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2015 UCLA Bruins Football Fall Preview: Linebackers

A look at UCLA's linebacking core going into the 2015-2016 season. After losing Eric Kendricks to the Minnesota Vikings, the Bruins have to replace their leader, but still return arguably the most talented group in the Pac-12.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It has been too long, Bruins Nation. Far too long.

Football season is almost back upon us, with the UCLA Bruins heading to the Inland Empire to start camp in San Bernardino in a week on August 10th. A former Bruin linebacker has already started training camp in Minnesota, where Eric Kendricks looks to gain a starting inside linebacker spot alongside Anthony Barr for the Vikings. With those two and Jordan Zumwalt also trying to rebound from an injury-plagued rookie season in Pittsburgh, the Bruins have had quite a bit of turnover over the last couple of seasons.

(thanks to GRangelsfan for both videos in this article)

That is not taking into account the loss of Jeff Ulbrich to the Atlanta Falcons, the transfer of Zach Whitley or the graduation of team captain Ryan Hofmeister (who was primarily a special teams star, but provided competent depth and experience on the inside as well).

With new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and not new but freshly promoted to linebacker coach Scott White taking the reigns over an effective but mildly disappointing defense from the 2014-2015 season, it won't be known until September 5th  if the defense will line up or attack drastically different from the previous regime.

Based on reports from the Spring and what is known about the past defenses of Bradley at Penn State (and for a year at West Virginia), it does not seem like UCLA will alter much from their base 3-4. But, as is widely and thankfully becoming common knowledge, the majority of defensive snaps in the modern game come out of Nickel or Dime sets due to the proliferation of spread offenses and 3+ WR sets. Aside from the first year that Coach Jim Mora arrived at UCLA, the Bruins seem to have moved away from using a Nickel LB/DB hybrid (likely due to Myles Jack arriving on campus) and almost exclusively operate out of a 4-2-5 hybrid on those Nickel situations.

UCLA generally has three linebackers on the field in those downs, with Jack and whoever Kendricks' replacement ends up being in coverage (Kenny Young rarely saw reps outside of the base defense last season, not sure if he'll be the guy yet) in the middle of the field and Deon Hollins on the line as a pass rusher and edge defender.

In the 2013-14 season, Barr and Zumwalt were the edge players (and Barr and Damien Holmes in 2012-13), so there is the capacity for 4 LBs to be on the field in Nickel as well. That would require another pass rusher to emerge from the group of LBs behind Hollins, though Takkarist McKinley is right on the line between a LB and DE anyway.

Anyway, let's look at a projected depth chart headed into camp.

Deon Hollins JR Myles Jack JR Kenny Young SO Aaron Wallace RS SR
Kene Orjioke RS JR Cameron Griffin RS FR Jayon Brown JR Isaako Savaiinaea JR
Keisean Lucier-South FR
Cameron Judge JR
Josh Woods FR

The linebacking core returns a pair of accomplished starters in All-Everything Myles Jack and emerging pass rushing savant Deon Hollins. Kenny Young also returns after starting 6 games last year and will look to take over a larger role in the absence of EK (I think EK earned his abbreviation status on BN, right?).

Those are the known quantities, they'll all play a ton of reps and make a lot of plays this season. Every position is a battle, but it is tough to envision a scenario outside of injury where those three aren't at the top of the depth chart in 2015-16.

Just as a reminder of Myles Jack's skill set on the defensive side of the ball, hopefully the 2015 highlights will have almost no offensive plays (not an experiment, I am terribly fond of, if you recall from the Eye Tests last year). This video does neglect to show the personal fouls that were an issue last year, but one hopes maturity takes care of that issue.

Should also be re-stated that Jack is moving inside, where he already played most of the time when he wasn't flexed out in the slot (which he should still be doing this season). It is more of a aesthetic change than anything, but the takeaway is: don't expect to see Myles off the edge much in 2015-16. Best move for his long term success because he isn't ever going to be a real threat as a pass rusher at this or the next level. Let the freaky athlete and elite coverage guy go be a freak athlete and elite coverage guy. Keep it simple.

Aaron Wallace has started a game each of the last two seasons and will try to add to that total this year. He's a steady player that could certainly have gotten the job done at OLB, but has never had a knack for splash plays in his time at UCLA. He also had the unfortunate experience of getting overtaken by Myles Jack in 2013-14 after beating Jack out for the starting gig to start the year.

Along with Wallace, there is a dearth of talent outside to provide the Bruins with options opposite Deon Hollins at OLB. Isaako Savaiinaea has moved around on defense a ton in his two seasons at UCLA, playing ILB/OLB/DE and even at FB on offense. It would be in his best interest to have a set position and be able to knock out reps there to get settled. Savaiinaea has proven himself to be capable in a backup role at all those spots though, so his versatility is much appreciated.

Cameron Judge and Jayon Brown are special teams stars that will likely start garnering more serious looks at contributing on defense. Energy, intensity and effort level will never be an issue with either player, so if their football savvy can catch up to their raw, natural talent and energy, the Bruins could have their best depth in years at LB.

The redshirt freshmen and true freshmen are still somewhat unknowns, so it is tough to say where they will fit into the UCLA defense at this point. Looking forward to seeing how they all look in person in San Bernardino.

Cameron Griffin drew a lot of praise in the Spring and on the scout team last season, so I look forward to his progression.

Josh Woods seems like a redshirt guy to me, but I will admit to not knowing exactly where to slot him at this point, inside or outside. I chose to list him outside because that is where the most competition is. By all accounts, he handled himself well in the Spring after enrolling early, so a special teams role wouldn't shock me.

Keisean Lucier-South almost has to be a redshirt player due to his size and frame. Although anytime a 5* player shows up on campus, common sense could go out the window easily. Lucien-South could also end up a DE, but the Bruins listed him at LB on Signing Day, so I trust that.

The biggest wild card at LB is the return of Kene Orjioke from injury. Orjioke might have the most raw talent of any player here besides Myles Jack, so it will be interesting to see #46 back on the field.

Orjioke, entering his 4th year at UCLA, is actually about a year younger than true sophomore Kenny Young. Crazy to think about. He is still a year away from being legally able purchase alcohol. He's only been playing football since his senior year in high school, where he was a safety. So, the growth potential for Orjioke is off the charts. He could come back from injury and blow the rest of the competition off the field. Anyone who has ever seen Orjioke in person would not be shocked by this. Physically, he looks like an NFL player. If the on the field ever matches the looks, Orjioke starts and plays at a high level. We are all rooting for him to do so.

Overall, this is a position of strength for the Bruins, as has been the case in every year of Coach Mora's time at UCLA. New coordinator and position coach, generally the same group of players from last year minus Kendricks. It should be a comfort to Bruin fans that a position group losing a starting NFL LB might actually improve without that player. Could easily be the case for UCLA.

Until next time, Go Bruins!

P.S.: It is great to be back on BN.