Isaako Savaiinaea (Steve Cheng, BRO)

2016 UCLA Linebacker Depth Projection

Dec. 29 -- UCLA's linebackers had a tough year in 2015, but things could get better in 2016 with just a few tweaks...

Previously in this series 
Defensive Line Projection
Offensive Line Projection
Wide Receiver Projection
Running Back Projection
Quarterback Projection

Linebacker Depth Projection

Departures
Myles Jack (NFL)
Aaron Wallace (graduation)
Kenny Orjioke (graduation)

Newcomers
Krys Barnes
Lokeni Toailoa
Breland Brandt (OLB/DE)

Returners
RS Fr. Keisean Lucier-South
So. Josh Woods
RS So. Dwight Williams
RS So. Cameron Griffin
Jr. Kenny Young
Sr. Isaako Savaiinaea
Sr. Cameron Judge
Sr. Deon Hollins
Sr. Jayon Brown

A Look at 2016

There's no getting around the fact that 2015 wasn't a great year for UCLA's linebackers. Myles Jack getting hurt against BYU put UCLA in bad shape pretty early, and the Bruins never quite recovered from that blow. Jack's injury seemed to do a world of hurt to Kenny Young's confidence, and Young scuffled through most of the year, which really hurt since Young's role was to essentially replace Eric Kendricks, who was arguably the best linebacker in the country last season.

But, still, there were a few silver linings. One of the big ones was Jayon Brown, who we have to project as a starter for next season in some capacity. Given time in the starting lineup, Brown showed off excellent instincts and tackling ability, despite being a bit undersized. Whether it's on the inside in a revamped 3-4, or at weakside linebacker in a 4-3, Brown should almost certainly see the field as a starter next season.

Beyond that, though, we'd probably be inclined to just start from scratch in terms of the remaining depth chart. UCLA loses Aaron Wallace, who emerged as one of the more dependable players on the defense this season, so his spot is certainly up for grabs. But, given Young's struggles this season, it only makes sense for that job to be an open competition this upcoming season. We really liked what we saw from Isaako Savaiinaea, and given his play this year, it would almost make more sense for UCLA to go into next year with the sense that Savaiinaea, and not Young, has the job to lose.

In any case, the big question is going to be what defensive scheme UCLA opts for, and how that trickles down through the depth chart. As we talked about in the defensive line projection yesterday, UCLA has some choices to make in terms of adding bulk on the defensive line, and that could involved replacing Deon Hollins, who basically plays defensive end right now, with an actual defensive lineman. If that happens, whatever UCLA wants to call the defense, the Bruins will be using 4-3 personnel much more, which changes the dynamics for the linebackers.

And that makes this difficult to project, because there is still some uncertainty about what UCLA could do. The Bruins have some talented pieces, but some of those pieces -- like Keisean Lucier-South, who's one of those hybrid pass rushers -- would likely have to play slightly different roles if UCLA does tweak the defense.

As with the defensive line, though, we think any switch that puts another big body on the defensive line, and that puts Savaiinaea in the starting lineup, will significantly upgrade the quality of linebacker play overnight. Savaiinaea definitely showed the instincts and capability to be a very solid linebacker this season, and he showed that he is a sure tackler with very good instincts. A full season with him as the starter inside could improve the run defense significantly from this year.

It's certainly going to be interesting. The defensive front is too talented to struggle as much with run defense as it did this year, and we have to imagine there will be changes and tweaks with the primary focus of improving that run defense. UCLA will also get some reinforcements from the freshman class (the players we noted above) and if UCLA does opt to stick with something similar to its current scheme, landing Mique Juarez in addition to that group remains a big key. He has the athleticism to eventually be a Myles Jack-type for the defense, and it was pretty clear this season that this defense becomes fairly pedestrian without that kind of elite talent at linebacker.

As of now, we'll project what we think would happen in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 two-deep so you have an idea of what the defense could look like. Again, we're only including players on the roster and current commits, so no Juarez (yet). Outside linebacker depth projects as being a little bit thin in a 3-4, so we're sliding Krys Barnes over there to fill out this makeshift depth chart.

Will the position perform better, worse, or the same in 2016? Better (assuming Savaiinaea starts) and much better (assuming Savaiinaea starts and there are some formation/personnel tweaks).

Projected 2016 Two-Deep

4-3
SLB: Josh Woods, Cameron Griffin
MLB: Isaako Savaiinaea, Kenny Young
WLB: Jayon Brown, Cameron Judge
(we'd probably slide Lucier-South and Breland Brandt, and probably even Hollins, into the DL projection in the case of a complete formation switch).

3-4
OLB: Deon Hollins, Lucier-South
ILB: Jayon Brown, Josh Woods
ILB: Isaako Savaiinaea, Kenny Young
OLB: Cameron Griffin, Krys Barnes


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