Return of UCLA Football: Linebackers Springing Into Focus

Jordan Zumwalt sacks Houston quarterback Cotton Turner last fall at the Rose Bowl. Here's to several repeats of that performance this fall (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

As Bellerophon wrote yesterday, we are in a period of transition among the biggies of Bruin sports (not meant to diminish our baseball of softball teams, gymnastics or any of the other spring sports). With the recent end of basketball's season, we are only days way from spring football practice, and the first hint of the upcoming season that holds so much importance in the path of this program. B led his opening preview by discussing the importance of this season and the changes that Coach Neuheisel has made in preparation for it.

Today, I will be picking up from yesterday's breakdown of the defensivel ine entering camp with a look at the Bruin linebacking squad. With all of the turmoil that the offseason has seen in regards to coaching, there is a semblance of consistency with the return of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. To preserve a level of consistency among our series of reviews, I am continuing with yesterday's assumption that the defense will continue to feature a 4-3 base set, and will write accordingly. UCLA is yet to publish a depth chart for the practices, but with the release of a spring outlook, and other media sources, here is an early look at how things can shake out.

SLB MLB WLB
Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 230, So)  Patrick Larimore (6-3, 253, So*) Sean Westgate (5-11, 223, Sr)
Eric Kendricks (6-1, 226, Fr*) Isaiah Bowens (6-1, 235, So*) Glenn Love (6-4, 219, Sr*)
Ryan Hofmeister (6-2, 220, So)
 Todd Golper (6-0, 240, So*)  Aramide Olaniyan (6-2, 208, Fr*)
David Allen (6-2, 224, Jr*) Aaron Wallace (6-3, 230, Fr) Jared Koster (6-1, 208, Fr*)

 Phillip Ruhl (6-0, 225, Fr*-Walk-on)
Mike Orloff (6-2, 210, Fr)

* denotes redshirt; Italics: incoming freshmen.

Notes: Patrick Larimore will not participate in Spring practices due to injury. Jared Koster will be limited to non-contact activities. Mike Orloff is listed to display overall depth of the unit, but is still enrolled in high school and therefore will not be present for spring practices.

The big change from last year's squad is, of course, the departure of Akeem Ayers for greener pastures. With his loss, the Bruins do retain a certain level of experience among the projected starters - all of whom started games last season - but with a severe drought of experience among the remaining rotation and reserves of the position. Let's start looking through the positions below the fold.

Strongside (Sam) Linebacker

The expected early departure of Ayers for the NFL draft opens the only hole among the starting LB positions. Thankfully, the Bruins have a promising young talent to slide into that gap in the person of true sophomore Jordan Zumwalt. One of several defensive 4-star prospects from the 2010 recruiting class, Zumwalt began to see playing time early last season, appearing in all but 1 game, and breaking into the starting lineup at middle linebacker late in the season after an injury to Patrick Larimore. He will shift over to the strong side in 2011.

After Zumwalt, the picture becomes a bit blurry at this stage. As a disclaimer, the depth listed at the strong-side (for all the positions, really) is an early guess as to how the particular positions will shake out. Isaiah Bowens may become the prime backup to Zumwalt once the season begins, but with Larimore not able to participate in spring practices, he is likely to take most of his spring reps in the middle. Eric Kendricks was named the outstanding defensive scout team player last season while taking his (freshman) redshirt year, and has a chance to earn some playing time at either outside linebacker spot. Ryan Hofmeister is a transfer from Riverside City College, where he was considered one of the top NCAA prospects among junior college players in 2010. He enrolled at UCLA for the past winter quarter, and unlike most transfers, came in as a sophomore. While he does have three years of eligibility (plus a redshirt) as a result, that also means that he is less advanced physically and in skill than the typical JC transfer player. David Allen transfered in from Tulane a couple of years ago, and is tasked primarily with a spacial teams role, and to give further depth on the strong side.

Middle (Mike) Linebacker

The Bruins feature a bit more consistency up the middle, but with all of the youth present on the strong side. While he will not be able to participate in spring football, Patrick Larimore will be coming back to start at middle linebacker this fall after missing the latter half of the 2010 season due to a shoulder injury. Larimore was named national defensive player of the week last September following his performance against Texas, and is already on some NFL draft boards for 2013.

While Larimore looks to have a lock on the starting inside spot, he will be out until the summer, giving Isaiah Bowens ample opportunity to make his case for an expanded role in the defense - possibly backing up both Larimore and Zumwalt - to coach Lea and the newly-hired defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. After being out of game action for much of the last two years - due to a 2009 redshirt and 2010 injury - Todd Golper will be looking to live up to his top-10 positional ranking entering UCLA by working his way back into game shape this spring. Aaron Wallace is one of two  linebackers entering UCLA in this year's freshman class; having enrolled during the Winter quarter, he is able to participate in practice - given that he missed his last high school season with an ankle injury, the extra practice time on campus is a significant plus - but is highly likely to end up as a redshirt this fall. Phillip Ruhl is a freshman walk-on whose role in camp and on the team is to provide depth up the middle.

Weakside (Will) Linebacker

On the weak side, the Bruins see their only full-season returning starter - and one of only two returning seniors among linebackers - in Sean Westgate. Westgate finished second on the team in tackles in 2010 and was in the top-10 in tackles per game among Pac-10 players, but is not an ideal starter at linebacker. His effort and determination are absolute tops, and exactly what we should be looking for as a Bruin, but as one observer wrote at the end of last season, he is not physically a good match for the position. With that said, we can count on Westgate making the absolute most of his ability at the position, and we should never have to worry about him taking plays off or pouting.

After Westgate, there are several players looking to earn playing time in the rotation, or at least in special teams play. Glenn Love is the other returning senior, appearing in all 12 games last season after shifting from strong safety to outside linebacker to spell Westgate. He could also see time backing up Zumwalt on the strong side, in addition to giving Westgate a run for his money. A pair of redshirt freshmen are looking to leave their scout team responsibilities behind and earn playing time with the big boys in 2011. Aramide Olaniyan was one of UCLA's biggest gets in the loaded 2010 recruiting class, and after sitting out that season, looks to earn 2011 playing time begining with a strong showing this spring.

Jared Koster was actually a member of the 2009 incoming class, but his delayed enrollment (greyshirt) resulted in his eligibility clock not starting until the 2010 season. Koster saw special teams action early last season, until an injury against Houston ended his season, but allowed him to claim an injury redshirt year, preserving his freshman eligibility for 2011. That limited experience, plus the extra year of practices and physical maturity may help even O...'s projected talent edge this spring, and in their battle for playing time this season. Mike Orloff is not set to enroll at UCLA until the summer, and is likely going to redshirt in 2011.

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