Some college football teams like to open their seasons by feasting on inferior opponents. Arizona State, for example, opens with Portland State and Northern Arizona, a pair of Division 1-AA teams.
UCLA, however, has chosen a different menu. In the first month of their season, the Bruins will face a steady diet of premier opponents, including the No. 5 team in the country, the best returning passer in the country and a quarterback that is being touted as the potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
No big deal. The UCLA secondary ““ a confident, self-assured unit ““ is salivating over the chance to face all these aerial threats.
“I’d rather (play great teams) than cupcakes and cream puffs,” said junior safety Tony Dye.
“I want it,” said freshman cornerback Anthony Jefferson.
“We want to be the best. We want other teams to fear passing against us,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Price.
“Guys are hungry,” freshman safety Dietrich Riley said, and that statement adequately sums up the overall feeling of the defensive backfield, the group of players bound to be tested the most in the season’s first four games.
After traveling to face Kansas State in the opener ““ and a trip into Big 12 territory is never a vacation ““ UCLA returns home for a double-dip of elite gunslingers. In the Pac-10 opener on Sept. 11, Stanford will roll into the Rose Bowl led by junior quarterback Andrew Luck, who passed for 198 yards in the Cardinal’s 24-16 win over the Bruins a season ago.
Luck enters this season as one of the nation’s top professional prospects, one whom ESPN draft czar Mel Kiper slots at second overall on his Big Board and whom he describes as having a “great arm, NFL smarts, solid footwork. Prototypical size and intangibles. Luck even has the ability to check down and plays with veteran savvy.”
While Luck is viewed by many as a potential star in the professional ranks, Houston’s Case Keenum is already well on his way to rewriting NCAA record books. Last season, Keenum led the nation in passing attempts, completions, touchdowns and yards, was second in completion percentage and seventh in quarterback rating. Now a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, Keenum is back for more, and he has his top four receivers all back to lead the aerial attack.
UCLA will then close out the month in style, hitting the road to take on Texas, last year’s national runner-up. And while Longhorns quarterback Garrett Gilbert will be entering his first season as a starter, he is a former five-star recruit who gained valuable experience in the BCS championship game.
It’s a stretch that could easily have teams trembling in their cleats, but the UCLA secondary has enough confidence and swagger to fill the 100,119-seat Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.
“We don’t want to compete against I-AA schools and schools that aren’t even ranked,” Riley said. “To earn respect, we have to go against top-notch competition. We want to win.”
The freshman cites the schedule as one of the reasons he committed to UCLA in the offseason, a sentiment that is shared by one of his secondary counterparts.
“That’s why I came here,” Jefferson said. “We have one of the toughest schedules in the country. It’s going to be good for me, good for the team. We’re going to be ready for the tougher competition.”
Last season, UCLA was tied for seventh in the country with 20 interceptions as a team, a number that was due in large part to the actions of safety Rahim Moore, who picked off 10 passes of his own to lead the country. Although the Bruins lost cornerback Alterraun Verner to graduation, they get Aaron Hester back from injury. Additionally, Courtney Viney and Tevin McDonald return to join newcomers Riley and Jefferson.
Suffice to say, the players are pleased with the makeup of the group.
“I’m extremely confident in our defensive backfield against teams like Houston and Texas that can put up yards through the air,” Dye said. “I’m ready for all that.”
Riley went even further, declaring that UCLA has “one of the most talented secondaries in the nation,” citing the group’s combination of size, speed and aggressiveness.
With the departure of Brian Price and the recent injury to Datone Jones creating uncertainty on the defensive front, more pressure could fall on the guys in the secondary to keep opposing passing games in check. They’ll have the chance to prove themselves against some of the best the country has to, well, throw at them.
“I feel like with all those quarterbacks, it’s just a chance to showcase our talent and see how hard we worked,” Price said. “All those quarterbacks can throw the ball and they’re all top-notch. We’re going to have to bring our A-game if we want to win.”