UCLA spring camp position review: Linebackers

UCLA linebackers watch during the Bruins' "Spring Showcase" at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

UCLA linebackers watch during the Bruins’ “Spring Showcase” at the Rose Bowl on April 24, 2015. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

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.

Projected two-deep
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

Previous position reviews:
Offensive line
Running backs
Receivers
Quarterbacks
Defensive line

  • CaliGrown

    A strong unit for the present and future. Scott White has already made an impression. It seems only yesterday that Myles Jack was tearing it up, as dare I say it a True Freshman! Last year Kenny Young did a great job as a true frosh as well. LBUCLA

    • http://amillennialist.blogspot.com Santiago Matamoros

      Cali, everyone knows that Miles Jack’s first season never happened, since only redshirts can be successful.

      • Intimidator Bruin

        I know right!!!

  • Tommy B Low Us

    I can not wait to see Myles dominate this year. It is going to be something special to watch.

    LBU!!

  • Danny

    Watch out for Cameron Judge. I still remember the bone crushing block he laid for Ishmail when on special teams against Texas.

    • MPPBruin

      I enjoy watching guys progress the way he has. Make an impact in the role you’ve been assigned and work your way up. He’s awesome on special teams.

  • Laker Rod

    What will happen is most likely this:

    UCLA won’t be in a 3-4 set very often which is the same as last year. UCLA will play a lot of 4-2-5 and some 3-3-5.

    I don’t see Deon Hollins as a true linebacker. He’s pretty much been a stand up DE pass rusher. I think some will change in 2015 and if Kenny Orjioke is healthy then he will also play a more true LB role at that same right OLB/DE spot.

    However…the difference this year with Bradley is we should expect to see McKinley truly line up as 4-3 RDE ala Bruce Davis. McKinley can also play the 3 DL RDE spot ala Cassius Marsh.

    The Bruins will simply get their best players on the field and as far as this year goes KLS isn’t one of them.

    UCLA will often be in a two LB set where it’s Myles Jack and Kenny Young. Look for Hollins or McKinley to be on the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher.

    I believe these combos will be used:

    1. Starting and most used combo – EV, KC, Dickerson, Hollins. 2 LB and 5 DB’s.

    2. 3rd and long combo – EV, KC, McKinley 3 LB (Hollins, Jack, Young) 5 DB’s

    3. Opposition with good tight end passing down – Expect Jack to be covering this TE. Jack at OLB. Brown ILB. Young ILB. Hollins or Orjioke OLB.

    4. Myles Jack needs a rest combo – Wallace OLB, Savaiaena ILB, Young ILB, Hollins OLB.

    UCLA will mainly use 7 LB’s in their rotation:

    1. Myles Jack 2. Deon Hollins 3. Kenny Young 4. Kenny Orjioke 5. Aaron Wallace 6. Jayon Brown 7. Isaako Savaiaena.

    Griffith and Judge will only play more if others in the top 7 get hurt or play when the game is already decided. I see KLS redshirting. There is no need to play him. Griffith would be much better as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. He has a lot of potential.

    UCLA has 7 top DB’s also.

    1. Ishmael Adams 2. Fabian Moreau 3. Randall Goforth 4. Jaleel Wadood 5. Marcus Rios 6. Tahaan Goodman 7. Priest Willis

    The guys after the top 7 are Jalen Ortiz, Johnnie Johnson, and Holliday the true frosh.

    UCLA has 6 DL guys who I believe will see the most action:

    1. Clark, 2. Vanderdoes, 3. McKinley, 4. Dickerson, 5. Tuiot-Mariner, 6. Ankou

    The next group is Taua, Hulick, and Toran.

    • Intimidator Bruin

      Why do you keep down playing the players we have? I already proved to you twice (Ish&Griffin) that you really Dont have a full understanding of what’s about to happen. Bradley teaches skillset and pro understanding that’s why we will see a lot of 4-3 fronts like he said. The difference will be that Hollins can play both at this level. So it will give you the look of a all these different defenses when it is still just a 3-4. When we go 4-2-5 and the RB helps in pass protection we will bring jack or Griffin. In all actuality, our defense will look like this:
      3-4
      EV, KC, MD/McKinley
      Hollins, young, jack, orijoke/Griffin/kls
      Moreau, goforth, wadood, Rios
      4-2-5
      Hollins, ev, kc, orijoke/McKinley
      Young, jack
      Moreau, ish, goforth, wadood, rios

      The only real difference is going to be situations (pass, run). Deciding who will play. The one player on defense guaranteed to redshirt is Stephen unless he plays Wr.Every backup DB and LB has a chance to upgrade the special teams play. So in fact 8 positions are solidified and the rest can be taken. Its called competition! After watching Samuels run a few weeks ago I think we could be better than the LSU team with Mathieu!

      • Tommy B Low Us

        I think Takk is going to surprise many this year. He was behind the 8 ball last season but now has a grasp of the system.

        • Intimidator Bruin

          I hope so but I Dont know if he is far enough along in strength training to be dominant at the position yet! I think probably next yr is when he takes over the position and truly dominates competition

  • TYtrueBRUIN300

    Mainly DB’s and LB’s all over the field. We have some great athletes to fly all over the field. We seriously need to recruit and land some touted DL’s this year!!!

    • Laker Rod

      We don’t need to get some touted D linemen “this” year. It should be “every” year.

      And you can’t replace outgoing defensive linemen with true freshmen or even young linemen! This is a recipe for disaster. Do you remember the years 1998, 2004, and 2005? This is what those years did.

      In 1997, UCLA had an experienced but undersized D line in Weldon Forde RSr NG, Damon Smith RSr DT, and Jason Nevadomsky RSr DE. The backs ups were Jayson Brown RJr, the Webb twins, Kenyon Coleman, and Pete Holland.

      So we lost 3 starting seniors on the D line and they were replaced by more highly touted and much bigger linemen in Ken Kocher and Anthony Fletcher. Kocher and Fletcher were the starters against Wisconsin and they got steam rolled as true frosh. In 1998, the UCLA D got worse and worse because everybody started to get hurt. Brown was out, Webb twins out. Coleman as a true sophomore eventually got hurt. 1998 defense was quite terrible under Nick Allioti in his first and only year. They were not even that good as sophomores as the team was bad in 1999 also.

      In 2004, UCLA just lost Rod Leisle RSr, Ball twins RSr, Asi Faoa RSr from the 2003 squad. But most UCLA fans thought we were fine. We had Kevin Brown back as a true sophomore and added Brigham Harwell and returned Junior Lemau, etc. This defense was terrible.

      In 2005, we were even worse. Kevin Brown got hurt. Harwell was only a true sophomore and Chase Moline and true frosh. They got steam rolled.

      Since 2005, I felt UCLA has done a pretty good job of replacing outgoing D linemen with more veteran players and have not needed to rely on younger players…although stupid Rick Neuheisel tried to inject some guys into the line up before they were ready in guys like Cassius Marsh, Seali Epenesa, and Owa Odighizuwa. They were not ready as true frosh. Guys like David Carter and Donovan Carter bulked up and were valuable players in their redshirt junior and senior years.

      • Intimidator Bruin

        Stop looking to the past to predict the future. The mindset and recruiting have been totally different under Mora. Even though Angus isn’t the best recruiter he is one of the best position coaches in the country. So having toran, MD & mariner plus wade around mid season should make for decent backups. Ankou and tuau will need to really work to earn rotation time

        • Laker Rod

          What else do we have to go on? There are plenty of reasons top coaches don’t start or even play true frosh defensive linemen. There are not even stupid enough to put themselves in that position.

          And Wade isn’t playing this season. Get real. He’s a solid candidate to redshirt.

          Kylie Fitts might still be on the team had he redshirted. It was easy for him to move on since he played and had a redshirt to use. Ended up sitting out anyhow and only improve and get stronger for another team. Oh brother.

          And for you idiots who are saying we don’t need Fitts…you were the same idiots who said he should play as a true frosh! LOL!!!

  • Intimidator Bruin

    Does anyone understand how crazy this defense is this year? If we lose a player on defense then we simply bring in another 4* at LB or DB!!

    4 yrs ago we were praying every game for no injuries.