Fall camp preview: Linebackers

When it comes to UCLA linebackers, might as well start here:

Anthony Barr announced himself to many national viewers with that hit, even if it was helped by abysmal blocking. It was a microcosm of the UCLA-USC rivalry tilting toward Westwood: Matt Barkley’s college career ended, and Barr made him highlight-reel fodder for a potential Heisman campaign. He’ll likely be a top-ten pick come May, after he’s flooded with various all-conference and All-American honors.

Already a dynamic player, Barr has worked to improve his pass coverage skills and bulked up to an impressive 255 pounds. While he’s easily the team’s best player, his position teammates aren’t shabby either. Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Defensive backs

A year ago, UCLA’s secondary was often called the team’s weakest link. Through that lens, the graduation of three starters wasn’t catastrophic.

Then, right before spring camp, the Bruins dismissed safety Tevin McDonald for a violation of team rules and lost their third-leading tackler. The planned return of safety Dietrich Riley would have softened that blow. The former four-star recruit was a hard hitter who lost 18 months to a neck injury, but said in April rehab had him feeling stronger than ever.

Last month, he medically retired, leaving the unit a near-blank slate. Still, there is reason to hope.

Key returners: Sophomore Randall Goforth may still be more widely known as the name attached to a fake Twitter taunt of USC receiver Robert Woods. That should change as he builds on his 39-tackle debut, one that included five starts as well as a stint on punt returns. He didn’t jump out during spring practices, so San Bernardino will be a chance for him to hint at his second-season potential. Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Quarterback

Barring injury, quarterback will be the position of least concern at UCLA. Brett Hundley will start, and he will vie for All-Pac-12 first-team honors — if not an eventual Heisman. The more intriguing battle through fall is which Bruin backs him up, or replaces him in case of injury.

Key returners: Let’s talk a little bit about Hundley first. The redshirt sophomore is UCLA’s best quarterback in a decade, and is talented enough that leaving for the NFL is a legitimate proposition. Right now, I’d bet he stays a third season — much like Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford did at Stanford and Oklahoma in recent years.

The main knock on Hundley last year was his decision-making; too often, the talented freshman held on to the ball when he should have tossed it away. He also didn’t slide well, having simply bowled through defenders until college. In spring practices, he showed marked improvement on all fronts.

Already gifted with a prototypical frame, he added lean muscle through the offseason, crucial given the 52 sacks he took last year and UCLA’s questions on the offensive line. If an injury forced Hundley to miss significant time, the Bruins would likely miss a bowl berth. Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Running backs

After watching Johnathan Franklin smash multiple school records last season, UCLA will need multiple bodies to fill the void at running back. No single set of feet can hope to match what Franklin did as an All-American and Doak Walker runner-up, rushing for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Bruins’ coaching staff has long said that the team will rely on a committee approach; if Franklin was “The Mayor,” then 2013 will be led by a city council. The test in San Bernardino will be to see if anyone has the potential to eventually emerge as a true No. 1 back.

Key returners: As a backup last season, Jordon James carried the ball 61 times for 215 yards — good for a pedestrian average of 3.5 yards per carry. Contrast that with Franklin’s 6.1 ypc, and his chances of becoming a star seem unlikely. The 5-foot-9, 193-pound junior flashes impressive runs in practice, but still hasn’t found a way to translate that into games. Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Wide receivers/tight ends

UCLA lost a 6-foot-7 target in tight end Joseph Fauria, but quarterback Brett Hundley shouldn’t have hard time finding capable pass-catchers. Although the Bruins return only one player who caught for more than 300 yards last season, they have a deep, young group with plenty of upside.

Key returners: Shaq Evans enters his senior season as one of the conference’s better receivers. A stable presence for UCLA both as a route-runner and blocker, he should be in line for more red-zone targets in addition to building on his 800-yard junior campaign.

Opposite Evans will be sophomore Jordan Payton, a thick-bodied target who displayed good hands almost every spring practice. Redshirt sophomore Devin Lucien is more physically gifted than Payton, but isn’t as consistent. Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Offensive line

With less than four weeks until the start of UCLA’s fall camp, let’s examine each of the Bruins’ position groups as they try and best last season’s 9-5 record — the program’s highest win total since 2005.

First, the offensive line, one of UCLA’s most problematic areas last season. A thin and relatively inexperienced unit, the Bruins’ line gave up 52 sacks and committed numerous penalties. After landing seven touted freshmen, it could be the most improved group on the roster.

Key returners: Continue reading

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