2016 Recruiting Analysis: Linebackers

Mar. 3 -- UCLA has plenty of room to land one of the elite linebacker classes in the country...

This is the seventh in a series that gets into some deep analysis of UCLA's recruiting needs for 2016 position by position.

Already, we've published:

-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Quarterbacks
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Running Backs
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Wide Receivers
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Tight Ends
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Offensive Line
-- 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Defensive Line



UCLA clearly signed a considerably talent-laden class for 2015. Plugging that into the existing talent in the program, UCLA is definitely at its most talented point in quite a long time.

In analyzing the projected depth chart after plugging in the incoming freshmen, it’s fun to nitpick and analyze what are some areas of need for the program, specifically for the 2016 recruiting class.

It definitely is a new era in UCLA football recruiting. Just a few years ago, we couldn’t write the type of article this is – where we selectively pinpointed specific needs in the program. Pretty much under the last couple of coaching staffs you didn’t have that luxury – you’d just say UCLA needed to load up on talent at every position from top to bottom.

So, here it is, what UCLA needs position by position, in 2016, and the 2016 prospects out there that UCLA has a chance to get that best fills that need.


Linebackers

Need and Recruiting Tactic: As with defensive line recruiting, UCLA had some clear and apparent needs in the 2015 class, and with the Bruins only signing Josh Woods and Keisean Lucier-South (who may be more of a defensive end than an outside linebacker), those needs have carried forward to the 2016 class. The biggest issue we identified going into the 2015 class was the lack of true long, tall outside linebackers on the roster. Though UCLA signed Lucier-South, he probably isn’t a pure outside linebacker, looking out of place in open space. So pulling in a couple of outside linebackers in this class that can actually fill all facets of the position (pass rush/cover/tackle/pursue) would go a long way toward filling that need.

But with another year gone, it’s also become apparent that middle linebacker is a serious need going forward as well. Eric Kendricks graduated, Tyler Foreman transferred, and Zach Whitley transferred. With Isaako Savaiinaea floating between a few different positions now, there just aren’t that many great options for UCLA on the inside. Kenny Young is more or less a shoe-in to take over Kendricks’ spot, but if UCLA runs any true 3-4 formations this year, filling that other inside spot could be a struggle. We’re intrigued by Cameron Judge and Jayon Brown, based mostly on their special teams play, but both are still unknowns in the base defense, and it’ll take the spring to figure out how they might be able to fill in on the actual defense.

So, in other words, signing two inside linebackers would also appear to be a key in this class. Luckily for the Bruins, this is one of the strongest years for linebackers in the West in recent memory, and UCLA is already in very good shape for a few of them. The pitch is fairly simple: UCLA has plenty of room for linebackers to come in and play early, at virtually every spot in the linebacker corps. If ever there was a year for UCLA to sign one of the top linebacker classes in the country, this would be it.

Our Picks for the Right Fit:

WHY:
Robinson has quickly climbed to the top of our list of linebackers in this class. He’s a very good athlete, looking equally adept at linebacker, safety, and wide receiver, but given that he’s still fairly lean, it’s pretty clear that linebacker is going to be his best bet in college. He is the total package for an outside linebacker, with the athleticism to rush the passer, cover running backs and receivers, and a frame that should easily get him into the 235+ pound range, which would be good enough to withstand the rigors of the position. He’s still pretty lean at this point, so getting physically bigger and committing to the idea of being a linebacker will be key for him over the next year.

For UCLA, Robinson would absolutely fill a need as a versatile linebacker on the edge, and with Myles Jack potentially leaving after this season, Robinson could come in and fill some of that role. The Bruins are doing well with him already, having offered last week, and with his mom a UCLA professor, UCLA should be in it until the end for him.




WHY:
Kelly is the No. 1 prospect in the West in 2016, and it’s easy to see why. While he’s maybe not quite the athlete that Robinson is, he’s close, and is already much more filled out. He’s great laterally, is excellent in pursuit, and can cover. He’s also still growing, looking more like 6’3+ at recent events than his listed 6’2, which makes him a more obvious fit for outside linebacker for UCLA. He reacts very quickly, with great natural instincts, and seems to have that classic nose for the ball, where he’s always around the play. Kelly and Robinson would be an extremely athletic tandem of outside linebacker for UCLA to land.

As Greg Biggins has reported, the early word is that UCLA is probably in Kelly’s top two along with Oklahoma. Kelly just released a top ten, and UCLA was the only school from California in it. If the Bruins somehow landed Kelly and Robinson, they would potentially have their two starting outside linebackers for the next three years.




WHY:
Toailoa, the No. 1 middle linebacker in the West, represents another big need for UCLA, especially with the departure of Eric Kendricks. Toailoa is actually a pretty similar player to Kendricks, maybe a little bit worse of an athlete but overall a slightly stronger player at the same stage. He has good lateral ability and turns and runs well to the sideline. He has great instincts for the position, and often gets to where the ball carrier is going to be before the running back. The only question is that he’s already a big-bodied kid, and at probably 220 pounds now, he’s going to need to keep his weight in check to maintain the mobility that UCLA needs out of the position.

What probably stands out most about Toailoa is how much he loves to hit. He plays with a mean streak, is incredibly tough, and seems to really love the game. In many ways tangible and intangible, he makes sense as Kendricks’s successor.




WHY:
Barnes is a good athlete, looking very fluid, with the ability to pursue to the sideline and cover. He’s a pure inside linebacker like Toailoa, so he fits UCLA’s needs in that respect. He already has very good size for the position, at 6’3 and 215, and it’s easy to see him getting to 230+ pounds. Like Toailoa, he’s tough and physical, making him well suited to the rigors of being one of the leading tacklers on a college team. He has good instincts, although they aren’t quite at the level of Toailoa. In any case, if the Bruins landed a haul that included Robinson, Kelly, Barnes, and Toailoa, they’d be absolutely set with elite talent at every possible linebacker position.




Others Who Could Fit:

WHY:
Eifler is listed as an outside linebacker in the Scout rankings, and that certainly makes sense for a 4-3, but for UCLA’s purposes, we could see him sliding in at inside linebacker. Eifler is a good athlete -- not quite the level of Kelly and Robinson, but definitely above average -- but he actually looks more athletic than he is because he has very good instincts. He’s very lean at about 210 pounds, and he has the frame to pack on 20 or 30 more with ease. He’s shown excellent pass coverage skills at the high school level, especially when he drops into zone coverage, with a knack for knowing where the ball is going to be thrown. He has the natural instincts to diagnose plays very quickly, which is about the No. 1 thing you’d want in a linebacker, and it’s the reason we think he could be a fit on the inside for UCLA.




WHY:
We really still don’t know where to put Pittman. We don’t think he’s a pure receiver, but he could probably fit in at tight end or Y. With the way his body is going, though, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him end up at linebacker. He’s all of 6’4 right now, and looks like he’s not finished growing. At 6’4, 210 pounds, he’s about the size you’d want in a high school outside linebacker. His frame could easily get him to 240 pounds, and with his good athleticism, that might make him a very good fit for outside linebacker at UCLA. His recruitment will definitely be one to watch, since he seems to be growing out of the positions most schools are recruiting him for.





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