Spring Preview: Linebackers

Mar. 26 -- UCLA will have to find a way to replace Eric Kendricks, the mainstay in the middle...

On the offensive side of the ball, we talked about how critical it is to find an adequate replacement for Brett Hundley, the three year starter and most indispensable piece of the offense during those three years. On the defensive side, those very same things can be said about departed linebacker Eric Kendricks -- perhaps even more so. This past year, especially when the defense was struggling through the first six games, Kendricks was about the only thing holding it together, seemingly making every tackle and using his incredible instincts and ability to pursue to the sideline to make up for indecisive play from some of his teammates. For just about the first time in his UCLA career, he was actually healthy for most of the year, and it was a sight to behold.

Now, UCLA will have to find a way to replace him, not just in terms of a positional replacement, or a statistical replacement, but also in terms of a leadership replacement. Kendricks was the vocal and emotional leader of the defense this past year, and it'll be interesting to see if anyone in the linebacker corps can step up into that large void this spring.

A Look at Spring

As we just talked about, the most interesting question to answer this spring is simply who will end up replacing Kendricks. We've assumed for quite a while that the obvious heir to Kendricks' throne would be soon-to-be sophomore Kenny Young. Young played significantly last year (an ostensible starter, but ended up on the bench when UCLA was in nickel, which was most of the time) and looked better as the season wore on. He has the makeup to be a long-time starter on the inside, and we figured with an offseason of work on the playbook, he'd have a good shot at taking over Kendricks' spot.

Kenny Young.
There could be a wrinkle here, though. We've heard that there's a very good chance that Myles Jack actually starts the spring out on the inside, with every opportunity for Jack to take over for Kendricks at inside linebacker. This move actually seems inspired; as we talked about during fall camp last year, Jack's athleticism and coverage ability almost makes more sense on the inside for how UCLA likes to use its linebackers. He isn't a natural pass rusher, but he pursues sideline to sideline better than just about anyone. In terms of an eventual pro position, it probably makes more sense as well. We're very intrigued by the possibility, and, generally speaking, we like the idea of an experienced junior like Jack starting there rather than a somewhat inexperienced sophomore like Young.

Jayon Brown is also going to get a significant look at inside linebacker, and if he has a good enough spring, we wouldn't be shocked if he is the first string guy coming out of April and Jack slides back to outside linebacker. Brown has some Myles Jack-lite qualities about him, with good coverage skills, good tackling ability, and good athleticism. He's gotten consistently bigger since starting at UCLA, and is probably in the 220 to 225 pound range now. We wouldn't be stunned to see him have a good spring and seize a job. We were pretty intrigued by him last fall, but he didn't end up getting much time in the defense throughout the year.

If it sticks, Jack's move leaves a hole of its own at outside linebacker. Deon Hollins will naturally slide back into that weak side linebacker/defensive end role to start the spring, but Jack's former spot on the other side is up for grabs. We'd expect some combination of Aaron Wallace, Cameron Judge, and incoming freshman Josh Woods (who's going to participate in spring practice) to compete for the job. Given what we've seen of each, we'd imagine that Wallace has the inside track on the job, but we wouldn't be shocked at all if Judge opened some eyes this spring. He hasn't had much of an opportunity to make an impact on the defense through the last couple of years, but we like what we've seen out of him.

Kenny Orjioke, from what we understand, will spend most of spring practice working out with Sal Alosi while recovering from ACL surgery last fall, but we've heard he should be ready to go for fall camp. That's actually exciting news -- right before Orjioke hurt his ACL, he was really impressing the coaches with his growing understanding of the position and the defense. Once healthy, we'd expect him to jump right into the competition at outside linebacker. In other good news, we've heard he's almost certainly going to get his year of eligibility back for last year, making him a redshirt junior this coming season.

Isaako Savaiinaea will again be in the mix at inside linebacker after spending a good portion of last year bouncing around between a variety of positions, including fullback. Like Brown, he'll have a chance to win a job, though his competition will more than likely be with Young at the other inside linebacker position. Dwight Williams, who should be good to go this spring and is in the best shape of his life, could provide depth at every linebacker position, and will likely play significantly on special teams. Williams has a great deal of physical and athletic gifts, it's just a matter of how much he wants it.

Cameron Griffin actually sounds like he should be good to go this spring after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last fall. He may need to ease into competition, since he hasn't practiced in 8 months or so, but he should slide into the competition at weak side linebacker behind Deon Hollins.

The new linebackers coach is Scott White, taking over for departed linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich (and, we suppose, departed outside linebacker coach Mike Tuiasosopo). Though that's a seemingly significant coaching change, we really don't expect too many continuity issues; White has been a big part of the day-to-day coaching for some time now among the linebackers, and we've been impressed by what we've seen of his drills and ability to connect with players.

Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart

Outside Linebacker
JR Deon Hollins
RS FR Cameron Griffin

Inside Linebacker
JR Myles Jack
JR Jayon Brown

Inside Linebacker
SO Kenny Young
JR Isaako Savaiinaea
RS FR Dwight Williams

Outside Linebacker
RS SR Aaron Wallace
FR Josh Woods
JR Cameron Judge
RS JR Kenny Orjioke (INJ)

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