UCLA Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers

Aug. 4 -- UCLA could have yet another Butkus award winner after this season...

When talking about UCLA's linebacker play from last year, the conversation has to start with Eric Kendricks. Kendricks just finished off one of the best college careers for a UCLA linebacker, and wrapped up his final season in blue and gold with a Butkus Award-winning campaign. He was the glue for the defense, particularly in the beginning of the year when no one seemed to have a great feel for where they needed to be in Jeff Ulbrich's scheme.

There was a pretty substantial piece missing from the puzzle last year, though, in the form of Anthony Barr. UCLA never found a real replacement for the pass-rushing outside linebacker, and without that kind of individual talent on the edge, and with a scheme that was fairly conservative all year, the Bruins struggled to generate much of a pass rush. Finding a way to generate more pressure is going to be key this year, and that'll require more production from both the linebackers and the defensive line.

Myles Jack was his usual dynamic self all year, contributing in many different ways. Probably his most impressive feat was matching up against Nelson Agholor in man coverage during the USC game and more or less locking him up. Jack is an incredible athlete, and the only real challenge is figuring out how best to optimize his talent.

UCLA's defense as a whole probably underachieved throughout the season last year, but much of that was probably due to having a first-year coordinator in Jeff Ulbrich who emphasized a pretty passive scheme. UCLA got off to a very slow start defensively, and much of that seemed to be due to players hesitating and not reacting quickly enough to offensive plays. With a new coordinator, who will hopefully emphasize pressure a little bit more, the linebackers could see their production and overall play as a unit improve significantly.

Injury/Personnel Updates


***Kenny Orjioke -- We had originally heard after spring that Orjioke would be fully ready to go to start fall camp, but it now sounds as if he'll be a little more limited. He only ran on the sidelines during spring camp, so he'll probably be brought along slowly through the first couple of weeks of camp.

Incoming Freshmen


OLB Keisean Lucier-South
OLB Josh Woods

We got a long look at Woods this spring, and while he certainly has the athleticism to be a contributor down the road, we'd be pretty surprised if he played much this year, if at all. He's pretty skinny, and could probably use a year in the weight room before he is thrown into a college football game. Lucier-South is also a skinny linebacker, but he brings a pass-rushing skill-set that few on this team have, so there's probably a better chance that he plays this year. Much will depend on if he is strong enough to hold up on running downs against college offensive linemen.

Starters



Myles Jack made a position switch this offseason, going from playing primarily an outside linebacker role to playing inside linebacker. This spring, he looked completely natural on the inside, ranging with ease all over the field. Really the one concern with moving Jack into the center of the defense is his discipline. He's had a tendency in the past to get out of position at times, and with no Eric Kendricks playing next to him, those forays out of his gap will become even more noticeable. But that's a nitpick -- in total, Jack is an extremely talented linebacker, with excellent range, tackling ability, and coverage ability. He is on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, and he could absolutely have the sort of year needed to win it.

Kenny Young will line up next to Jack, and he was one of the players who seemed to make the biggest strides between the season and spring camp. Last year, he looked a little tentative at times, but that hesitation was gone this spring. Young is a really sure tackler, and while he doesn't have quite the range that Jack has, he moves really well for a thicker linebacker, and should be very good against the run this year. The big thing for him going forward will be improving in coverage so he can stay on the field for third downs and in nickel situations, particularly when Jack leaves.

We'll list Deon Hollins at linebacker for purposes of this preview, but we reserve the right to switch him to defensive end at some point this year, much like we did last year in every unit-by-unit analysis, if that's the position he ends up playing. We have reason to think he'll look a little more like a traditional linebacker this year, as UCLA spent at least some time dropping him into coverage in spring and he actually looked OK doing it. His best attribute, though, isn't agility in the open field but his very quick first step and ability to get to quarterbacks. We tend to think that he'll hold off Lucier-South and the other contenders and will have a very good shot at playing that weak-side linebacker/defensive end role again this year.

The other outside linebacker position is a little more undecided. Aaron Wallace was the first-string outside linebacker most of the spring, and he'll probably get the first shot there this fall, but there are some contenders for the position. We'll throw Wallace in the starting group for now, but this should be a true battle. Wallace is solid, and actually looked a little more mobile this spring than he has in the past. He's never going to be a great coverage linebacker, and doesn't have great pass-rushing skills, but he's solid against the run and, like we said, has gotten more mobile of late.

Depth



UCLA has some solid depth in the linebacker corps, with five players, at least, who could be very solid rotational players this year.

One of our favorites is Jayon Brown, who is Jack's understudy at inside linebacker. Brown has a lot of Jack's skills, though he isn't quite that same level of athlete, and is probably the second-best coverage linebacker on the team. He's gotten progressively bigger every year, and was probably a good 220 pounds this spring. He should play a lot this year, particularly when the team goes to nickel.

Isaako Savaiinaea had kind of a strange year last year, spending time at linebacker, defensive end, and fullback of all places. Savaiinaea was once thought to be Kendricks' heir at inside linebacker, but Young passed him last year. He's not quite as mobile as Young or Jack, which is probably why he's lost a little bit of luster, but he's still an effective option in the middle who is a good tackler.

Cameron Griffin impressed us this spring with his size and athleticism, and he could be a contender for Wallace's job if he has made a considerable leap in the offseason. He still looked a little tentative at times this spring after a shoulder injury sidelined him all of last season, but there were moments where his athleticism really showed up. He'd be a rawer option than Wallace, for sure, but his upside is considerably higher.

Orjioke is a bit of a wildcard. The word we heard within the program is that everything was really starting to click for him just before he tore his knee, and that there's a lot of excitement about having him back this fall. If he can get fully healthy during fall camp, he could contend for Wallace's spot. He's a great athlete, and has the potential to be a good pass rusher.

Cameron Judge has long been a favorite of ours, and he'll provide solid depth at outside linebacker. He has also gotten a little bigger, and looks like he's probably in that 215 to 220 pound range that Jayon Brown is in. Like Brown, he can also cover a little bit.

Aside from those five, we'd expect Lucier-South to have a chance to crack the rotation, particularly if UCLA has issues in the early going generating a pass rush. We would expect Woods to redshirt this year, but there's always the chance he's made significant strides in the last few months.


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