A program vying for the title of “Linebacker U” is about to enter what could be a very interesting season.
Anthony Barr needed just one offseason to turn himself into a dynamic pass rusher, and helped anchor the defense in Jim Mora’s first two seasons. Eric Kendricks was quietly consistent throughout his career, but peaked last fall on his way to a Butkus Award and UCLA’s all-time tackles record. Can Myles Jack seize that leadership role as well as his two predecessors?
All signs point to yes. Jack has impressed from almost the first practice snaps he took as a Bruin, and has proven himself to be one of the best cover linebackers in college football. While his sophomore season didn’t fulfill the all-world expectations set by his incredible two-way debut in 2013, he still finished with 87 tackles and seven pass breakups. Moving to inside linebacker, a natural match for his skill set, makes him a safe bet for triple-digit tackles in what will almost certainly be his final college campaign. (The downside with taking him away from outside linebacker is that it reduces his opportunities in one-on-one coverage, but UCLA’s defensive scheme should be flexible enough for him to move around a bit.)
How the linebacking corps looks as a whole depends more on whether a number of other Bruins can make significant leaps in 2015. Jack is a potential first-round draft pick next spring, but outside linebacker Deon Hollins is the one that made the watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy — an award that Kendricks and Barr both brought back to UCLA. Hollins broke out in a big way last November, notching six sacks in his final four games. If the 6-foot, 225-pound Houston native can develop coverage and run-stopping skills to complement his first step, he could be an all-conference player.
The competition is more open on the opposite edge. Redshirt senior Aaron Wallace started at outside linebacker through all of spring camp, but has yet to do anything truly head-turning in his career. While he’s a safe, low-ceiling option heading into the season, don’t be surprised if someone beats him out for the first-string spot after a few games. The best candidates to do so are likely Kene Orjioke — an exceptional athlete currently rehabbing a torn ACL — or redshirt freshman Cameron Griffin, who had a nice spring after injuring his shoulder last August in San Bernardino.
As for the inside linebacker spot vacated by Kendricks, look for Kenny Young to step in as a full-time starter. Young played next to Kendricks last season in UCLA’s base 3-4 scheme, which amounted to six starts and 35 tackles. He should double those numbers as a sophomore, and pair with Jack to make life difficult for any opponents venturing into the middle of the Bruins’ defense.
The development of Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge will also be worth tracking. Both have primarily served as special team players through their first two seasons, but saw extended action at linebacker this spring. Brown is ahead of Judge in this respect, and has displayed strong coverage skills through his last two camps. He’s the best backup option at inside linebacker, while Judge’s position on the two-deep at outside linebacker is more tenuous.
Outside linebacker: Aaron Wallace, Kene Orjioke/Cameron Griffin
Inside linebacker: Myles Jack, Jayon Brown
Inside linebacker: Kenny Young, Isaako Savaiinaea
Outside linebacker: Deon Hollins, Keisean Lucier-South/Cameron Judge