Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Secondary – UCLA Bruins
Since his arrival in Westwood, head coach Rick Neuheisel has been tirelessly working to infuse UCLA with elite talent. By almost all accounts, his first two recruiting classes have received rave reviews with a variety of blue-chippers electing to play for the Bruins. Nowhere is the blue-chip talent more evident than in the secondary, and this season could be the coming-out party of several young and dynamic defensive backs.
With a sturdy defensive line led by All-American Brian Price, and arguably the best linebacking corps in the conference, this promising secondary could make UCLA’s defense downright frightening for opposing offenses in 2009.
The Bruins defensive backfield played very well last season, finishing 8th nationally in pass defense. Although the unit lost two starters to graduation (CB Michael Norris and S Bret Lockett), many believe the DB’s could be even better this season.
The group is led by an All-American cornerback looking to finish off his tremendous career in style.
Decorated senior Alterraun Verner returns for his final year at UCLA. The fourth-year starter is one of the Pac-10’s best players, and a true shutdown-corner. Last season, Verner led the nation in passes defended (18 deflections, 2 interceptions for 20 total PDs), and finished second on the team with 73 tackles on his way to second-team All-Pac-10 honors.
Verner has ended each of his previous three seasons with some form of post-season honors (freshman All-American in 2006, honorable mention All-Conference in ’07, second team All-Conference in ’08). Recently, he was named to the ESPN.com pre-season All-American team, as well as being named to watch lists for the Bednarik (Top Defensive Player) and Thorpe (Top Defensive Back) Awards.
Verner has also drawn high praise in the classroom. The math/applied science major was voted first-team Pac-10 All-Academic for the last two seasons.
At 5-11 180 pounds, Verner uses a potent combination of speed and agility to smother an opposing receiver. But it is his vision and intuition that separate Verner as one of the nation’s most polished corners. He plays with great technique when pressing a receiver at the line, and his zone cover recognition skills are also very good.
The cerebral senior is rarely caught out of position, and has enough recovery speed in case it ever does happen. He is also a dangerous playmaker once he gets the ball in his hands with three of his eight career interceptions resulting in touchdown returns.
Verner is the only upper-classmen in the cornerback rotation, and he will therefore be counted on to mentor a developing group. This past spring, his teammates voted him as one of the Bruins team captains. The Carson (CA) native has looked sharp in fall camp so far, and appears primed for an outstanding last season in Westwood.
With most teams throwing away from Verner in 2009, redshirt freshman Aaron Hester will need to be ready for a lot of action.
Last season, Hester spent time learning the defensive system, and after an impressive spring, he has claimed ownership of a starting spot.
At 6-1 203 pounds, Hester is one of the most naturally gifted defensive backs on the roster. His technique still needs work, but his upside is undeniable. Hester has excellent size for a corner, while also possessing very good speed (4.43). He would make an ideal press corner because of his tenacious and physical style, and could also be an asset in run support.
Like Verner, Hester breaks on the ball very well and can cover space in a hurry.
He also has the bloodlines to succeed, as his brother is Chicago Bears and former Miami Hurricanes standout Devin Hester. Rivals and Scout.com rated the Compton (CA) native as a 4-star prospect during his prolific prep career at Dominguez High School.
Hester has looked spectacular in fall camp, and he enters 2009 as a potential breakout performer on the UCLA defense.
The most experienced corner besides Verner has only played for one season and it’s sophomore Courtney Viney. Last season, Viney played mostly as a nickel back and finished with 17 tackles while also contributing on special teams. Two years ago, he was the Scout Team Player of the Year.
At 5-8 160 pounds, Viney is small even by cornerback standards, but he plays with aggressive determination and never stops coming. Coaches have praised Viney for his competitiveness and work ethic. He has tremendous leaping ability, and the quickness to cover an opposing team’s speediest receiver. Viney is also a surprisingly good tackler with deceptive strength. The Fresno (CA) native was given four-star recognition from Scout.com while he was at Edison High School.
Viney enters the season as a key part of the cornerback rotation.
Two true freshmen corners that have looked outstanding in fall camp are Sheldon Price and Marlon Pollard.
The 6-2 163 pound Price has a long frame and should put on considerably more weight during his career. He has wasted little time impressing the coaches, and could become a pivotal part of the defensive backfield as the season progresses.
Price provides the Bruins with another corner (along with Hester) that can cover taller receivers. The Chino Hills (CA) product was given 4-star recognition by Rivals.com, and was a PrepStar All-American selection while at Bishop Amat High School.
The 6-0 158 pound Pollard also has a lot of physical developing to do, but he has been very impressive this fall. He is an explosive athlete with great ball skills and also possesses excellent quickness. Rivals and Scout.com rated him as a 4-star prospect, and he was also a PrepStar All-American selection. The San Bernardino (CA) native could factor in for the Bruins as a nickel back and on special teams.
The starter at free safety will be sophomore Rahim Moore. Moore arrived at UCLA with high expectations and he didn’t disappoint totaling 60 tackles (4th on team) and three interceptions (tied for first on team) as a true freshman starter for all 12 games.
At 6-1 197 pounds, Moore is a true playmaker at safety, combining great size with elite speed (4.4). He can close space down quickly, and understands when to break on the ball. More than anything, Moore is a versatile athlete, who can disrupt an offense with his cover skills, run-stopping ability, and instinctive timing.
Moore was named to multiple Freshman All-American teams, and should compete for Pac-10 honors this season. The Los Angeles (CA) native was rated as a 5-star prospect by Scout.com and has lived up to the billing thus far. Moore could conceivably hold onto the free safety spot for his entire career at UCLA.
The strong safety spot is wide open, but sophomore Glenn Love has been working with the first team during the fall. Last season, Love played as a reserve making 23 tackles and contributing on special teams. With a year of experience under his belt, he now enters the spotlight at SS.
At 6-4 210 pounds, Love has linebacker size and defensive back fluidity in his movement. His ball skills are outstanding and he also has great leaping ability. He may need to work on staying lower though, as that is always a concern for a taller defender.
The Chandler (AZ) native is the slight leader for the starting role at this point in fall camp.
The other option at strong safety is sophomore Tony Dye. Last season, Dye played as a primary nickel back in 11 games, making 15 tackles on the year. At 5-11 199 pounds, Dye does not possess ideal size for a safety, but he makes up for it with his coverage ability and physical tenacity.
The Corona (CA) native was given 4-star recognition by both Rivals and Scout.com, and was selected to play in the Under Armor All-America game during his prep career at Santiago High School (CA).
Other players competing for time are: freshmen Brandon Sermons, Stan McKay, Andrew Abbott, Alex Mascarenas, and senior Aaron Ware.
This UCLA defense really could be special if everything comes together. There doesn’t seem to be a weakness anywhere, and my only hope is that the D isn’t overworked like last year (that part is up to you, Bruin Offense).
Kudos to Rick Neuheisel for putting a lot of this talented secondary together in two years of recruiting; his efforts are already paying off big time.
Having said that, I’m sure Neuheisel is happy to have No.1 (Alterraun Verner) around for one more season. Verner is the consummate student-athlete, and a great role model for the underclassmen. I expect him to close out his excellent career with another productive season, and he will be in the discussion for post-season awards (Thorpe, Bednarik) all year long.
I am also excited to see Hester, especially since the ball will probably be coming his way a lot this season. He does not lack confidence and his skill set is tremendous, so now it’s time to see if he’s ready.
At safety, Moore is on the verge of becoming a star in the conference. His freshman season was very impressive considering he was the first Bruin rookie to start all 12 games since CB Matt Ware in ’01. I think Moore will be better this season, and he should contend for all-conference honors. The battle at strongside may go on for a little while, but both Love and Dye are capable.
Overall, expect the inexperienced new starters to make a few mistakes early, but by midseason this Bruins secondary should soar.