2020 UCLA Football Season Preview: Veteran defensive backs can help rebuild under new system
Redshirt sophomore defensive back Rayshad Williams and UCLA football are working in a new defensive system that will impact the corners and safeties the most. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Sam Connon
Oct. 29, 2020 8:13 p.m.
This post was updated Oct. 30 at 8:36 a.m.
UCLA football finally has a schedule for its 2020 season, so Sports editor Jack Perez and senior staff writer Sam Connon will be taking a look at the Bruins’ outlook at each position. From award favorites to comeback stories, Daily Bruin Sports will analyze each position’s depth chart and make predictions for how their seasons could unfold. Next up – defensive backs.
Darnay Holmes is busy locking down the slot for the New York Giants on Sundays, meaning the Bruins will have to make some serious changes to their secondary on Saturdays.
A secondary that allowed more passing yards than any other in UCLA football history.
Redshirt sophomore Rayshad Williams, who was the Bruins’ No. 2 corner outside the numbers by the end of last season, is taking Holmes’ place as the No. 1 corner. Redshirt junior Elijah Gates got some starts there at the beginning of last year, but he was primarily a slot corner by the year’s end.
Gates will likely return to that slot role in 2020, but he projects to only be a slot specialist considering UCLA’s depth at corner. Redshirt junior Jay Shaw has the playmaking ability to be a No. 2 corner – he was ranked second among Bruin defensive backs in both interceptions and passes defended in 2019 – but his 5-foot-11 frame means he can spend a lot of time in the slot as well.
New faces graduate transfer Obi Eboh and freshman John Humphrey are both 6-foot-2, as is redshirt sophomore Patrick Jolly Jr. The size and bodies the Bruins boast on the outside will all get time to shine at some point in this shortened season, especially considering the team will trot five defensive backs out on the field regularly.
The safety group looks very similar to last year’s, with redshirt junior Quentin Lake, junior Stephan Blaylock, redshirt sophomore Elisha Guidry and redshirt junior Mo Osling III all coming back. Blaylock led the team in tackles with 86 and forced fumbles with two in 2019, while Lake has 85 tackles in 16 games dating back to the start of the 2018 season.
Graduate transfer safety Qwuantrezz Knight and sophomore linebacker Carl Jones should both get some snaps as the team’s fifth defensive back, or striker, as well.
Defensive backs coach Brian Norwood’s 4-2-5 defense has gotten a lot of traction in the preseason, and it’s biggest impact will come in the secondary.
Those five defensive backs usually consist of two corners and two safeties, as well as a striker – a safety-linebacker-nickel hybrid.
Jones made the change from safety to linebacker midway through his freshman year last season, and he seemed to fit better in that position. He’s still technically working in the linebackers room, but Jones is also working with Norwood on his coverage skills that could make him an effective hybrid in year two. Jones and Knight are both similar sizes, and the two are prototypical strikers in terms of build.
Multiple Bruins have spoken at length about how aggressive the defensive backs have been so far in fall camp, and part of that has to do with their playing up on the line of scrimmage more often. That’s quite the departure from last season, when defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro regularly gave outside receivers 10-yard cushions pre-snap.
Making the transition to a more in-your-face secondary requires additional speed and physicality, and it still remains to be seen whether or not UCLA has that at its disposal.
Holmes’ speed is gone, but Knight and Eboh bring size and muscle that the unit didn’t have last year. Williams has the length of a true outside corner at 6-foot-2, but he may need help over the top if his athleticism isn’t up to par.
Blaylock – and Lake to some extent as well – has the range and smarts to play centerfield at safety, which could help make up for a rough transition period for the corners.
The defensive backs will now be able to limit the intermediate routes they were unable to contain last season, but it’s up to the safeties and pass rushers to prevent home run plays from tearing this defense apart.
It’s hard to get worse than allowing 310.8 passing yards per game – the most in the Pac-12 in 2019 and the most in program history – so it isn’t bold to say the Bruins’ secondary will take a step forward in 2020.
The questions then become how much will they improve and how long will it take them to get there.
UCLA was 3-2 last season when it limited opposing quarterbacks to fewer than 270 passing yards and 1-6 when they broke that threshold. If the Bruins have any hope at getting back over .500 this season, it all rests on the secondary.
Williams doesn’t have the same playmaking ability and speed as Holmes, so he likely won’t sniff the latter’s eight interceptions and 17 passes defended in three years, even with a more aggressive play style. Quarterbacks will still throw his way, so Williams could very likely get his first career pick by the end of the season.
The secondary is lucky enough to face new starting quarterbacks in each of their first four games, so they’ll have time to get their legs under them against less experienced competition. After only forcing five interceptions in 12 games last year, expect that number to trend closer to one per game in 2020.
If this veteran unit can force more turnovers and turn the tides on a horrendous 2019 in Norwood’s new system, the UCLA defense could potentially end up being a positive as opposed to a detriment to the team this season.