Two years ago it was a weakness. A year ago it was a major cause for concern.

But now, UCLA football’s secondary has transformed into perhaps the Bruins’ most stable and deep position group.

Having struggled through a mountain of yellow laundry in 2012 with Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester manning the cornerback spots, the Bruins looked to a brighter future in the secondary in 2013 following a strong sophomore season from safety Tevin McDonald. But when McDonald was dismissed from the team last March for violating team rules, that hope became a hole that fell to a group of inexperienced defensive backs to fill.

Yet in the 2013 season, the patched-together secondary with five career starts between the four of them surprised many with its play, silencing any questions about UCLA’s pass coverage issues, allowing just 217.6 passing yards per game.

With all four starters – redshirt senior safety Anthony Jefferson, junior safety Randall Goforth, junior cornerback Fabian Moreau and junior cornerback Ishmael Adams – returning in 2014, sophomore safety Tahaan Goodman continuing to develop and a strong group of freshmen coming in the fall, UCLA’s secondary is as deep as ever.

“With the conference we play in, with the quarterbacks we go against, with the receivers we face week in and week out, it’s very important that we have some choices to go to on defensive back,” said defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin.

The question mark that the defensive backfield was a year ago has been erased and replaced with a new set of higher expectations. But still, the Bruins are still feeling pressure despite feeling less scrutiny.

“We like the pressure,” Goforth said. “We always feel like there’s pressure on us, you know. Everybody doubted us last year and we still feel the same way this year.”

Much of the pressure they’re feeling could be from the expectations the defensive backs are placing on themselves. The secondary doesn’t want to just replicate last year’s success. It has its sights set much higher.

“We want to get to the national championship level and that’s always been our goal, so I think now with that year of experience, it’s just another confidence to prove we can do that,” Jefferson said.

Championship-caliber performance is the goal, but Goforth said the group has a long way to go to reach that level. To get there, the defensive backs need to develop their chemistry, which Goforth called the key to a great defense.

But both Goforth and Martin said the defensive backs took a step back in Thursday’s practice after getting beat multiple times in the one-on-one drills against wide receivers; Martin said his expectation is for his unit to “win every rep.”

With players and coaches alike raising the bar in terms of the secondary’s level of play, Martin said reaching that level means a stricter practice regimen, even for players who were highly touted recruits.

“The expectations is higher, so the toleration for little mistakes are intolerable so we kinda just step it up on them and keep the foot on their neck and those guys will keep getting better,” Martin said. “It’s good ’cause now the young guys are sitting there with wide eyes like, ‘Woah, those four stars and five stars didn’t mean nothing.’ Everybody’s a big fish at this level.”

Email Bowman at kbowman+@media.ucla.edu.