If you can take a big positive away from last season for the linebacker corps, it's that at least they got a jump-start on figuring out life post-Myles Jack. Jack went down after the BYU game last year, and from that point on, UCLA had to mix and match to figure out a working rotation of linebackers. It was a rough year for the defense, with the run defense in particular really struggling, and much of that could have been a cascading effect of not having Jack on the field.
His absence, though, did allow other players to emerge, namely Jayon Brown. After Jack got hurt, Brown's role increased dramatically, and by midway through the season, he was UCLA's most indispensable linebacker. While not the biggest guy, he is a good athlete and has very good instincts, and his size really didn't present many issues last season. If anything, he was one of the surest tacklers on the team.
The Mike position is where UCLA had more issues. Kenny Young started for most of the year on the inside and it's fair to say he had a tough year. He looked a little slow and tentative for much of the year, though the light seemed to be flickering on toward the end of the season. He was just a sophomore, so it might simply have been a confidence issue, but his performance wasn't where it needed to be. Isaako Savaiinaea, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. He started to fill in more and more as the season went along, and if he hadn't gotten hurt soon after the midway point of the season, he might have started over Young through the final four or five games of the year. He showed great instincts and the sure tackling ability you want from a middle linebacker, even if he is maybe a step slower pursuing to the outside than you'd like.
Obviously, UCLA is also changing scheme a little bit, with the defense moving toward more of a 4-3. That is likely going to involve Keisean Lucier-South and Deon Hollins spending more time with the defensive line group, and will simplify some of the roles in the linebacker corps. It should be very interesting to see how things shake out and exactly how much 4-3 UCLA is planning on playing. It's also worth noting that UCLA loses Aaron Wallace as well, who was an unheralded but key member of last year's team.
A Look at Spring
So, with the switch to a 4-3, the most interesting thing is going to be seeing where guys fill in to start out camp. If we had to guess, the middle linebacker battle will be primarily between Young and Savaiinaea, because both of those guys look like pure middle backers. Savaiinaea might have a little more versatility, so if Young were to win the starting gig, maybe Savaiinaea could play some strong-side linebacker. Lokeni Toailoa is also in early, and he'll obviously compete to crack the two-deep.
Brown seems tailor-made for the weak-side linebacker role in a 4-3, with his quickness and playmaking ability. Cameron Judge probably fits that mold as well, and we should mention that it was great to see Judge get at least some work with the actual defense last season. Hopefully he can build on it this year, starting with a very good spring. Josh Woods, who played a few snaps in one game last year but hurt his hamstring, actually played middle linebacker last season, but we see him moving outside in a 4-3, where he could really fit on either side depending on how much weight and strength he's added. He certainly has the frame to be an eventual strong-side guy.
On the strong-side, it's going to be really interesting to see what happens. Woods could make sense, for sure, and Savaiinaea, if he doesn't win the middle linebacker job, could also have enough size to play the strong-side position pretty well. We have to think, though, that incoming freshman Mique Juarez is going to get a good opportunity to crack the starting lineup on the outside. He has the size and certainly the athleticism to play that role well, with the ability to cover tight ends but also the strength to fight off lead blockers. Juarez is, obviously, one of the guys we're most excited to see this spring and it's going to be interesting to see where he fits in. Cameron Griffin could also mix in to that strong-side competition. Edit: we've since learned that Griffin has moved to fullback, Judge will line up on the strong side, and Woods will play on the weak-side.
As we said above and in the defensive line story, we're anticipating that Lucier-South and Hollins will spend a lot of time with the defensive line group, and we wouldn't rule out Breland Brandt, who is in early as well, also spending time with the defensive line, now that UCLA is transitioning to a 4-3. That said, all three could also mix in with the linebackers, with Hollins likely being more of a weak-side linebacker, while Lucier-South and Brandt have the size to be a bit more versatile. It'll be interesting to see where each of those guys works out the most this spring, because that could tell us a lot about how much 4-3 vs. 3-4 UCLA is actually going to play.
Dwight Williams bounced between safety and linebacker last year, and unless he's gotten considerably bigger, we think he's probably best suited to play weak-side linebacker this season. We wouldn't anticipate him cracking the two-deep, but stranger things have happened.
The cool thing for the linebacker group is that, aside from Krys Barnes, who's coming in this June, everyone who will be in the unit come fall camp is already in school, so linebacker coach Scott White should have a pretty good idea of what he has to work with by the end of April, and that should help in terms of assigning roles and getting everyone up to speed on what they need to focus on heading into summer.
Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart
WLB: Jayon Brown (SR), Cameron Judge (SR), Dwight Williams (RS SO)
MLB: Isaako Savaiinaea (SR), Kenny Young (JR), Lokeni Toailoa (FR)
SLB: Mique Juarez (FR), Josh Woods (SO), Cameron Griffin (RS SO), Breland Brandt (FR)
Incoming: Krys Barnes (FR)