After a bit of a shaky start to the season last year, UCLA's linebackers were mostly very good over the final 9 or 10 games of the season, and much of that was due to the contributions of Jayon Brown and the improvement Kenny Young showed over the course of the season. For much of the year, UCLA played with two linebackers on the field the majority of the time, in sort of a 4-2-5 defense, and Brown and Young got the lion's share of the snaps.
Replacing Brown will be a challenge; his experience and nose for the football are not easy things to teach. In addition to that, Cameron Judge and Isaako Savaiinaea both contributed at some level last year, and neither will be on the roster this season. Obviously, if UCLA's defense looks a lot like last year's defense, the Bruins are probably not going to need to be deeper than 4 or 5 linebackers, but still, UCLA will have to replace three of the guys who were in that mix.
A Look at Spring
The first bit of good news is that Young is back for his senior year after showing some nice progress during his junior season. He wasn't great to start the year, and had some hiccups here and there, but he looked much quicker and more instinctual over the last six or seven games of the season, almost as if the proverbial game is slowing down for him. Hopefully, he'll pick up where he left off, without the aid of Brown's experience next to him.
Josh Woods, who saw some valuable time last year in his second year in the program, will have a good chance of starting alongside Young in Brown's slot. From what we've heard, he's had a good offseason, and the expectation is that he's ready to make a leap in his third year. While he might not be the football player Brown was, Woods is bigger and a better athlete, and has more upside.
Filling out the depth chart behind those two will likely be Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes. Toailoa, from what we've heard, has really done a nice job on his body, and is now about 250 pounds without much fat on him. He already moved surprising well last spring as a true freshman with a thick body, and now with a year of a college strength program under his belt, we're excited to see him this spring. He also played a bit last year, both on defense and special teams, which could give him some valuable experience heading into the year. He'll likely back up Young at the Mike. Toailoa has natural leadership skills and this being his first year that he gets some major playing time it's expected he'll become a leader of the linebacker unit and the defense overall.
Barnes, for his part, has also bulked up and looks good physically, and will be the first off the bench with Toailoa, and we suspect it will be backing up Woods at the Will.
From what we've heard, no one should sleep on new linebacker Dechaun Holiday, who made the switch over from safety during the year last year. Holiday has put on some good weight, and looks like he's a solid 225 pounds now, while retaining a lot of the athleticism that made him a coveted receiver and defensive back prospect. From an athletic perspective, we're certainly intrigued, and with the coverage responsibilities of the linebackers in this system, we'd be really interested to see what he can bring to the table. We've heard he could be the first option when UCLA uses a Sam linebacker, which is in its base defense.
Breland Brandt is another interesting case. Last spring, he certainly showed the athleticism to be a linebacker for UCLA, but with the Bruins playing more of a 4-2-5 last year (and potentially going forward), there just aren't that many spots for linebackers to break in for a lot of playing time. Coupled with that. Brandt has the frame to add weight and become a defensive end, which would help increase the playable depth at end on the line. This will be one to watch in spring, whether Brandt stays at linebacker or makes the move over to the line.
We haven't mentioned Mique Juarez largely because he's still a bit of an unknown. Last spring, he had thickened up some from when we saw him in high school, and from what we've gathered, he has continued to get naturally bigger. He's been working on slimming down again in advance of spring practice, but his body might just be one of those that naturally gets bigger. We'll wait to see him this spring before making any grand pronouncements, but if it looks like he's going to be forever fighting his body to stay around 240 or 250, it might make more sense to just give in and become a pretty athletic defensive lineman. That'll be interesting to see.
Leni Toailoa is someone we're curious to see, since he showed some promise last fall camp. We have seen him around campus, and he doesn't look much physically bigger. He is still very young, since he was moved ahead a class in high school while still being young for his real class.
Cameron Griffin is the other unknown. He switched to defense during the year last year, but we haven't yet heard with any certainty whether he's sticking at linebacker this spring, moving back to fullback, or making some other mystery move.
In any case, UCLA has plenty of options at linebacker -- true, there isn't as much experience as there was last year, but the guys projected for the two-deep flash at least as much talent as the guys who played last year, and probably have bigger overall upsides. It might make for some growing pains at the beginning of the year, but we'd project this unit to get better over the course of the season.
Projected Depth Chart
MLB: Young, Toailoa
WLB: Woods, Barnes, Holiday
SLB (when UCLA uses three LBs): Brandt, Juarez, Griffin