Replacing Barr won’t be easy. There isn’t an obvious elite pass rusher among the group of linebackers UCLA returns this year. Kenny Orjioke might be the closest thing, and he did have a generally good spring, but he’s still plagued by inconsistency. His athletic gifts, though, make him the best fit to take up Barr’s mantle.
Moving to the 4-2-5/3-3-5 hybrid defense this spring, if it ends up being a permanent move, allows UCLA to play to its strengths in the linebacker corps: its athletic and fast inside linebackers. Between Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, Isaako Savaiinaea, Zach Whitley, Jayon Brown,
-- Redshirt senior Eric Kendricks should be healthier than he’s been in a while, according to the most recent information. He suffered a variety of nagging injuries last year, including an ankle sprain.
-- Redshirt junior outside linebacker Aaron Wallace, who sat out the spring dealing with some eligibility issues, was reinstated to the team this offseason and will be a full go for fall camp.
-- Cameron Judge, from what we heard, should be healthy to start camp after undergoing surgery that kept him out of spring.
UCLA is in an enviable position with its freshmen linebackers. Unlike in years past, when true freshmen virtually had to play given the lack of talent in the program, UCLA has the luxury of bringing this group along a bit slower.
That’s not to say UCLA will, of course. Whitley, obviously, participated in spring camp, and while he had his ups and downs, he will have had 8 months of experience in the program by the time the season starts, which certainly gives him a leg up on earning a rotational role. We’ve heard great things about Kenny Young’s offseason work, and he physically looked the part when we saw him on campus. Then, between Williams and Griffin, UCLA has two good athletes who could develop quickly. If we had to guess, actually, at least one of the two could see significant time on special teams.
UCLA hasn’t made a habit of redshirting talented players in the Jim Mora era, and we’d have to imagine that trend continues with the linebackers this year.
It’s a virtual certainty that Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack will start, regardless of what formations UCLA uses. The question is what the Bruins will do with the other two spots.
If we had to make an educated guess, we’d say Orjioke locks down the third linebacker spot as the true outside rusher. There’s no one on the team who can match his combination of frame, strength, and athleticism, and we saw enough of him this spring to think he’s on a good development track. Another contender for the spot could be Aaron Wallace, who’s been reinstated. After sitting out the spring, it’ll be interesting to see if he has to shake off any rust in San Bernardino. The battle for that outside linebacker spot, and what UCLA intends to do with it, should be the most interesting thing to watch this spring in the position group.
For now, we’ll stick with three starting spots in the linebacker corps, but understand that UCLA runs a defense with a variety of looks and formations, so at times there could be anywhere from two to four linebackers in a formation.
Again, aside from that true, 6’4 pass-rushing type, UCLA is very deep at linebacker. Savaiinaea played significantly last year in place of Kendricks, and looked very good for a true freshman playing one of the most difficult positions in football. This spring, he looked like he developed quite a bit, and we’d guess he’ll be the main backup to Kendricks again this fall.
Jayon Brown emerged as a legitimate contender for the two-deep this spring, showing range and athleticism, with the ability to cover the slot on occasion. He backed up Jack for most of the spring, and it’s a good fit, because he’s probably the closest thing to Jack on the roster in terms of skills (not that it’s particularly close).
Between Judge, Whitley, Taylor Lagace, Ryan Hofmeister, Young, and Williams, UCLA has a tremendous amount of depth inside, and we’d say any of Judge, Whitley, Hofmeister, or Young has the potential to crack the two-deep this year. We’re probably most excited to see what Young can bring to the table, because his film looked very good coming out of high school.
Cameron Griffin is a bit of a wildcard, but as of now, we’d guess that he’s a developmental guy. He didn’t play in a great league in high school and is still learning the game to a large extent. Physically, though, he’s gifted, and he has the athleticism to be a good pass rusher down the road. He’ll be one to watch in August to see if he has a chance of making an impact this year.
Deon Hollins, as we talked about in spring, has a definite role on the team this year as a pass rusher. We’re still not sure he can be an every down player, since he doesn’t have great skills to play in space, but he has the straight ahead quickness and developed pass rush moves to provide an instant impact off the bench.
FALL PRACTICE UNIT PREVIEWS
Jul 22, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: D-Line - The group should be one of UCLA's most talented units this fall...