We've graded the entire offense and with the defensive line grades being handed out earlier today, the defensive marks are officially underway. Now we head to the linebackers where it's fantastic at the top and truly frightening at the bottom.
If starters were just taken into account, this would easily be the best position UCLA has. All three starting linebackers are outstanding and bring different things to the table for the Bruins. In the middle is the heart and soul of the UCLA defense, Reggie Carter. The unquestioned leader, Carter is a redshirt senior who was named Scout Team Player of the Year in his redshirt year, Freshman All-American in his redshirt freshman year, has now started for the last three years and was named second team All-Conference last year. This year, he's on the watch list for just about every award out there and is considered one of the best linebackers in the conference. He does it all and there's little doubt that each time he step on the field, you're going to get his best, which is good news for the Bruins and bad news for the opposition.
Flanking Carter on one side is another redshirt senior who is coming off of injury. Kyle Bosworth injured his knee in just the second game of the 2008 season and missed out on the rest of it, which sounds like a bad break, but when you consider that it was a 4-8 season it may not have been so bad. Now he gets to come back with a stellar group of linebackers and try to move the program forward to a bowl game. Bosworth was strong against the run during camp, disciplined in his fits and quick to the perimeter, but needs to be better in coverage. While he wasn't poor in coverage and put himself in good position often, his ball skills with subpar and the good positioning was wasted.
The final starting linebacker spot belongs to the unit's best athlete with the biggest upside. Redshirt sophomore Akeem Ayers is the heaviest of the UCLA starting linebackers. He's also the fastest of the three and has the best ball skills. Physically, he can be as good a linebacker as there is in the Pac-10. He's going to be used a lot as a blitzer because of his ability to get to the quarterback, but don't sleep on his ability in coverage. He had at least a half dozen interceptions in the ten or so practices I attended and will get his hands on some balls at the Rose Bowl this year. The problem Ayers had last season was in reading the movement of the offensive line on run plays and then getting caught in traffic, unable to make a tackle. He showed great improvement in that area in camp as he was quick to read plays and get into position before an offensive lineman could get to the second level and put a block on him. Ayers could have the best year of any UCLA linebacker, which is quite an accomplishment with the other two starting linebackers the Bruins have. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he LOVES to hit. Quarterbacks beware.
After the starters, there is a major drop off at the linebacker position. Donovan Carter is a guy who caught my eye during camp. He was quicker than I remembered him and at about 250 lbs. is plenty big enough. If he can keep himself in position, he could provide adequate backup. The two guys who will get the bulk of the backup time though are Sean Westgate and Steve Sloan. Many of us saw Sloan last year when he took a starting spot following the injury to Bosworth. He manned the middle while Reggie Carter moved outside, but it's been said that Carter isn't leaving the middle this year so Sloan may see his snaps decreased. Westgate is the guy who I was really excited about when watching camp. He's an instinctive player and while that gets him out of position from time to time, for the most part it serves him well. He's quick to the ball and a strong tackler. At only 5'11'' 205 lbs. he's a bit smaller, but he's tough and plays bigger than he is. This is one guy who I have my eye on this year because he probably took the biggest step forward from the end of last year to this year.
Patrick Larimore and Mike Schmitt are the last two linebackers are really primed for serious time in the event of an injury. Both showed flashes in camp, but neither would even remotely consistent. They were caught out of position and didn't fit well against the run. Both are also somewhat limited physically so they need to learn to read plays better or risk being a major liability out there.
While many expected him at defensive line, Keenan Graham spent very little time with his hand on the ground in camp and it appears that he will be used as a rushing linebacker in passing situations if he's not redshirted. Isiah Bowens is another guy who could be used in the same capacity, but it appears he'll be redshirted after a decent, but not eye opening camp. Todd Golper was less than impressive during camp, often being caught out of position so anything but a redshirt would be a surprise.
Grade: B The starters get a A, but the depth is a major, major concern. Frankly, the level of play behind the top four of five is horrid and needs to improve because it's unreasonable for expect all three starting linebackers to stay healthy for the whole year. Even more a concern is what will happen next year when Carter and Bosworth graduate. If it weren't for the emergence of Westgate, this could be a scary situation.