The linebacker corps, as expected, was the least in flux of the major position groups this spring, which is a testament to the talent level of the returning starters. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Zumwalt all returned this spring, and although Kendricks sat out much of the spring with an ankle sprain, the three are firmly ensconced in the starting lineup. All three have the potential to be All Pac-12 performers.
The only object of some interest this spring was who would emerge as the starting left outside linebacker. Aaron Wallace and Kenny Orjioke were the primary competitors at the spot this spring, and both had moments where they shined. Wallace went wire-to-wire as the starter, and should probably be considered the front runner for the spot this fall, but Orjioke probably has a little more physical upside. Either player, or Myles Jack, will give UCLA a threat from the left side that the Bruins simply didn't have last year.
Kenny Orjioke SO: Orjioke packed on nearly twenty pounds between the start of last season and the spring, and the added strength paid dividends this spring. He has a very good body for the position, at about 6'4, with long arms and a frame that could easily carry another 10 pounds, which would put him at 245 or 250. So far, none of the added weight seems to have affected his athleticism or speed. This spring, he pushed Aaron Wallace the entire four weeks, and with an added offseason of development, he could make a play for the starting spot this fall. Our guess for now is that Wallace, who had a formidable spring in his own right, holds him off, but it will be an interesting battle between Orjioke, Wallace, and Myles Jack for that fourth linebacker spot.
Aaron Porter RS FR: Last year, Porter looked lost on the field, and actually dropped a considerable amount of weight from the start of the season to the end. This spring, he came back stronger and quicker than he was last year, and clearly an offseason of training has greatly improved him physically. The biggest strides he made, though, were on the mental side of the game. A year after looking lost on all of his reads and really struggling to pick up the defense, Porter showed a much greater level of comfort this spring. We've made this point before, but the inside linebacker position in this defense requires such a switch for so many players who primarily played in 4-3's that it can take several months of development before they're ready to play. It looks like that could very well be happening with Porter.
Taylor Lagace RS FR: Slated to backup Stan McKay at the mini-linebacker position entering the spring, by the end of camp, Lagace was the starting mini-backer and was also getting some backup reps at pure inside linebacker. He's probably a tad undersized still to play inside linebacker full-time, but with another year of development, he could be another option for UCLA at that position. For now, he might very well push McKay for playing time this year, and could factor in as an inside linebacker in spot situations.
Isaiah Bowens RS SR: Prior to the spring, we projected that Isaiah Bowens would make enough of an impact this spring that he'd be able to compete for a major backup role at inside linebacker. That projection, though, didn't account for the tremendous strides Porter was able to make this offseason, or the somewhat slow recovery Bowens has made from his ACL injury a year ago. Bowens was held out of most team drills the entire spring, as he worked to recover full extension in his knee. Unfortunately for him, he may have been surpassed on the depth chart by Porter, which could make cracking the two-deep in the fall very difficult.
Jeremy Castro FR: After watching a full spring of Jeremy Castro, it looks like he might be a bit of a tweener for this defense. In a 4-3, he'd clearly be a defensive end, but in this defense, he almost has to be an outside linebacker. So far, he hasn't shown the lateral quickness and agility you'd like to see from an outside linebacker. Much of his difficulty almost certainly came from the fact that he's never had to drop back in coverage before, or play with his hand up. Whatever the case, it's difficult to project him, especially with the guys ahead of him, as an impact outside linebacker this year, and depending on how much weight he can pack on, he may be a candidate to switch to defensive end down the road.
Where Things Project:
In many ways, the linebackers are the easiest unit to project on the entire field. Three of the four starting spots are locked up by returning starters. Anthony Barr, with a full year now under his belt, exudes an overall level of confidence, if not cockiness, as if he knows, quite clearly, that he's the best player on the field at any given moment. Eric Kendricks, despite the ankle injury, has done nothing to show that he'll have a drop off from his stellar play toward the end of last year. And Jordan Zumwalt, who might be the best overall athlete among the linebackers , had an excellent spring, and could build on a fantastic bowl performance for a good senior season.
The left outside linebacker position is really the only question mark, but the possible answers are fairly enticing. Aaron Wallace, after two years of stellar work on the scout team, seems poised to break out this year, and if he falters, UCLA has one of several talented options to take his place (Orjioke, or one of the incoming freshmen). With Barr likely commanding a great deal of attention on the right side, whoever does end up manning the spot could end up with some pretty exciting numbers by the end of the year.
The linebacker corps should be the lead candidate for best unit on the team this year, especially with the possibility that Owamagbe Odighizuwa may have trouble returning from his hip injury. And with linebacker probably the most important position in this defense, that's a good sign for UCLA's overall defense this year. It's pretty astounding, but UCLA might actually be able to redshirt some of the very talented freshman linebackers coming in.
Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada
Left Outside Linebacker
Aaron Wallace RS SO
Kenny Orjioke SO
Deon Hollins FR
Left Inside Linebacker
Jordan Zumwalt SR
Isaac Savaiianaea FR
Isaiah Bowens RS SR
Right Inside Linebacker
Eric Kendricks RS JR
Aaron Porter RS FR
Cameron Judge FR
Ryan Hofmeister RS JR
Right Outside Linebacker
Anthony Barr SR
Myles Jack FR
Aramide Olaniyan RS JR
Stan McKay RS SR
Taylor Lagace RS FR
Jayon Brown FR
Spring Review: Linebackers
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