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UCLA Football 2014 Pre-Season Preview: Linebackers

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A look at the linebacking core for the Bruins in 2014 after losing two starters in Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr to the NFL.

Harry How

Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt both contributed in a massive way to UCLA fielding perhaps the best linebacking unit in the country in the 2013 season. Barr ended up being selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings and Zumwalt was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers (perhaps the most perfect fit possible for Zumwalt's personality. Let's take a minute to reflect on just how good this group was in 2013, specifically the two members returning in 2014.

The stars here are well known and have been praised ad naseum for as long as they've been on the field. All-Everything Myles Jack and All-Snubbed Eric Kendricks combine to be one of the top returning pair of linebackers in the nation. If there is a watch list for a defensive award in 2014, both of these guys are on it. Phenomenal players, people, students (Jack on the Academic Honor Roll twice and Kendricks as an honorable mention All-AcademicPac-12 team member) and Bruins. Both will play in the NFL, both will make a lot of plays in 2014. Hopefully, Kendricks will finally make an All-Pac-12 team after leading the conference in tackles in 2012 and finishing third in 2013. These are the known quantities in 2014, but the intrigue comes from the rest of the depth chart.

Outside Linebacker Inside Linebacker Inside Linebacker Outside Linebacker Nickel Backer
Myles Jack (SO) Eric Kendricks (SR) Isaako Savaiinaea (SO) Kenny Orjioke (JR) Jayon Brown (SO)
Kenny Young (FR) Ryan Hofmeister (RS SR) Zach Whitley (FR) Aaron Wallace (RS JR) Taylor Lagace (RS SO)
Dwight Williams (FR) Cameron Griffin (FR) Cameron Judge (SO) Deon Hollins (SO)

Kendricks will start at one of the two ILB spots and will be the same run stopping machine that he has been for the past three years. I expect him to make an improvement in his pass defense, as he was generally solid but struggled against Arizona State in that capacity. Myles Jack will man one OLB spot, generally the strong side of the defense where he is more of a run defender than a pass rushing threat. Also, like last season expect him to bounce inside in Nickel situations to allow an additional pass rusher (like Deon Hollins) on the edge.

The other two spots in UCLA 3-4 base (which isn't a guaranteed base considering how UCLA almost exclusively played a 4-2-5 in Spring Practice) are up for grabs heading into the Fall.

Kenny Orjioke is a clear leader to replace the position that Anthony Barr vacated, primarily the weak side outside linebacker where he will be able to rely on his freakish athleticism while he refines his technique. Orjioke, just 19 years old despite being a Junior, is still a work in progress due to the fact that he hasn't really played that much football. He started playing his junior year in high school but got injured after just 3 games, balled out his senior year and since then has spent 2 years as a special teams player that only saw the field on defense when Anthony Barr's helmet fell off or got tired.  I have high hopes for Orjioke, but don't feel comfortable handing him a for sure starting spot yet.

Competing for the job with Orjioke are the returning Aaron Wallace (who re-enrolled after missing the Spring with some academic issues) and Deon Hollins. Wallace has the most experience by far, playing capably in spot duty the last two years and actually beating out Myles Jack in the 2013 Fall Camp to start opposite Anthony Barr. He is effective enough but not a flashy player, and he will have to show more as a pass rusher to win the job. But don't sleep on Wallace playing a big role this season.

Deon Hollins was a situational pass rusher last season as a true freshman, mostly playing with his hand on the ground. I was a big fan of what I saw out of Hollins in San Bernardino last fall, and he will certainly have improved heading into this season. What he can do in the early downs remains to be seen, but as a former 4* recruit actually rated higher than Myles Jack by several services, there is plenty of talent to work with.

The potential dark horse in all of this is a rumored transfer candidate in Josh Shirleywho UCLA fans remember well for less than ideal reasons. Shirley would instantly be the most experienced defender on UCLA's defense outside of Kendricks and, by far, the most proven pass rusher (with 18 career sacks and 25 careers TFLs) on the roster. In my opinion, he would be a heavy favorite to start if that rumor turns out to be a reality.

At the ILB spot opposite Eric Kendricks, there are just as many talented candidates to potentially start. The prohibitive favorite is Isaako Savaiinaea, who had a bumpy beginning to his UCLA career as a true freshman thrown into critical situations against both Stanford and Oregon when EK went down with injuries. Both teams targeted him once he stepped onto the field and both were pretty successful at doing so. Savaiinaea had positive moments, but was a true freshman in over his head against two of the most effective offensive units in the country. He also got banged up in the Spring, which limited his reps. Despite this, he is probably still the most likely to start against Virginia in under two months (how exciting is that thought? Under two months away from the season starting.)

Behind him is the ideal depth guy in Ryan Hofmeister. Hofmeister, an All-Pac-12 special teams player, is a "blue collar" type of a football player. Not the most physically talented player, but fundamentally sound and tough as hell. I think he is most likely the first guy off the bench this year, but could make a splash as a redshirt senior.

Perhaps a more likely challenger to Savaiinaea is expected freshman phenom Zach Whitley. Whitley, in case you forgot, backed out of a verbal commitment to Alabama (pretty much the best indicator you can have that a player is an elite talent, Nick Saban wanted Whitley to enroll early in a year he was losing a 1st round pick at ILB) and came to UCLA as an early enrollee. His incoming freshman testing was better than Myles Jack's was across the board, which again speaks to the type of talent Whitley could be as soon as this season. He had extreme highs in the Spring, but also notable lows as he struggled bouncing between ILB and OLB. I would be willing to bet a fair amount of money that Whitley is receiving major reps by the end of the season, just might not start instantly.

Adding depth are guys like Cameron Judge and potentially incoming freshman Kenny Young (who picked UCLA over LSU on Signing Day). Young is a wild card because he might be talented enough to walk into Fall camp and win a job off the bat. Can't speculate on that until he is actually on the field though. Other freshmen additions are Cameron Griffin and Dwight WIlliams, both of whom could be athletic enough to see some type of playing time on special teams.

In contrast to 2012, which saw both Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay see significant playing at the Nickel Backer position, the Bruins rarely used the role in the 2013 campaign. Myles Jack's ridiculous ability to defend the pass, as well as a vastly improved secondary were the reasons for that. If you have a player like Jack able to defend anyone from sideline to sideline, there isn't much playing time available for extremely talented athletes like Taylor Lagace and Jayon Brown who are both undersized to play a true ILB (though Brown has bulked up to 220 pounds and Lagace brings the wood as much as any player on the roster). Both are phenomenally important to UCLA's elite special teams play (with Brown garnering Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors as a true freshman) and will only improve as they mature. But, with the level of LB recruits that UCLA is bringing in, it is difficult to see a scenario where either sees the number of reps on defense that Hilliard and McKay did in 2012. Depending on the game plan that Coach Jeff Ulbrich wants to send out, there could be a reemergence of the Nickel Backer in UCLA's defense as Brown and Lagace develop.

The linebackers will be the place to watch out for on the defensive side because those two spots are really the only two starting positions on the defense that are in question going into camp. No matter who ends up taking over those two spots, they will benefit greatly from an insanely talent defensive line and two of the most proficient linebackers in the NCAA in Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack. Just like 2013, this will be a strong unit on par with any in the Pac-12 and nation. Until next time, Go Bruins!