RedEye

UCLA Bruins defensive backs have the swagger, if not the experience

Navy SEALS took UCLA's football team a couple of hundred yards offshore recently and dropped them in the water.

If there was ever a moment for Bruins' defensive backs to ponder "sink or swim," this was it.

UCLA has to replace four starters in the secondary this season. Keeping one's head above water would seem to be the first order of business. Yet the Bruins are talking about making a much bigger splash this season.

"We have guys who have the mentality to be the best secondary in the nation," safety Anthony Jefferson said.

Cornerback Ishmael Adams echoed that idea.

"We have the opportunity to show we are the best secondary in the nation," Adams said.

It's quite a bit of swagger for a group of players who were in supporting roles a year ago with the Bruins, or in high school or injured. Considering what they will face, a little attitude may be necessary.

Playing in the Pac-12 with an untested secondary has a reality-TV-show feel. The coaches in the conference seem to form a fear-of-the-run support group from top (Washington State's Mike Leach) to bottom (Arizona's Rich Rodriguez) geographically. And that was before Sonny Dykes brought his squirrel derby offense to California this season.

So that "What, me worry?" look on UCLA defensive back coach Demetrice Martin's face has to be more than bravado.

"This is a very athletic group," Martin said. "They are very young, and they are going to do things young guys do. I'm letting them know there is no such thing as the wrong coverage as long we're in the same coverage every play."

Martin then mentioned again that the Bruins were "young" and he treats them that way.

"I'm giving them that rope," Martin said.

The hope is they won't trip over it.

The Bruins' secondary does have an entry-level position look once you glance at their resumes.

Jefferson is a junior but spent the first half of his UCLA career dealing with injuries — first a broken foot, then back surgery. Safety Randall Goforth played in 14 games as a reserve last season but is a sophomore.

At the corners, Adams, a sophomore, had his season abruptly ended after three games in 2012 because of shoulder surgery. Fabian Moreau, a redshirt freshman, came to UCLA as a running back and then was flipped to defense during training camp last year.

They won't get a break-in period.

"It's the Pac-12. We're expecting anything to come our way," Goforth said.

Others in the defensive mix include senior cornerback Brandon Sermons, and three freshmen — safety Jayon Brown, safety Tahaan Goodman and cornerback Priest Willis.

"I can't have that freshman syndrome," Willis said. "In high school, you can make a mistake and get away with it because of ability. You can't make those mistakes in college. Everyone has ability."

It's a daily learning curve. Brown was a linebacker at Long Beach Poly High. Willis comes with enormous potential but has been left chasing receiver Shaquelle Evans on a few occasions during camp.

"If we'd played a game today, Jayon would be our nickel back," Coach Jim Mora said. "That says a lot about where he is, but it also says a lot about our lack of experience."

Mora added, "Thankfully, we've got a good front seven because your coverage's best friend is a good pass rush."

Martin has brought the group along during training camp.

"Obviously, we've got a lot of young guys, and we have to see what they can do in the middle of battle," Martin said. "I'm kind of letting the leash get long right now so we can coach them up."

There has been an aggressive nature to the pass coverage during training camp. Evans laughed and pointed to the scratches on his neck and said, "Look here," when asked about UCLA defensive backs.

"Someone has to trim their nails," Evans said.

The jokes stopped this week.

Adams and receiver Devin Lucien went after each other following a play, and things escalated, with Evans coming off the sideline to confront Jefferson. Peace was restored the following day, but the defensive backs have continued to take a hands-on approach.

"They are going to get in people's faces," Evans said. "I love it."

Sure, once camp is over, he won't have to deal with it. Opponents will.

"We're going to be tested," Adams said. "Teams are going to come at us. We won't even know what a running play is. I'm 5 [feet] 8. People are going to try my side early. I'm looking forward to it."

Martin likes the versatility of the group.

Adams and Moreau both have the potential to be lock-down corners. That allowed Jefferson to move to safety, where he can direct. During a recent practice, he barked out to Willis, "Be ready, they may take a shot here."

"There is nothing lonelier on this planet than playing cornerback," Jefferson said. "You can't be lazy or lax ever."

So you sink or swim?

"These guys are all interchangeable, they can play nickel, dime safety, corner," Martin said. "They have bought into that. There is no reason they can't be the best."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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