With spring practice just on the horizon, we take a step away from the unfolding saga surrounding the firing of Ben Howland and the search for his replacement as UCLA's head basketball coach. We've previously covered both aspects of special teams (the kick/punt returners, as well as the kickers/punters/long snappers) as well as our young defensive secondary. Today, we turn to the deepest, most talented unit on the team, on either side of the ball: the linebacker corps. Obviously, the biggest news for this unit was the return of the sensational, converted running back, Matt Barkley crushing OLB, also known as Anthony Barr, for his senior year. Barr, who was a sure-fire high draft pick for the NFL, passed on millions to stick around for one more season in the Blue and Gold. Now, of course, Barr's numbers will go down a bit this year, simply because he's no longer a surprise to opposing teams, so expect to see more double-team blocks being thrown his way (which should help free up other guys, like Kendricks, Zumwalt, or Marsh and Owa on the defensive line). Let's take a look at who will line-up besides him in the linebacker corps of Lou Spanos' 3-4 defense.
Right now, this is how the linebackers project going into spring camp:
|Anthony Barr (SR)||Jordan Zumwalt (SR)||Eric Kendricks (RS JR)||Aaron Wallace (RS SO)||
Stan McKay (RS SR)
|Jeremy Castro (FR)||Isaac Savaiinaea (FR)||Aaron Porter (RS FR)||Nate Iese (RS FR)||Kenny Orjioke (SO)|
|Myles Jack (FR)||Isaiah Bowens (RS SR)||Ryan Hofmeister (RS JR)||Cameron Judge (FR)||Taylor Lagace (RS FR)|
|Deon Hollins (FR)||Jayon Brown (FR)||Aramide Olaniyan (RS JR)|
The biggest development during the off-season is Jeremy Castro becoming eligible and enrolling at UCLA. So, with Castro in the fold (and no eligibility or academic problems developing since he showed up to campus in January), he will give the Bruins another option at the hybrid OLB/DE position that Spanos' 3-4 defense implements. Likewise, since he is participating in spring camp (unlike the other true freshmen), he'll have an inside edge at getting playing time out of the gate this fall. He'll be wearing Datone Jones' old #56, so he'll have some big shoes to fill in Westwood.
Since the entire defensive depth chart projection was posted earlier this month, UCLA has updated the official football roster, which gives us an idea of some position shifts, including Ryan Hofmeister being officially listed as a ILB rather than just LB or OLB. Likewise, Keenan Graham has been shifted back to DE, at least according to the updated roster. Interestingly, there are only two guys listed as OLBs: Anthony Barr and Aaron Wallace (who has changed to Reggie Carter's former #51), so for now, Wallace will get the nod at the other OLB spot, although I would imagine Castro, Jack, and Iese will certainly challenge for playing time there.
Also, as bruinclassof10 discussed in his defensive secondary spring practice preview, Mora and Spanos like to use the hybrid safety/LB "nickel-backer" in certain coverage packages. It looks like they've made some personnel shifts for that purpose, listing Stan McKay as a LB, so expect to see him in the same nickel-backer type role we saw Dalton Hilliard in last season. Likewise, Kenny Orjioke could find a spot there, having been previously listed as a safety, and Taylor Lagace, who was previously listed as a safety, has also been listed on the updated roster as a LB. Finally, Aramide Olaniyan, who has never really found a spot, would presumably fit in this role, if for no other reason than he is a bit undersized to be a true linebacker (and we all saw how well that worked out with Sean Westgate).
All-in-all, the amount of talent in this unit is just off the charts. Barr is simply outstanding, a for-sure NFL player, and Kendricks and Zumwalt are both very talented linebackers who will end up playing on Sundays. The young guys behind them are all very talented and were chased after by all the top football programs in the country. This is easily the best linebacker corps in the conference, and one of the top units in the nation. Get excited Bruin fans, because this unit is going to be fun to watch this season.