UCLA Linebacker Review
Top Performer: Jayon Brown
It didn't require more than a moment's thought to pick Brown as the top performer among the linebackers this spring -- he was simply involved in so many plays. As he showed last season, he has very good instincts, and those were on display all spring. We didn't keep a tally of tackles, but if Brown wasn't the leading tackler on the team this spring, we'd be absolutely stunned. His nose for the ball is almost uncanny, and at the Will position in this new 4-3 he seems completely freed up to just chase ball carriers. What's interesting is that he also showed some ability as a blitzer at times, and had more than a few sacks. Given how he looked last year and how much better he looked this spring, we are very excited to see what Brown can do as a full-season starter his senior year.
Most Improved: Josh Woods
Now, this comes with a caveat, that Woods was out for a good portion of the spring, but even still, he looks like a potential stud. Physically, he has filled out considerably, and yet still looks like he could grow quite a bit more. At 235 pounds or so now, though, he looks very little like the true freshman who was pressed into duty last season. He's one of the best athletes in the linebacker corps, and he showed enough versatility against the run and the pass that we're pretty confident about his ability to break into the main rotation this year. He's mostly playing Will right now, but we wouldn't be shocked if he factors into the competition at SAM that appears to be brewing for fall camp, because he has a much better chance at playing time on that side than behind Brown.
So, we know that Brown is going to be the starting Will. That's a given. He was first string every day of spring ball, started most of last year, and was one of the two or three best players on the team this spring. He's going to start.
The other two positions are decidedly in flux. At Mike, Kenny Young and Isaako Savaiinaea spent the entirety of spring trading off first-string reps. One day, Young would be with the first string, and the next day, Savaiinaea would be with the first string. Judging solely by practice, it wasn't obvious which one was better. Young looked better than he did during the year last year, while Savaiinaea has never really appeared to be much of a practice player, to our eyes. As we wrote a few times, though, you can't just judge based on practice, and Savaiinaea clearly outplayed Young last season. It's going to be interesting to see just how long this competition lasts, and who UCLA ends up selecting for that starting job.
The SAM position was Cameron Judge's more or less by default this spring, with true freshman Mique Juarez sitting out the majority of spring after a concussion. Judge played well, and certainly did nothing to lose the job this spring, but this still feels like an open competition heading into fall camp. Juarez, like we speculated before spring started, looks like he's going to need some time to get used to the speed of the game and the toughness of the players at this level, but that light could switch on at any moment. He looks physically ready, and he's already one of the top athletes in the linebacker corps. And, again, we could see a scenario where Woods is so good in fall camp that it becomes a situation where UCLA wants to get him on the field as soon as possible, and works him into the SAM competition.
Breland Brandt might also factor in, but it's really hard to say at this point because he too also lost so much time to a concussion this spring. He might be the most natural pass rusher in the linebacker corps, which might make you think he's destined for defensive end in this new 4-3, but at the same time, he's a good deal more mobile than Keisean Lucier-South and Deon Hollins, the two players who moved from linebacker to end this spring to take advantage of their pass rush skills.
It's going to sound weird to say this, since he was a four-star prospect and was highly thought of by virtually everyone, but Lokeni Toailoa was a pleasant surprise this spring. Given what we'd seen of him in high school, we thought one of his bigger struggles would just be dealing with the speed at this level, and translating his big, bruising style of play to the college level, where everyone is faster. While it's just practice, Toailoa did a very nice job this spring, and it's pretty obvious that he has very good instincts and feel for the position. Having that innate ability to know where a play is going makes up for a lack of overall speed, and Toailoa certainly has that. Heck, he even looked passable in coverage at times, and that's clearly not going to be his biggest strength.
It's not a deep roster, especially with Hollins and Lucier-South moving to defensive end and Cameron Griffin moving to fullback, so avoiding the catastrophic injuries of last season is going to be key. Even still, UCLA has a solid two-deep at every position, and with reasonably good health (and assuming Savaiinaea starts or Young is wildly improved), the linebackers should be significantly better than last year.
Projected Fall Depth Chart
Will: Brown, Woods, Krys Barnes
Mike: Savaiinaea, Young, Toailoa
Sam: Judge, Juarez, Brandt