Perhaps the UCLA position with the most to gain this season is the linebacker corps, and by extension, perhaps the positional coach with the most to gain this season is Clark Lea.
Returning one of the conference’s best defenders, and with viable options at both linebacker positions and plenty of game-ready depth, Lea has much to work with, and much work to do.
He thinks he’s off to a good start.
“I’m really pleased,” Lea said. “It’s day two, and it’s so early, but the neat thing is this: These guys have worked so hard during the summer, and when they came back in our first meeting, they were way ahead of when they left in spring. The offense does some challenging stuff to us, but these guys have mentally adapted. We have a long way to go, a long way, but so far, so good.”
With Akeem Ayers returning at outside linebacker and some-time defensive end, Lea can focus on some of the more pressing concerns. With Patrick Larimore jumping into the lead at the middle linebacker spot, but Steve Sloan pushing hard, and Glenn Love and Sean Westgate waging a fierce competition for the other outside linebacker spot opposite Ayers, Lea certainly has some decisions to make.
Add to that a freshman class that demands attention, simply given the talent of the players that comprise it, and Lea won’t have much time to stand around.
“The Mikes have done a great job – Larimore, Sloan have been great – and Akeem has been fantastic,” Lea said. “But these guys have a long way to go. No one has stood out from what I’ve expected; I have a high level of expectations. The young guys are fighting to pick it up, Jordan Zumwalt has made some nice plays. Aramide Olaniyan has picked it up and looks good, but has to get bigger and stronger.”
The biggest adjustment to the college game, Lea said, is the understanding of Chuck Bullough’s complex defensive scheme, which he brought from the Chicago Bears.
“Coach Bullough’s system is an NFL system, and what that entails is obviously some great defensive scheme, but also a lot of learning and a lot of concepts,” Lea said. “There are a lot of different calls, and I think people when they watch football, they don’t realize what goes into a given play. That’s a run read, a pass read, a run fit, a pass fit, all those things have to come together. As a young guy coming in, those first few days are tough. You have to basically trust your instinct and understand the scheme will come with time.”