The adjustment to the 3-4 was not without its seams last year, with the Bruin linebackers going through their own set of growing pains. Early on, UCLA attempted to use a lineup of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Damien Holmes, and Jordan Zumwalt (from right to left) and it didn't work particularly well. Barr was a star from the start, making it patently obvious that he was born for the position, and Zumwalt didn't look out of place on the left side. The problems were on the inside. Kendricks, who had looked very good his redshirt freshman season, faltered at the start of his sophomore year, likely due to the change in position and the added responsibility of making some of the defensive calls. Holmes, a converted defensive end, just didn't have the awareness or level of athleticism to match up inside, and was often beaten or out of position.
Luckily, this coaching staff was able to make adjustments after a few games. Holmes and Zumwalt flipped positions, and UCLA began running much more of its nickel package that included Dalton Hilliard or Stan McKay in a mini-linebacker role that took one of Zumwalt or Holmes off the field (depending on the matchup). While Holmes wasn't a natural at outside linebacker, he didn't look quite as out of place, and Zumwalt looked arguably better inside than he did outside. The addition of Zumwalt inside (a guy who can range from sideline to sideline pretty well) took some pressure off Kendricks, who played very well over the last half of the season.
Barr, of course, continued to be a stud throughout, and when he announced that he would be returning for his senior season, it laid the ground work for what should be a very good year for UCLA's linebackers.
A Look at Spring
The most interesting thing to watch this spring is not so much the personnel (although there is a spot to fill) but, really, what kind of defense this is going to be. Last year, for the first half of the year, UCLA blitzed on a much greater percentage of its downs than during the back half. It was only once the coaches realized, first, that they didn't have particularly good blitzers at inside linebacker and, second, that their defensive backs were not particularly good that they backed off the aggression and went to more of a coverage-based scheme (lots of nickel, less blitzing).
We have our theory, based off the kinds of defensive philosophies that the brain trust of the defensive staff subscribes to, that the goal is for UCLA to be a very aggressive defense that forces turnovers. Last year, even playing a coverage-based scheme in the latter part of the year, the Bruins were pretty good at forcing turnovers, but much of that was based on the one-man disruption of Anthony Barr. It'll be really interesting to see if UCLA looks to get back to the hyper-aggression of the first part of the year, continues with the admittedly effective coverage-based scheme of the latter half of the year, or opts for a hybrid of the two.
Other than that, the personnel seems set, with Barr, Kendricks, and Zumwalt lining up from right to left and then a few possible candidates for the open linebacker spot among a cast and crew that includes Aaron Wallace, Keenan Graham (if he doesn't opt for a switch), Jeremy Castro, and Kenny Orjioke. There's plenty of talent to fill the role, and we'd have to guess that whoever it is will likely be an upgrade for the defense as a whole.
What to Watch For
*Can Aaron Wallace rise to the top? Of the four players who will likely be in the competition at outside linebacker in the spring (and admittedly, we haven't see Castro play in over a year), Wallace is probably our favorite to win the spot on the opposite side from Barr. Physically, he looks the part at about 6'3, 230, and he's athletically gifted, with the ability to cause fits for offensive tackles while also pursuing ball carriers. He's still a bit raw in pass coverage, but probably not demonstrably worse than any of the other candidates besides, possibly, Orjioke. He saw time last year briefly and was impressive in short stints. If he can nail down that spot, he could provide a real pass rushing threat from the other side, which could help to free up Barr. Obviously, there are some talented freshmen coming in who will compete for the spot as well, so there is unlikely to be a definitive starter coming out of spring.
*Will Orjioke step up and become a contributor? We've always liked him, since he physically fits the bill at 6-4 and 225 (even though we're expecting he'll be closer to 235 by August), is very athletic and has all the tools. Remember, too, he's very young, not even 18 years old yet (he'll turn it in June), so the upside here is tremendous. We watched him play many opposing receivers on the scout team offense last season and look like he would fit in at that position pretty effortlessly, too. He looks to be just too much of a talent not to utilize.
*How does Aaron Porter look? Porter lost some strength during the season last year, looking like he was 205 or 210 pounds by the end of the year after coming in at somewhere north of 225. He also didn't look as quick as he did in high school. With the incoming freshmen able to step in by August, Porter is going to need to show some serious improvement to avoid getting buried on the depth chart.
*Can Isaiah Bowens provide quality backup time at inside linebacker? Bowens was looking good last spring before he tore his ACL and missed the season. 11 months into his recovery, it'll be interesting to see where his body is physically, and how capably he can fit into the 3-4 system. He's likely going to have some rust, and if we've learned nothing from watching Kendricks struggle this past year, it's difficult to go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 for an inside linebacker. If he looks good this spring, it'll provide some necessary, talented depth for the season behind Zumwalt and Kendricks. In that really desperate scenario where no one pans out at the other outside linebacker spot, having Bowens ready could allow Zumwalt to switch back outside as well.
*Who's going to be the mini-linebacker? Stan McKay probably has the inside track at the "starting" spot there, but behind him, there's not really an obvious candidate in spring. Our bet would likely be Taylor Lagace, since his body type fits that role, looking like a small linebacker. The return of Dietrich Riley completely to the practice field will be a big development this spring. He actually played a similar role of the min-linebacker for Rick Neuheisel before he got hurt, and could potentially be another candidate, but that might be a bit too much for him to handle so fresh off of his spinal injury. The coaching staff has been raving about Riley, but it's all about whether he can take hits and not be concerned about the injury.
Projected Spring Depth Chart
Right Outside Linebacker
SR Anthony Barr (6'4, 235)
SO Kenny Orjioke (6'4, 222) OR
FR Jeremy Castro (6'3, 235) OR
RS JR Aramide Olaniyan (6'1, 210)
Right Inside Linebacker
RS JR Eric Kendricks (6'0, 230)
RS JR Ryan Hofmeister (6'0, 225)
RS FR Aaron Porter (6'1, 210)
Left Inside Linebacker
SR Jordan Zumwalt (6'3, 235)
RS SR Isaiah Bowens (6'1, 211)
Left Outside Linebacker
RS SO Aaron Wallace (6'3, 230)
RS SR Keenan Graham (6'2, 247)
RS SR Stan McKay (6'1, 205)
RS FR Taylor Lagace (6'1, 200)