Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog will cover the status of each position group moving forward. Next up …
Myles Jack is already UCLA’s all-everything superstar, and did nothing this spring to suggest that his sophomore effort will far short of the already sky-high expectations. He continued to excel in coverage, and will play behind the ball when the team deploys a nickel formation. After finishing with just one sack last season, he’s also spent extra time focusing on his pass rushing moves.
He won’t practice at running back until the season starts, but that only gives him more time to cement his role as the Bruins’ defensive leader.
The question marks facing the team in its post-Anthony Barr era lie elsewhere. The consensus All-American and likely first-round pick left a hole at outside linebacker, which was dangerously thin in the spring. Besides Jack, who sometimes practiced with inside linebackers, the only scholarship players available were junior Kenny Orjioke and sophomore Deon Hollins.
Bet on Orjioke as the heir apparent. Not yet 19 years old, he’s a 6-foot-4, 235-pound bundle of athleticism who could very well turn into an all-conference linebacker. After some up-and-down performances early in spring, something appeared to click as he started blowing past UCLA’s offensive linemen — both in one-on-one drills and scrimmage situations. If he can build on those latter showings, the team’s starting front seven will be frightening.
Also battling for reps outside is Hollins, who needs to get a little bigger and grow out of just being a pass-rush specialist. Junior Aaron Wallace, who started one game last season before losing his job to Jack, is also in the mix if he can sort out his academics. He was not enrolled at UCLA this quarter and did not participate in spring practices. The lack of depth outside may be countered in part by the team skewing toward a 4-2-5 scheme, but any injuries there would be difficult to patch over.
More competition exists inside. Senior Eric Kendricks was limited all spring, but should threaten for the Pac-12 lead in tackles if he stays healthy. Isaako Savaiinaea started one game as a freshman, but played in all 13 and should inherit the spot vacated by co-Sun Bowl MVP Jordan Zumwalt. While there might be more talented players coming in behind him, the experience is especially important in the middle of this defense — especially as it promises to shift formations more than it did a year ago.
Freshman Zach Whitley enrolled early and looks like a future star, but suffered some growing pains as well. Both he and incoming four-star signee Kenny Young — two of UCLA’s three top-100 recruits — should play a significant role. Special team standouts Jayon Brown and Ryan Hofmeister, a team co-captain last season, will also flesh out the depth chart. Brown, who was briefly moved to safety last summer, was especially impressive dropping into coverage.
Level of concern: 4/10
*With 10 being the highest cause for concern this upcoming season, the scale is based mainly on the unit’s top talent as well as its depth. The latter might be weighed more or less depending on the position group; it would be more important to have multiple running backs than multiple quarterbacks, for example.