Positional MVP -- Kenny Young
The senior middle linebacker was the most consistent throughout April in every phase of practice. He had a good second-half of the 2016 season, and it appeared this spring that continued and he built on it. The unit is now his to lead, and it appears he's taken the responsibility very seriously. We would caution, of course, that he's always been a pretty good practice player -- even before his sophomore season, when he didn't have a great year on the field, he looked very good and instinctual in practice. We're encouraged, though, by the way he ended his junior year, so the hope is that he'll be able to fully translate his practice capabilities to games this season.
Best Younger Player -- Josh Woods
He certainly has some big shoes to fill in replacing graduated Jayon Brown at the weakside linebacker position. It will be interesting, too, since Woods is such a different player than his predecessor; Brown didn't have all the measurables but over-achieved with what he had while Woods does have the measurables and athleticism, and it's just a matter of him living up to that potential. He showed flashes this spring of potentially being dominating, using that athleticism to make plays. The most promising element of his spring was that Woods seemed to develop his feel for the game more, getting more comfortable in his assignments and playing more instinctively. If Woods can get to the point where he's so familiar with his position and that enables him to unleash that athleticism, the sky's the limit for him. It's still a shame that Woods wasn't able to redshirt a year and will be a true junior next season, since there's still so much untapped potential there.
With so many opposing teams using spread offenses, UCLA in the last few years has probably spent more time with just two linebackers on the field than three. So the starters at the Mike and the Will positions have gotten a majority of the plays at linebacker, and at this point, UCLA is looking pretty solid with Young and Woods being the guys getting those reps.
When UCLA does use its base defense, it utilizes the Sam spot, and the guy who plugged in with the first string in April was Dechaun Holiday. If Woods doesn't qualify as a "best young player," the designation would go to Holiday, before he dislocated his shoulder. In those first two weeks, Holiday showed some great quickness in blowing up running plays to the edge. He is, though, just about 220 pounds, so there could be a question of how he does physically when matched up against opposing tight ends, either against the run or pass. The setback with the shoulder separation is truly unfortunate, because you would have hoped that Holiday would have used the off-season to get bigger physically, and that injury probably won't help.
The other young linebackers this spring who absolutely showed they were capable of playing next season were sophomores Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes. Toailoa was Young's back-up at middle linebacker, and we were impressed with him all spring. He has great natural instincts, the kind you want your middle linebacker to have. Physically Toailoa has done a great job in transforming his body in the last year while at UCLA, now being a well-built 6-2 and 250. Barnes also looked very playable, doing time mostly as the back-up at the Will, and pretty mobile for a guy his size -- also 6-2 and 250.
Like with Woods, it's a bit head-scratching that both Toailoa and Barnes burned a year of eligibility last year on special teams. They did get some on-field experience, but it doesn't seem to be worth the benefit of having them both for an additional year on the linebacker unit.
It's interesting that UCLA linebackers coach Scott White chose to plug in Holiday at the Sam spot and Barnes at the Will. Traditionally, the physically bigger player would be a Sam, and the smaller, more mobile player (and the one better in coverage) would be a Will. You would think that Holiday would be a more natural Will and Barnes a better fit at the Sam, but they both played their respective spots well this spring.
Breland Brandt was the second-string Sam, and then moved up to the ones when Holiday was out. Brandt has some great athleticism to go along with that length, and he appeared to be far more at ease this spring than we've ever seen him. There's always been some debate over whether Brandt should remain a linebacker or move to a DE spot, and we're not entirely sure if it's completely certain yet.
Player Who Most Needs To Step Up -- Mique Juarez
Mique Juarez was a object of interest this spring, returning to the UCLA practice field for the first time (at least publicly) since he took his leave of absence during last season. He put on some weight in that off-season, upward of 270 pounds when he walked on to the IM Field at the beginning of April, and looking more like a defensive lineman. He started off slowly, looking like he wasn't quite ready for the speed of the game, but then got more comfortable toward the end of the month. Even being probably 20 pounds over weight, he still showed that exceptional athleticism at times, playing the Sam spot. He got some time with the ones by the last two weeks after Holiday was out. Whether he'll be able to trim down some in time for fall will be the most pressing question for Juarez, and UCLA hopes that his first initial return to the field in spring will build a foundation for him to really be able to live up to his potential this fall. It was very encouraging to see him out there and competing for the entire spring, and if he can continue to shed weight, we don't think the door is closed on Juarez being a significant contributor.
Leni Toailoa and converted safety Brandon Burton were then at the Will with the third-string. Toailoa actually had a few practices where he made some plays, mostly when he had to move forward against the run or put pressure on the quarterback. It was a bit of a surprise that Burton made the move to linebacker, since it seemed he had a future at safety. Burton's body and athleticism probably lend itself better to a weakside linebacker spot in college than a safety, being able to match up better against running backs out of the backfield than he was able to flip his hips, turn and run down receivers. He seemed like he was still a bit under water during spring, learning a new position.