles and blocked two punts, one of which resulted in a safety. He has now blocked three punts in two years. Westgate scored a touchdown on a blocked punt as a freshman.
True freshman Jared Koster (6-1, 220), redshirt junior Glenn Love (6-4, 216) and redshirt senior Mike Schmitt (6-1, 233) figure to compete with Westgate for starting honors and playing time on the weak side. Koster entered school in January after recovering from a sports hernia. Love is making the switch from strong safety to linebacker this Spring. A big hitter, he played in all 13 games a year ago on defense and special teams and made 27 tackles. Schmitt appeared in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, and contributed eight tackles.
Two talented youngsters - redshirt sophomore Patrick Larimore (6-3, 250) and redshirt freshman Todd Golper (6-0, 231) - will compete with Sloan for playing time in the middle. Larimore appeared in 11 games (he missed two due to a concussion) and played on several of the special teams units. Golper, one of the top linebackers in the West as a prep senior, redshirted in 2009.
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Bowens (6-1, 240) and redshirt sophomore David Allen (6-2, 227) add depth behind Ayers on the strong side. Bowens, one of the top linebackers in the West as a prep senior, is an outstanding prospect after redshirting a year ago. Allen, a transfer from Tulane, appeared in 12 games on special teams during his first year in the program. Both players were co-defensive winners of UCLA's Outstanding Scout Team Player award.
Three true freshmen - Aramide Olaniyan (6-2, 200) of Woodberry Forest, VA, Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 217) of Huntington Beach, CA and Eric Kendricks (6-1, 213) of Fresno, CA - will join the competition in August. Olaniyan and Zumwalt earned prep All-America honors a year ago while Kendricks was an All-Region performer. All three have bright futures as Bruins.
'Akeem showed a year ago that he is on his way to becoming one of the top linebackers in the country,' Neuheisel said. 'He has great talent and instincts and is getting better and better. Steve and Sean have plenty of experience at the position and it will be interesting to see how they play as a unit. We feel that Glenn has a chance to make a big contribution at this position and we are looking forward to working with the youngsters in this group, including the three freshmen who will join us in August.'
The Bruins return two full-time starters, plus a third player, who started the majority of games following an injury. Several candidates will compete for the two cornerback positions and the opportunity to add depth at safety.
Free safety Rahim Moore (6-1, 195) returns for his junior season as perhaps the top safety in America and the leader of the Bruin defense. He exploded onto the national spotlight as a true sophomore, earning All-America honors while leading the nation in interceptions. His 10 picks were the most by a player in the Football Bowl Subdivision since 1993. In addition, he also ranked second (tied) nationally in passes defensed and enters his junior season with 13 career interceptions (UCLA's career record is 19 by three-time All-American Kenny Easley). He ranks fourth among returnees with 49 tackles.
True junior Tony Dye (5-11, 206) returns after starting all 13 games at strong safety a year ago. Especially effective in run support, Dye was one of five Bruins to record at least 70 tackles last season and ranks second among returnees with 73 stops. He also scored a touchdown at Arizona, returning a tipped backward lateral 28 yards.
Three talented youngsters - true sophomore Dalton Hilliard (6-0, 199) and redshirt freshmen Alex Mascarenas (5-10, 194) and Stan McKay (6-1, 194) - will compete for playing time at the two safety spots. Hilliard gained some experience a year ago, appearing in six games on defense or special teams, while Mascarenas and McKay both redshirted. All three have outstanding potential and the competition between this trio should be interesting to watch.
Several experienced candidates will compete for the two cornerback positions. True sophomore Sheldon Price (6-2, 171) started the final 11 games of the season, gaining valuable experience. He was picked on a lot, playing opposite All-American Alterraun Verner (13 career interceptions, five career touchdowns), but that only figures to benefit him as his career progresses, as will some additional strength. On the year, he made 48 tackles.
Redshirt sophomore Aaron Hester (6-1, 207) showed plenty of promise during Spring Practice a year ago, earning a starting job. Unfortunately, he was injured in the season's first game and made just one other appearance. Now fully-recovered from his leg injury, he figures to be one of the favorites to win a starting position.
Two other experienced players - redshirt junior Courtney Viney (5-8, 162) and redshirt sophomore Andrew Abbott (5-10, 176) - are also in the mix for starting jobs and playing time at cornerback. Viney started at Tennessee a year ago, playing every snap, but most of his action during the latter half of the year was on special teams. Abbott, a walkon, developed into the team's nickel cornerback a year ago. He appeared in all 13 games and made 22 tackles.
True sophomore Brandon Sermons (5-11, 193) and redshirt freshman Marlon Pollard (6-0, 174) also figure to get long looks during Spring Practice. Sermons played in nine games in 2009, mostly on special teams, while Pollard redshirted and has four years of eligibility remaining. Both are outstanding secondary prospects.
Redshirt senior Christian Ramirez (6-2, 220) will also get a look in the secondary during Spring drills. He spent his freshman year on defense before moving to tailback. He is a fine athlete who has battled adversity the past few seasons. He missed the 2008 season due to eligibility reasons and was sidelined at the beginning of 2009 following an ankle injury. Ramirez went on to appear in three games last season with one start (at Arizona).
Three non-scholarship performers - redshirt sophomore cornerbacks Jeff Dickmann (5-9, 177) and Lowell Rose (6-0, 188) and redshirt freshman E.J. Turner (5-9, 192) - figure to add depth in the secondary.
A quartet of highly-recruited freshmen - cornerbacks Anthony Jefferson (6-2, 180) from Los Angeles, CA, Tevin McDonald (5-11, 180) from Fresno, CA, Shaquille Richardson (6-0, 175) and safety Dietrich Riley (6-1, 195) of La Canada, CA - will inject themselves into the competition in Fall camp. Jefferson and Riley earned prep All-America honors in 2009 while McDonald and Richardson ranked among the best in the West. All four will add athletic ability and speed to the Bruin defense.
'The secondary is the most experienced area of our defense and the best part is that we don't have a senior in the bunch,' said the third-year Bruin coach. 'In my opinion, Rahim is the best free safety in the nation and also the hardest-working player on our team. His upside is unbelievable. Tony did a nice job in his first year as a starter, but we have some talented youngsters who will push them for playing time. At corner, Sheldon went through on-the-job training but will benefit from that experience. We are excited that Aaron is fully-recovered from last season's leg injury. They will have to earn their spots in competition with some talented young players who will blossom with experience. And, we will be that much better in August when the freshmen arrive.'
This group figures to rank among the nation's best with the starting kickers, long-snapper and holder returning and a record-setting returner joining the unit.
Redshirt senior Kai Forbath (6-0, 195) is closing in on all of UCLA's career kicking records. The 2009 Lou Groza Award winner and the consensus All-America place kicker, he enters his senior year with 72 field goals (John Lee holds the record with 85) and a career percentage of .867, best in UCLA history. Last season, he led the nation in field goals per game 2.15, making 28 of 31 attempts. All three of his misses were from at least 51 yards and he enters the 2010 season having made 41 of his last 44 attempts overall and 37 straight kicks inside of 50 yards. He also has nine career field goals of at least 50 yards and a .750 percentage from that distance.
Redshirt sophomore Jeff Locke (6-1, 208) enjoyed a spectacular freshman season and should continue to improve. A year ago, he was one of the 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award (only freshman on the list) and earned first-team Freshman All-America honors and second-team All-Pac-10 acclaim. He averaged 43.63 yards per kick to rank second in the Pac-10 and 16th in the nation and UCLA ranked first in the Pac-10 in net punting. In addition, he handled the kickoff chores and led the Pac-10 with 20 touchbacks.
In the Fall, kicker Kip Smith, who earned All-America honors at Legacy High in Bloomfield, CO, will join the kicking contingent.True senior Christian Yount (6-1, 238) has done an outstanding job in his three seasons as the team's long snapper. Last season, he became the first player at his position to be selected to the Playboy pre-season All-America team. Walkon redshirt sophomore Kevin McDermott (6-3, 241) adds depth at long snapper.
Redshirt senior walkon Danny Rees (6-3, 192) did an outstanding job in his first year as Forbath's holder and will fill that role again in 2010. In addition, he provides depth at punter and had his first career punt at Washington State last season.
Terrence Austin, who set numerous kickoff and kickoff yardage records during his career, is no longer on the team but this area could again be an area of strength. Redshirt junior receiver/kick returner Josh Smith (6-0, 203) is now eligible to compete after sitting out last season following his transfer from Colorado. As a sophomore in 2008, he recorded the second-most all-purpose yards in a single-season in CU history (1,987 yards) and set school records with 50 kickoff returns and 1,276 return yards. Other candidates for kick and punt return chores will also get their chances during Spring drills.
'I can't imagine that any school has a pair of kickers better than Kai and Jeff,' Neuheisel said. 'Kai has been virtually automatic throughout his career and deserved every honor he earned a year ago. Jeff did a fantastic job as a freshman and will only continue to improve with experience. It all starts with Christian and his snaps and Danny stepped right in as our holder and we didn't miss a beat.
'We will be looking at several candidates for the return jobs but certainly Josh's experience at Colorado makes him a strong candidate for those duties.'