Spring Preview: Linebackers

We go through how Damien Holmes, Keenan Graham, and Anthony Barr will fit into the unit, where things went wrong last year, and what we can expect scheme-wise during the spring...

Last Season

Going into the season, many prognosticators were expecting UCLA's linebackers to be among the best in the conference. With Patrick Larimore and Jordan Zumwalt seemingly on the verge of stardom after the 2010 season, Glenn Love and Sean Westgate providing a steadying senior presence, and a couple of talented young guys waiting in the wings, the expectation was that the linebacker corps would be another cog in an extremely talented UCLA defense.

This being UCLA, it turned out nothing like that. Thanks to some porous defensive line play, the linebackers were constantly on their heels, often times having to shed offensive linemen or make tackles on running backs who weren't even slowed down at the line of scrimmage. Sean Westgate, in particular, really struggled with not having more room to work, and to compound the issue, the coaching staff inexplicably rewarded his struggles with a starting position and the majority of the snaps.

Unfortunately, it was also a year of regression for Patrick Larimore. After a season where he looked like he'd be the starting middle linebacker in perpetuity, Larimore slid back quite a bit. Although he was still mostly solid in run support, he often looked lost in pass coverage, and he and Westgate were extremely ineffective blitzers. Larimore looked a step slower, and a little thicker, as well.

Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks were almost certainly the highlights for the defense, yet, despite both of them being in the top three on the team in tackles, they (again) inexplicably combined to start just seven games. Zumwalt was the most effective blitzer among the linebackers, particularly coming off the edge later in the season, where he frequently was able to beat opposing offensive tackles with his quickness. Although he made the occasional freshman mistake, Kendricks was a tornado on the field, flying all over the field to make plays. Amazingly, despite starting ten fewer games, he finished just four tackles behind Larimore for the team lead. Late in the season, he began to split snaps about 50/50 with Westgate, but even that ratio probably wasn't totally fair to Kendricks' ability.

Aramide Olaniyan found a role as a sort of hybrid DE/OLB rush end toward the end of the year, but his playing time was limited.

All in all, it's a little puzzling how poorly the linebackers performed, and it's interesting (if a little painful) to consider how much better they might have performed with, say, a starting lineup of Kendricks, Larimore, and Zumwalt for the entire season. They still might have been unable to circumvent the issues of the defensive line, but that would have almost certainly been a better tackling unit.

A Look at Spring

With the switch to a 3-4, and some new additions, this is probably the area on the defense where there's the most competition for starting spots. While you'd have to figure that Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks are going to get the first cracks at the inside linebacker slots, the outside linebacker positions have to be considered wide open given the addition of Damien Holmes, Keenan Graham, and Anthony Barr, and the inclusion of freshman Aaron Wallace.

In the Dick Lebeau style 3-4, which Mora and Spanos both have familiarity with and appreciation for, those two outside linebackers are often pushed all the way up to the line of scrimmage, and are often rushing the passer. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich has said that he wants his two best pass rushers at that position. Whether that's a combo of Graham and Holmes, Barr and Zumwalt, or some other combo, remains to be seen.

At the inside position, Larimore and Kendricks will have their work cut out for them in terms of picking up how to play the position in a 3-4, but there aren't a ton of guys behind them to challenge them. The big thing for Kendricks will be playing with discipline. In a 3-4, playing inside, he'll need to really show he can make reads on where the play is headed, as opposed to simply hitting his gap.

All in all, it'll be interesting to see just how the linebackers are utilized in the new defense. It's arguably the most important and dynamic unit in the 3-4, so it'll be interesting to see how the younger guys, like Wallace, develop, and the older guys, like Holmes, adapt.

Things to Watch

-Who nails down the OLB spots? Although Graham and Holmes might have been defensive ends, Zumwalt may have been the best pass rusher among the linebackers last year, and that may go a long way in determining whether he grabs one of the starting positions. Barr may be the best athlete among the four of them, although he hasn't played linebacker before.

-Can Graham and Holmes cover? Even in a Lebeau-style defense, sometimes those linebackers have to drop into coverage to keep the offense on its toes. With his athleticism, and speed, Graham should be able to do a passable job, but Holmes, while a decent straight ahead runner, is a question mark in terms of his ability to cover.

-Can some combination of Isaiah Bowens, Todd Golper, and Olaniyan mount a challenge to Kendricks and Larimore? Based off last season, Olaniyan will have his work cut out for him playing inside, while Golper and Bowens have both played only sparingly. With Larimore now a two year starter, and Kendricks a star on the rise, it looks like the other three are probably going to be playing a depth role. Bowens could be out for spring due to academics. He'll almost certainly miss some time in fall.

-Does Barr have what it takes to play defense? Last year, he started to show real strides as a blocker out of the back field, and seemed to start to take pleasure in knocking guys down. Whether that translates to having to tackle, and dealing with contact, on every play is an open question.

-Is Aaron Wallace ready to compete? Wallace was a star on the scout team last year, but with the added depth, he might be on the outside looking in unless he can really explode during the spring.

Projected Depth Chart

Outside Linebacker
1. Jordan Zumwalt
2. Damien Holmes
3. Aaron Wallace

Inside Linebacker
1. Patrick Larimore
2. Isaiah Bowens
3. Todd Golper

Inside Linebacker
1. Eric Kendricks
2. Aramide Olaniyan
3. Ryan Hofmeister
4. Mike Orloff

Outside Linebacker
1. Keenan Graham
2. Anthony Barr

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