It's almost fall football camp, right?
To kick off our camp previews, we took a look at the status of UCLA's offensive line heading into August, analyzed the unsettled running back position after the loss of Johnathan Franklin, broke down the quarterback position, discussed how UCLA stacks up at receiver, and dove into the status of the defensive line heading into the fall. Now, we'll take a look at the most stacked unit on the team: the linebackers.
What could be a bigger development than Anthony Barr choosing to stay for his senior season despite being projected as a potential first day NFL draft pick? Barr, who quickly became one of the best linebackers in the nation last year in just his first year on defense, gained 15 to 20 pounds since the end of last season, tipping the scales at 255 at Pac-12 Media Day last week. Barr reportedly also ran a sub-4.5 40 yard dash this offseason as well, meaning that his freakiness has reached new heights.
Isaac Savaiinaea might have traded weight with Barr. The incoming freshman linebacker spent much of his high school senior season at around 260 pounds, which slowed him down considerably. Between then and entering UCLA, Savaiinaea shed 30 pounds, and is now back to his junior year weight of 230, when he emerged onto the scene as one of the top inside linebacker prospects in the country.
At Media Day, Jim Mora reported that Stan McKay would make the switch back to safety to account for the loss of Dietrich Riley. It's an interesting move, since we have our doubts about McKay's ability to cover in space, and he seemed to make a nice impact at mini-linebacker. It'll be interesting to see if this position change holds up.
During spring, the linebackers lost Nate Iese to the defensive line, which seemed to be a good move. Iese looks like he'll continue to get bigger, and with his athleticism, could make an impact at defensive end.
We've heard, as well, that Jeremy Castro will make the switch to defensive end, although the move hasn't been finalized yet. Castro didn't look natural moving in space this spring, since he's spent most of his football years at defensive end, so the move could very well be good for him. Also, Castro's body looks like it'll continue to get bigger.
Remember when Anthony Barr was used mostly as a decoy on offense during the halcyon days of the Pistol? Isn't that getting more hilarious by the minute?
Fresh off one of the most shocking and impressive seasons for a defensive player in recent memory, Barr, who'll start as the right outside linebacker, seems poised for an even greater season this year, after a fully healthy offseason where he was able to gain weight and refine his technique. Now that it's apparent that Barr is one of the top defensive players in the country, however, you can expect that more teams will attempt to key on him, which could lead to a reduction in his stats.
This spring, Barr also got some looks on offense as a goal-line tight end and running back. As we imagined prior to last year, Barr looks like he could be a dominant tight end if he chose to be. You can probably expect him to catch some touchdown passes this year.
Next to Barr will be Eric Kendricks, who will be entering his second year as a full-time starter. Last year, Kendricks had a slow start to the season as he grew acclimated to the demands of playing inside linebacker in the new 3-4 defense. Toward the end of the season, Kendricks really came into his own, eventually leading the Pac-12 in tackles. Now, with a year under his belt, the expectation is that Kendricks can sustain his play from the latter half of last season and provide another All Pac-12 type of performance.
Jordan Zumwalt will man the other inside linebacker spot after switching over from the outside midway through last season. Like Kendricks, Zumwalt had some issues with the initial adjustment but looked very good by the end of the year (and, in fact, looked like he was just about the only defensive player with his head screwed on correctly in the Baylor game). Zumwalt and Kendricks both have the ability to cover the entire field laterally, which helped UCLA greatly against Stanford in both games, where the Cardinal were rarely able to hit big runs to the outside.
Left outside linebacker is the one position that is still up for grabs, and there will actually be a new contender this fall in Myles Jack. Currently, Aaron Wallace has a tentative hold on the top spot, but he spent all of spring getting pushed by Kenny Orjioke. Orjioke is a physical freak, at 6'4, 240 with room to grow. There's some talk within the program that he might grow out of linebacker altogether and move to the defensive line at some point. Wallace was one of our favorites from his year on the scout team two years ago, and looked good last year in limited playing time. Heading into fall, he should be the initial first string player, but both Orjioke and Jack will have the opportunity to take the job from him.
UCLA potentially has three All Pac-12 performers at the starting spots, but what could be most interesting about the fall, and the coming years, is how the depth behind them shakes out.
Behind Anthony Barr and whoever ends up the left outside linebacker, UCLA will have two of Orjioke, Wallace, and Jack, all of whom are likely better options now than Damien Holmes last year. If we had to make a guess, we'd say that Orjioke will win the starting job and both Wallace and Jack will play significantly this year.
At inside linebacker, the two likely backups for Kendricks and Zumwalt are Aaron Porter and Isaac Savaiinaea. Porter looked much better this spring compared to last year, when he lost a considerable amount of weight by the end of the year. This spring, he looked like he had bulked back up to 220 pounds or so, and looked quicker and more agile. Savaiinaea, like we said above, has gotten back down to his ideal playing weight, and could make an immediate impact as a true freshman.
Behind those two at inside linebacker, there's an assortment of players, including Cameron Judge, Ryan Hofmeister, and Isaiah Bowens. Judge could actually have a chance to compete with Savaiianaea and Porter for the second string spot. Bowens didn't play much in the spring while recovering from an ACL tear. Hofmeister played last year, and looked serviceable.
In a pinch, too, the nickel linebacker Taylor Lagace would probably be able to play inside, since he plays bigger than he is and tackles well. He and Jayon Brown figure to be the primary mini-linebackers.
Filling out the depth chart at outside linebacker, Deon Hollins may be able to play this year as a pass-rush specialist. At 6'0, 216, he's only a pound off our assessment of his true height and weight from January at the Semper Fi Bowl(and in fairness, at that point, we probably oversold his weight, which was closer to 205 or 210). Even undersized, he's quick enough to make an impact immediately.
Aramide Olaniyan, who has never been able to put on much weight, is still light, at 197 pounds. He had a good spring, though, and he's always been one of the stronger players on the team for his size. We still wouldn't project him to play much this year at any of the linebacker spots.
Bottom Line on the Linebackers
There's an argument to be made that UCLA's starting four, no matter who the left outside linebacker ends up being, is comparable with the best in the country, and is in contention with Stanford for the top unit in the league. Barr should be the frontrunner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and might even be in contention for national awards. Kendricks and Zumwalt both have the talent to earn All Pac-12 honors, especially if they play the way they played toward the end of last year. Between Wallace, Orjioke, and Jack, UCLA has a bevy of young talent that should benefit greatly from the combination of UCLA's talented defensive line and Barr eating up blockers.
As we said in the defensive line preview, the addition of Vanderdoes has reverberations back through the defense. Now that UCLA can pencil in one of Vanderdoes and Odighizuwa as the starting left defensive end, it changes the dynamics of how offenses will block. Vanderdoes might very well be able to command a frequent double team on the left side of the defense. If McCarthy wins the starting nose tackle job, his bulk might very well require extra attention as well. That combination could make for easy quarterback-hunting for the starting outside linebackers.
In the end, we expect the linebackers to make the biggest leap of any unit on the team this year. With a year of experience for the three returning starters, the subtraction of Holmes, and the addition of talented freshmen for depth, this unit will likely be the backbone of the defense this year.
Linebacker Depth Chart Going Into Fall Camp
Left Outside Linebacker: Aaron Wallace RS So. OR Kenny Orjioke So. OR Myles Jack Fr.
Left Inside Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt Sr., Isaac Savaiianaea Fr., Cameron Judge Fr.
Right Inside Linebacker Eric Kendricks RS Jr., Aaron Porter RS Fr., Ryan Hofmeister RS Jr. OR Isaiah Bowens RS Sr.
Right Outside Linebacker Anthony Barr Sr., Deon Hollins Fr., Jeremy Castro Fr. (likely switchin to defensive end), Aramide Olaniyan RS Jr.
Mini-Linebacker: Taylor Lagace RS Fr., Jayon Brown Fr.
Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers
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