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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Secondary

Senior defensive back John Humphrey raises his arms in celebration after an incompletion. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin staff)

By Jack Nelson

Aug. 17, 2023 8:24 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 27 at 10:04 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before game day. Sports senior staffer Jack Nelson continues the series with a look at the secondary.

Personnel

Two Bruins were true stalwarts in the last line of defense a season ago, not missing a single start along the way.

Both are now gone.

UCLA’s defensive identity in 2022 benefitted from the dual threat of Mo Osling III and Stephan Blaylock. The then-redshirt seniors often shared the field as the squad’s primary safeties. Although they contributed to a secondary that ranked No. 117 in passing yards allowed, the duo finished second and third overall in total tackles with 89 and 60, respectively.

Their combined departure left the Bruins with one of their biggest holes defensively, but a new redshirt senior tandem is ready to fill in at safety.

Kenny Churchwell III is coming off a season in which his eight starts were more than any of his four preceding campaigns with the program. His 47 total tackles in 2022 make him the Bruins’ leading returning tackler among safeties, and he’s the only one at the position with starting experience.

Coach Chip Kelly also poached Bowling Green transfer Jordan Anderson – a three-time All-MAC selection who started 34 games in four seasons – to help fill the void. Anderson’s numbers in 2022 were a dropoff from previous seasons, recording 47 tackles and one interception after 57 and three apiece in 2021.

But Anderson was brought in specifically to address the loss of Blaylock, a five-year starter who finished his career tied for the program record in games played. He’s a cinch to assume the role.

Turnover wasn’t the story of the offseason for the cornerbacks, though.

Senior John Humphrey, redshirt sophomore Jaylin Davies and junior Devin Kirkwood are all back in the equation to offset the loss of Azizi Hearn to the NFL. The trio combined for 98 tackles last season against Hearn’s 40.

Davies and Kirkwood each figure to be critical disruptors in pass coverage after making some late noise in 2022. Davies led all Bruins with three interceptions, while Kirkwood notched four pass breakups – third most on the team.

Predictions

Poor pass defense has plagued UCLA for nearly half a decade.

Under the leadership of former defensive coordinators Jerry Azzinaro and Bill McGovern, the Bruins have finished last or second-to-last in the Pac-12 in pass defense every year since 2019. The group of defensive backs for 2023 doesn’t seem to have the talent or experience necessary to buck that trend.

But it won’t matter.

New defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn has arrived, and he’s precisely what the Bruin secondary has longed for – a young defensive mind with an NFL pedigree. Lynn enters Westwood fresh off two years with the Baltimore Ravens – one served as defensive backs coach and another leading the safeties.

Lynn’s experience game planning for the NFL’s high-flying offenses will serve him well in the Pac-12, which produced four of the nation’s top-six offenses a year ago. UCLA’s pass defense will finally earn back some respect from the conference and can make life challenging for receiving corps and quarterbacks alike.

Players who turned some heads in limited roles last season are also primed for breakouts under Lynn’s tutelage – look to Davies and Anderson as the frontrunners to shine.

Davies was already dangerous in pass coverage during his four-game starting stretch to close last season, and that experience will be vital to thriving in a greater role. Anderson’s agility and ball-tracking skills consistently showed up on the stat sheets at Bowling Green, and that won’t change as he plays out his final year of eligibility in the confines of a Power Five school. After all, he did record four tackles against UCLA in 2022.

The assets for the 2023 Bruin secondary don’t wow on paper, but they’re worth more than face value with Lynn sporting the headset.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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