Defensive Question Marks Greet UCLA : College football: Donahue begins vigorous search for answers to loss of 14 top members of unit.
A third grader can handle the math: 22 minus 14 equals trouble.
It’s an equation facing coaches as UCLA begins preseason practice today in Westwood.
Fourteen of the top 22 defensive players from last season must be replaced before the Bruins open their season against Tennessee on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl, where they ended their 1983 season at 8-4 with a loss to Wisconsin.
Six of the losses were unexpected--undergraduates who chose to try their luck in the NFL draft or are injured and sidelined for the season or have trouble with the law that will probably keep them out of uniform.
Safety Marvin Goodwin, linebacker Jamir Miller and nose tackle Bruce Walker decided to give up the rest of their college eligibility for the pros. Linebackers Andrew McClave and Brian Tighe were forced to quit because of shoulder operations. Safety Tommy Bennett is still facing forgery charges.
In their places are the young and untried, the willing but so far untested.
The answers they provide will go a long way toward determining UCLA’s success.
“It’s no different from any other season,” said Coach Terry Donahue, who also pointed at holes to be filled in the offensive line in his state-of-the-Bruins address on Friday. “There are questions every season, but the questions are always in different places.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Field, who will grade the next 20 days of tests, takes a philosophical approach.
“Losing the six underclassmen is like having injuries before the season,” he said. “Five or maybe all six of them probably would have started. And we can’t stand any more injuries.”
The main problem is pass defense. Only Oregon State among Pacific 10 schools does not offer a formidable passing game. Three conference quarterbacks who threw for more than 3,200 yards last season are back.
Tennessee passed enough last year to make its quarterback, Heath Shuler, the No. 1 pick of the Washington Redskins. And Southern Methodist, opponent No. 2, is a run-and-shoot offensive team, passing more than 40 times a game.
To deal with all that, UCLA has starting cornerbacks Carl Greenwood and Teddy Lawrence back but must find safeties to replace Goodwin and the graduated Travis Collier. Sophomores Paul Guidry--who was third in the Pac-10 in punt returns last season--and Abdul McCullough were the starters coming out of spring practice. Behind them are Ted Nwoke, who played in specialty pass coverages last season, and Erik Holcomb, a converted wide receiver.
Behind them are freshmen Shaun Williams, Glenn Thompkins, Javelin Guidry--Paul’s brother--and DuVal Hicks, players who have yet to attend a UCLA class and are given good chances of playing.
“No coach really likes to use freshmen,” Field said. “You would hope that you wouldn’t have to use them. But when you use nickel (five-back) coverages like we do, some of them are going to have to play.”
While Field sorts out the defense, new offensive coordinator Bob Toledo will spend time working on the running game. The man who isn’t supposed to be there, tailback Skip Hicks, was there Friday at media day.
Hicks’ recovery from a knee injury suffered while long jumping last spring has been remarkable, Donahue said. “He’s been the speediest healer I’ve seen in my 24 years here.”
But the man to convince is Gerald Finerman, the team doctor. Recovery from the injury Hicks suffered generally takes at least nine months, and his operation was only six months ago.
“I’m not expecting him to play,” said Donahue.
The Bruins will start Sharmon Shah, who has recovered from his own knee problems, at tailback.
The early schedule is formidable, and Donahue acknowledges he would prefer that Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton were still playing football to offer season-opening competition.
Instead, there are Tennessee and Nebraska, both top-10 teams.
“If you’ve gone well against those nonconference schools, then you’ll have a pretty good gauge as to whether you’re ready for a difficult conference race,” Donahue said.
And you will find out if you have the right answers for the preseason questions.