UCLA’s secondary reloading, setting big goals in 2013

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — For all of the talk about UCLA’s depleted secondary, most people within the program are saying that it might not be as bad as you think.

The Bruins lost big name corners in Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester and safety Tevin McDonald, but the names left – junior Anthony Jefferson and sophomore Fabian Moreau – have the potential to be just as big.

And their goals are even bigger.

“Our mindset is to be the best secondary in the nation. And that’s what we’re striving to be,” Jefferson said. “Even though most of the guys haven’t played because of our previous secondary, I think all of the guys are ready mentally and physically to step up for the challenge.”

Jefferson was an intriguing talent coming in to UCLA in 2010, but soon found himself battling through a series of injuries and then battling for playing time. He played in just eight games last season as a reserve, but finally healthy during the spring, Jefferson impressed.

“The thing about Anthony is he’s had a tough road here,” said coach Jim Mora. “He finally seems like he’s healthy and running well again and it’s good to see because he’s had to overcome some things, physically.”

What Jefferson refused to do was take on a woeful attitude while injured. He utilized that time to improve his football IQ and learn the playbook backwards and forwards. He now finds himself as the elder statesman of the secondary and has found that his natural leadership ability has drawn the younger players to him.

“I am one of the older guys,” Jefferson said. “I’m taking it on right now and I’m making sure the younger guys are learning the defenses, taking care of their playbooks, making sure that they’re ready if they need to be called upon.”

Two of those in particular – four-star freshmen Tahaan Goodman and Johnny Johnson – have been right by Jefferson’s side. And for good reason, both of them, along with four-star cornerback Priest Willis who was just cleared by the NCAA Thursday, will likely be needed to start right away.

“Not only just football, just how to create opportunities when you’re off the field also,” Goodman said. “And with classes, meetings or anything else, he helps me with it.”

A move to safety may be in the cards for Jefferson, as Mora wants to use his versatility and what little experience he has. As for the young core that Jefferson is working to mentor, the consensus is that it’s talented but still raw.

“We don’t have a lot back there but we’ve got some skill players and we’ve just got to bring them along quickly,” Mora said.

While the secondary is undoubtedly a rebuild in process, it might not be that long of a road ahead.

“We determine our play, so we’re just going to let our play speak for itself this year,” Jefferson said. “I think with this group, we’re definitely focused and we can take on that task at hand.

“We’ll be ready by the season.”