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. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Defensive line

Enjoy watching Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes while you can. Both could be signing NFL contracts by this time next year.

UCLA will enter this fall with arguably the best defensive line duo in the conference, a pair that last season combined for 108 tackles, including 11 for loss. All-Pac-12 nods aren’t the most accurate measures of talent and/or performance, but of the eight defensive linemen that made first or second team last fall, Clark is one of two that return. (The other is Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, who like Clark is making NFL mock drafts as a potential first-round pick.) Vanderdoes followed right behind as an honorable mention.

Clark in particular was vital to the Bruins’ run defense, and is about as stout a nose tackle as you can find in college football. Looking back at his impact the last two seasons, it’s incredible that UCLA was considering redshirting him back in August 2013, during his first camp in San Bernardino. There were several times last fall when opposing offenses noticeably directed the ball away from the middle, where he and Vanderdoes stood as imposing obstacles. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Quarterbacks

UCLA quarterbacks work on drill during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA quarterbacks work on drill during spring football practice at Spaulding Field on April 23, 2015. (Andy Holzman/Staff)

Much has already been made of UCLA’s quarterback situation over the past several weeks. Through 15 practices, the consensus among observers was this: Josh Rosen looks like the Bruins’ best starting option this season.

Jim Mora and the rest of the coaching staff has declined to officially name a starter, which is unsurprising for a two main reasons: it’s not a good look to have a true freshman, however talented, zoom to the top of the depth chart; it might persuade those who lose the competition to think longer and harder before potentially deciding to transfer out.

For those still skeptical, here’s the quick argument for UCLA to start a first-year player at a position where first-year players have historically struggled. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Receivers

UCLA's Mossi Johnson catches a pass during spring football practice on April 2 at Spaulding Field.(Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA’s Mossi Johnson catches a pass during spring football practice on April 2 at Spaulding Field.(Andy Holzman/Staff)

UCLA has not produced a 1,000-yard receiver since 2011. Looking at the state of the Bruins’ offense, it’s a good bet that the drought will extend for another season.

Such is the nature of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s scheme. For three years, UCLA has divvied up targets between bevy of receivers, racking up significant total yards without creating a dominant No. 1 wideout. In 2014, Jordan Payton became the first Bruin to record more than 60 catches in the Jim Mora era; that same season, 12 others in the Pac-12 cleared that same threshold.

Payton might crack four-digit yardage as a senior, but the chemistry he built with Brett Hundley might not necessarily carry over when UCLA picks a new starter. (Even last year, Payton’s production tailed off as the season progressed; he didn’t top 58 yards or catch a single touchdown in his last four games.) This is not to say that the receiving corps are in any real trouble. After all, they return all but one member, and add a few others. Continue reading

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UCLA spring camp position review: Running backs

UCLA running back Nate Starks during football practice at UCLA on April 20, 2015. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

UCLA running back Nate Starks during football practice at UCLA on April 20, 2015. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

UCLA found backfield stability last season in the form of Paul Perkins, who broke out and became the first Bruin to lead the conference in rushing since 2001. As long as he’s healthy, the running game should churn along smoothly.

But what will make UCLA’s next quarterback even happier is the depth behind Perkins. One of the intriguing performances this spring camp came from Nate Starks, who had a promising albeit limited role as a true freshman last season. Starks only had 31 carries for 141 yards and two touchdowns, but those stats don’t accurately show how impressive some of those runs were. He also had his best game when UCLA needed him most, in a 17-7 win over Arizona. Against the Wildcats, Starks had five carries for 41 yards, including a 21-yarder on 3rd-and-11 deep in UCLA territory. He was also the primary back on the Bruins’ first fourth-quarter drive.

Last month, UCLA leaned a little harder on him. Perkins is the clear No. 1 on the roster, but Starks got a healthy share of first-team reps through camp too — and for the most part, proved he deserved them. Continue reading

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