Eric Kendricks had a good year, despite being faced with a variety of injuries, including an ankle injury and a shoulder injury, that plagued him throughout the year. When he played, he was still very effective, showing a great deal more patience as a player than he showed earlier in his career. He's clearly grown into the heady, intelligent middle linebacker over the past year, and it's obvious that his presence is integral to the defense running effectively.
Obviously, the biggest story of last year was the emergence of true freshman Myles Jack. The phenom transformed UCLA's defense in many ways, but perhaps the most significant was that his presence allowed UCLA a great deal more versatility out of its base look. With Jack's ability to cover receivers and running backs, the position of mini-backer essentially disappeared. His progress will be one of the most exciting things to watch over the next two years.
A Look at Spring
Not only will UCLA have to find a way to replace Barr and Zumwalt, they'll have to do so with a somewhat new coaching structure. In the offseason, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos moved on to a position with Tennessee Titans. In the wake of his departure, linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich was promoted to defensive coordinator and former Colorado and Arizona assistant Mike Tuiasosopo was hired as outside linebackers/special teams coach.
The breakdown should be interesting. Ulbrich will handle middle linebackers, from what we're told, and Tuiasosopo will handle the outside linebackers and pass rush elements. It'll be interesting to see how that functions during the spring and if there are any kinks to be ironed out. One of the strengths of UCLA's linebacker unit last year was that it seemed as if every player in the unit had a good grasp of where everyone else needed to be, so continuity will be a key.
There are some obvious candidates to replace Barr and Zumwalt (some combination of Kenny Orjioke, Isaac Savaiinaea, and Zach Whitley comes immediately to mind), but the spring should be very interesting in determining how the starters and the depth chart should shake out.
What to Watch For
-- Is Whitley REALLY Myles Jack 2.0? Everything we've heard this offseason is that Whitley showed some of the same athleticism and general freakiness that Jack showed last year when he came in for his initial workouts and training with the team. If Whitley can bring to the table even half of what Jack brought last year, he is probably an early contender to start at either outside linebacker or inside linebacker. He's the player we're probably most excited to see for the first time this spring.
-- Really, though, how much more upside does Jack have? Scout was one of the few services that had Jack rated somewhere near properly, and it appears that even we underrated him. He was a freak last year, easily one of the five or so best freshmen in the country, earning both offensive and defensive freshman player of the year honors in the Pac-12. He was an excellent pass defender for a linebacker, was an excellent running back for a running back, was a very good run stopper, and was outstanding in pursuit of ball carriers. If we had one nitpick (gulp), it'd be that he wasn't a very good pass rusher last year, which might simply be a product of his build (there aren't too many dominant pass rushers at 6'1-ish). If he's going to stay on the outside a fair portion of the time, working on his pass rush should be a priority. There is always the chance that he moves to inside linebacker full time as well, which might be a better fit for his build.
-- Is inside linebacker in this defense as hard as we think? If you remember the 2012 season, one of the biggest problems in the defense through the first half of the season was how long it took Kendricks, Damien Holmes, and Zumwalt to adjust to playing inside backer in this system. After six or seven games, Kendricks got the hang of it, and Zumwalt soon followed, but both were players with at least a year of experience under their belts. Between the contenders for the inside linebacker position vacated by Zumwalt, there's not a lot of experience. Isaako Savaiinaea, in fact, might be the best candidate based on experience since he's not only played in the defense for a year, but he actually had to fill in for Kendricks a couple of times last year, and Kendricks plays the most demanding position on the defense. It'll be very interesting to watch the spring battle between Savaiinaea, Whitley and, potentially, Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge.
-- How will roles be carved out? As Mora mentioned on the podcast, the defense is going to change schematically to a certain extent, with a bit more of a 4-3 look built into it. The design, according to Mora, is to get players more opportunities to succeed in more specific roles. One beneficiary could be Deon Hollins, who is, skillset-wise, better classified as a defensive end than a linebacker, even though he's not much more than 6'0, 220 pounds. If packages can be built for him, and undersized types like Jayon Brown, that fit their skillsets, the UCLA defense could become something very difficult for offenses to scout.
-- What can Tuiasosopo bring to the table? One of the things we heard about Tuiasosopo is that he has some expertise in building a pass rush. That's obviously a huge priority for UCLA this offseason since UCLA's two best pass rushers from last year, Barr and Cassius Marsh, both graduated. Between Orjioke, Hollins, Aaron Wallace, Myles Jack, and, we're certain, a variety of others, UCLA is going to have to start building its pass rush this April.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring
Isaako Savaiinaea OR
Kenny Orjioke OR