Perhaps they're not vitally pressing issues for spring, because the first priority is just having enough bodies on the field, really. And maybe they're not that important even for this fall. But the key to success under Jim Mora will be maintaining a talent level so there is continuity of a sustained quality of play. That, of course, starts with recruiting, but management and evaluation of the existing players in the program is probably just as key.
We've seen in the past, both in UCLA football and basketball, how poor evaluations of a program's own players can dramatically contribute to that program's demise.
UCLA's personnel is in a critical transition period – between when it is still dealing with the aftermath of the tail end of a departed coach, which typically leaves at least some cupboards of a program bare, and a new coaching staff bringing in their own talent. Personnel decisions during this time can either be huge boosts in that transition, or mistakes that can ultimately be costly. The thing is, personnel decisions made now can not only affect the 2013 season but the 2014 season, so the UCLA coaches have to be good evaluators, have a good sense of their overall talent and personnel, and have some vision on where all the puzzle pieces fit.
Some moves can end up being like Anthony Barr being moved to linebacker last season, or former quarterback Osaar Rashaan being moved to wide receiver as a senior.
Without a doubt, UCLA's linebacker corps is the deepest unit on the team. Between four positions (or five, if you count the part-time inside linebackers that UCLA calls its "mini"-linebackers), UCLA will have 18 players this fall. Judging by performance this spring, the one unknown (who will start at left outside linebacker) already has a couple of effective answers in Aaron Wallace (2013 RS SO) and Kenny Orjioke (2013 SO). Thrown into a starting unit that includes potential Pac-12 defensive player of the year Anthony Barr (2013 SR), and potential all-conference players in Eric Kendricks (2013 RS JR) and Jordan Zumwalt (2013 SR), whoever ends up in that starting position will have a chance to rack up some considerable statistics. Taken as a whole, the starters have a chance to be one of the best linebacker groups in the country. Heck, the second string could probably start, as a unit, for several Pac-12 teams, with some combination of Myles Jack (2013 FR), Isaiah Bowens (2013 RS SR), Aaron Porter (2013 RS FR), Orjioke, Wallace, or Isaac Savaiianaea (2013 FR) backing up the starters.
The picture is fairly rosy for 2014 as well. Yes, UCLA will lose two starters in Zumwalt and Barr, a key piece in Stan McKay (2013 RS SR), and a backup in Bowens, but UCLA will still be able to fill out its two deep with players who have been in the program at least a year and project to be good players. It might even be possible that of the talented freshmen coming in this fall, none may be forced to start until their third year in the program. It's an enviable situation, and one which allows UCLA to be very selective in choosing linebackers over the next recruiting cycle.
A few things have developed this spring that should make UCLA feel good about its linebacker situation for the next two years. First, Aaron Porter has regained his form after struggling with his weight and adjusting to the speed of the college game last year. He looks like he's back up to 225 or 230, and is moving much better than a year ago. In terms of his knowledge of the defense, we've heard he's leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year, which we've learned is about the typical learning curve for inside backer in this defense. Second, Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace have both emerged as legitimate starter-potential players at outside linebacker. Orjioke, in fact, might have the best outside linebacker body on the team, at about 6'4, 235 with very long arms and good athleticism. With those three younger players developing, UCLA might even be able to redshirt three of the freshmen linebackers this season, although we'd still guess that Myles Jack, at least, will be in the two deep. We've also heard that Isaac Savaiianaea, who bulked up during his senior season and looked a bit slower than you'd like, has been hard at work on his body this offseason and will come in somewhere near his ideal weight of 235, so he would also be a candidate to come in and factor in immediately, especially if Bowens continues to have nagging issues.
If we have one small concern going forward, it's that UCLA might be focusing a bit too much on recruiting for the mini-linebacker position. UCLA recruited Jayon Brown (2013 FR) for the position this past cycle, projected Cameron Judge (2013 FR) for the position during the recruiting shindig on signing day (we'd guess it's much more likely that Judge ends up a pure inside linebacker), and seem to like El Cerrito (Calif.) linebacker D.J. Calhoun as another mini-linebacker/weak inside linebacker in 2014 (assuming he commits to UCLA). UCLA has already moved Lagace from safety to linebacker as well, and we still think Dietrich Riley (2013 RS JR) could be a candidate to make the switch. Unless UCLA plans to use the position much more than it did this past season, when the mini-linebacker was used at most on about half of all plays, it does seem that the coaches may be focusing overmuch on the position, considering that, in many instances, it actually takes one of the starting inside linebackers off the field.
UCLA should have either 13 or 14 linebackers returning to the team in 2014, depending on where Jeremy Castro ends up. We'll go out on a limb and say he bulks up to 255 or 260 and makes the switch to defensive end. With 13 players between the five positions (including mini-linebacker), we'd ideally like to see UCLA recruit three more linebackers in the 2014 class. The good news is that UCLA has recruited and developed the position so well that there's a significant margin for error in the 2014 class. Kendricks is the only significant contributor from the 2014 team who projects to leave after the 2014 season, with Ryan Hofmeister (2013 RS JR) and Aramide Olaniyan (2013 RS JR) also exhausting their eligibility. As long as UCLA gets at least one high level inside linebacker, like Gardena (Calif.) Serra linebacker Dwight Williams (who we've heard the coaches like on the inside), and a good enough outside linebacker, the Bruins should be able to coast on the talent already in the program for the next two years.
Projected 2014 Depth Chart
ROLB: Kenny Orjioke (JR), Deon Hollins (RS FR), Aramide Olaniyan (RS SR)
RILB: Eric Kendricks (RS SR), Cameron Judge (RS FR), 2014 Frosh
LILB: Aaron Porter (RS SO) OR Isaac Savaiianaea (RS FR), Ryan Hofmeister (RS SR), 2014 Frosh
LOLB: Aaron Wallace (RS JR) OR Myles Jack (SO), 2014 Frosh , Willie Green (RS SO)
NLB: Taylor Lagace (RS SO), Jayon Brown (RS FR)