We'll continue our unit previews today with the linebackers...
**Freshman Leni Toailoa has switched to linebacker from safety.
OLB Breland Brandt
We didn't get a very long look at Brandt in April, because he suffered a concussion early on in spring and then sat out most of the remainder of practice, but what we did see was pretty impressive. He's a long, long athlete, and while you might think, looking at him, that he projects best as a defensive end in a 4-3, he actually showed enough athleticism in the brief glimpse we had of him that we're not so sure. Fall camp should provide the big test, but if he can keep up in coverage and can move laterally well enough to hang with running backs, he could be a really effective linebacker. As it stands, he has natural pass rush ability, and it'll be interesting to see how that's utilized in the new-look defense.
LB Leni Toailoa
Toailoa is moving from safety to linebacker in fall camp, per Jim Mora at Pac-12 Media Day, and it's probably a good longterm move. He's young for his grade, about a year younger than his brother Lokeni, and he's already trending toward being a pretty big guy. At 6'1, 200 now, he could easily project as 6'2-ish and 225 in a year, which is linebacker size in today's Pac-12. We actually thought he did OK in spring ball, and didn't look out of place on the field at safety. How he translates to linebacker is anyone's guess, but we'd be stunned if he played this year.
MLB Lokeni Toailoa
Leni's brother Lokeni was another pleasant surprise this spring, and yes, it's weird to talk about a former four-star prospect as a pleasant surprise. Still, we were expecting him to have more issues matching up athletically with college players, especially in coverage, and it didn't really play out that way. Toailoa isn't a smooth runner by any means, but he actually kept up pretty well in running back/linebacker one-on-ones, largely because he has excellent instincts and awareness and seems to know where players are going to go before they do. That awareness obviously plays really well in the run game as well, where even as a true freshman he showed that innate knack for finding the ball. He has two players ahead of him, so he is probably in line for a redshirt assuming good health, but we like his awareness and natural instincts enough to not be terrified if he were pressed into duty this season.
SLB Mique Juarez
We didn't get a long look at Juarez in the spring either, as he too was laid up by a concussion, which kept him out for all but a few practices. From what little we did see, there's a lot to like about Juarez. He's a big athlete who is very smooth laterally and showed the obvious physical ability to compete early at this level. As we talked about soon after spring, he'll probably need some time to get used to the speed and toughness of the game at this level, and unfortunately he didn't get too many of those important learning reps this spring. He'll compete at the SAM linebacker position, and it'll be interesting to see how quickly he can progress.
LB Krys Barnes
The lone freshman linebacker who did not enroll early, Barnes could end up playing inside or out in this 4-3 defense. There's a bit of a logjam at middle linebacker now, with Savaiinaea, Young, and Toailoa all looking good enough there that it could be tough for Barnes to crack the three-deep. There's a little bit more potential on the outside, and we could see Barnes fitting in at either the Will or Sam spots in year one. We liked Barnes quite a bit in high school, as he has good athleticism, but based on what we've seen of him, a redshirt year to get a little bit stronger would probably serve him well.
We know one starter for sure -- barring injury or some unforeseen mishap, Jayon Brown will start at Will this year. He was the second best player on the defense last year behind Kenny Clark and he was neck-and-neck with Takkarist McKinley for the overall MVP of the team this spring. He showed such great instincts this spring that we tend to think he's going to lead the team in tackles, despite the fact that in 4-3 defenses, Mike linebackers virtually always end up leading the team in tackles. Brown just has that Eric Kendricks-like knack for knowing exactly where he needs to be at all times to get the tackle, and he's fearless sticking his body in to take down ball carriers. He's the closest thing to a sure-thing this defense has.
The other two starting jobs are varying degrees of open.
First, the major competition: Mike linebacker. There are two main contenders for the job in junior Kenny Young and senior Isaako Savaiinaea, and if you were solely judging the competition based on the spring, you'd probably be inclined to say the competition was very close. The players split reps, and both were pretty good through practice.
Of course, we have more evidence to go on than simply practice reps. Last year, Young really struggled throughout most of the year, looking much too tentative to be effective. Too often, he'd be caught on his heels while plays were run right by him. He just didn't show those natural instincts that we've talked about several times with other players in this piece. Savaiinaea, on the other hand, did show those instincts, and nearly matched Young's tackle totals for the year despite playing far fewer snaps. Neither is as good as, say, Kendricks, but Savaiinaea was clearly the better player in games last year.
It's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. Savaiinaea outplayed Young last year, but there's clearly something about Young that impresses the coaching staff, whether that's practice, work in the film room, or something on the field that we're just not seeing. Whatever the case, it's not a stretch to say that however this competition plays out could dictate, in large part, the overall success of the defense this year.
At Sam linebacker, Cameron Judge took virtually all of the first-string reps throughout spring practice, so to the layman, that competition would appear pretty closed. We have to imagine, though, that Juarez, at the very least, is going to be given a long look to see what he can do at that spot this fall. He didn't really have much chance to prove himself before the concussion this spring, and the coaching staff is obviously high on the former five star. Additionally, Brandt could factor into the competition (though we doubt he's strong enough yet to win it).
As we've written a few times, though, we're very intrigued by the possibility of Josh Woods fitting in at Sam. Right now, he's second-string at Will, but given how good Brown is, it's hard to envision Woods getting a great deal of playing time -- and he might very well earn considerably more. He was impressive during the spring, looking long, strong, and athletic, and if we were pegging a player who could give Judge a real fight for the starting job, Woods would be our first pick.
Judge, for his part, can't be overlooked. We've always been pretty high on him as a player, and we were very happy to see him get a chance to shine last year in the actual defense, rather than on special teams. Like Brown, he made a name for himself on special teams and we think, given the opportunity, he could be a very good player in the actual defense.
We've literally written about every scholarship linebacker already, what with all of the incoming freshmen and the two significant linebacker competitions still underway. However those two competitions shake out, you have to be happy with a two-deep that includes some combination of Brown, Woods, Savaiinaea, Young, Judge, and Juarez. Heck, the third string is a solid group, with Brandt, Lokeni Toailoa, and Barnes looking like a nice starting lineup for, say, the 2018 season. How many teams can say their three-deep at linebacker includes just one three-star (with the rest four-stars and five-stars)? And the three-star might be the best player in the bunch.
There isn't a whole lot of dead weight, either -- really, not any at all. Leni Toailoa, like we said above, has a chance to be a player down the road depending on how his body goes. As Jim Mora is fond of saying, the game didn't look too big for him this spring, and that can go a long way for a player.
UCLA's linebacker corps is certainly solid from top to bottom, and should give the Bruins the tools to be successful this year.
What to Watch in Fall Camp
-- Can Savaiinaea actually win the job? We were waiting all spring for someone to start taking the majority of the reps at Mike linebacker, but instead, every day, the two main competitors switched off with the first string. Savaiinaea was clearly the better player last year, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out this fall.
-- Will Woods switch to Sam? We've said it might make sense, given his body type and athleticism, but Judge looked good, and Juarez is going to demand reps at that spot, which could keep Woods at Will.
-- Is Brandt going to redshirt? We have an inkling that Barnes and Lokeni Toailoa might be moving toward redshirts this year, barring injuries, but Brandt brings that pass rush skill-set that sets him slightly apart. If he can show some of that in fall camp, it could mean he sees the field this year.
-- Can Brown keep it up from spring? He was very impressive during practice and looked like he knew every assignment perfectly. Showing that again in fall camp would indicate he's in for a big year.
-- How will the new 4-3 affect things? Will the defense blitz more? Will it blitz less? How aggressive a defense will be is always difficult to figure out from practice, but we'll give it a shot.