So far, we've had previews of the special teams by Bellerophon, the offensive line by gbruin and the defensive backs by Patroclus. Both gbruin and Patroclus touched on how vital the influx of youth will be to the success of the O-line and secondary. The defensive backs have to find 4 brand new starters to replace Andrew Abbott, Aaron Hester, Sheldon Price and Eastern Washington's newest safety Tevin McDonald, as well as losing Dietrich Riley to a medical retirement. The offensive line only has to replace Jeff Baca, but could end up with as many as 3 new starters with the 8 (insane number to think about) freshmen challenging the starting spots of Torian White and Simon Goines.
The future looks bright for the UCLA offensive line for the first time in an extraordinarily long time. In a season or two, the offensive line could be the strength of UCLA football. Right now, that honor belongs to the linebackers (apologies to the immaculately talented Brett Hundley). That is the position group I'll be covering in this post.
Obviously, the big story from the linebackers in the 2012 season was the switch from the 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive front. The switch brought about the emergence of Anthony Barr as an All-American (21.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks) and enabled Eric Kendricks to lead the Pac-12 with 149 total tackles. Solid contributions from Jordan Zumwalt (71 tackles, 8 TFL) and Damien Holmes (10 TFL, 5.5 sacks) filled out the starting linebacking core for all but two games against Cal and Colorado. In those matchups, Ryan Hofmeister (15 tackles) filled in for an injured Zumwalt and Keenan Graham (9 tackles, 1 sack) started the Pac-12 Championship game. While the UCLA defense in 2012 was by no means flawless, it was a vast improvement over the 2011 edition. The new-look, new-attitude Bruins combined for 100 TFL, 19 forced fumbles and 47 sacks compared to 70 TFL, 7 forced fumbles and 14 sacks in 2011.
The biggest headlines from the offseason were the return of Anthony Barr for his senior season while forgoing a chance at being drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft and the recruiting class that Coach Jeff Ulbrich brought in on Signing Day (tied with Florida State and Georgia for the best LB class in the country according to Scout.com). I am on record of saying I was not expecting Barr to be a Bruin again this year, so that was a welcome surprise. I'll touch on the exceptional recruiting class later in the post.
First, I'm going to note the losses from the 2012 group, the most noteable of which is Damien Holmes. Damien is now a member of the Denver Broncos. He'll be battling for a spot on the roster in their training camp along with Aaron Hester. Also graduating was redshirt senior Ryan Medina, who saw special team snaps throughout his 4 seasons as a Bruin. Redshirt junior Todd Golper decided to graduate instead of using his last season of eligibility but apparently his music career is going alright. Always find interesting things when you Google people. Also worth noting is the loss of Dalton Hilliard from the Nickel LB spot (or "mini-backer" as Coach Ulbrich calls it). Hilliard filled the role admirably (33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles) and played an even larger role with a spot on essentially every special teams unit. If he doesn't end up getting a shot at an NFL gig, he can say this was the last play he ever made.
This was one of the few units to lose no one to a medical retirement or spring camp injury in the offseason. Losing few lettermen, while gaining the best recruiting class in the country and returning a National All-American and the leading tackler in the Pac-12 makes for a pretty stacked group of talent. As a testament to this fact, UCLA is the one of only two schools in the NCAA with three separate linebackers on the Butkus Award watchlist (the other is BYU).
There are position changes that will affect the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Nate Iese moved from outside linebacker to defensive end during the spring. At 6'3" and somewhere between 245 and 260 pounds (depending on who you ask), the move makes sense. With the question mark that the injury of Owamagbe Odighizuwa leaves at DE, the competition will be welcome. Keenan Graham also moved to defensive end earlier in the year. The final move would be Taylor Lagace moving from safety down to the nickel linebacker position.
If anyone recognizes a position change that I missed, make a note in the comments and I'll add it.
With all the background information taken care of, we can take a look at the players that will actually be lined up at the linebacker spots this season.
The headliner and solidified starter at one spot is true senior Anthony Barr. Praise after praise has been heaped on Barr for the entire offseason. If you put credence in preseason watchlists for awards, then you've read his name a great deal. Walter Camp, Bronco Nagurski, Maxwell, Lombardi, Butkus, Bednarik. Pretty much any major award watchlist, he's on it. Personally, I expect his numbers to dip this season (would be tough for them not to). He should be a far better all around player though, especially in pass coverage. Though no one would mind seeing more of this:
Can anyone resist watching that play?
Wait, more Barr:
After Barr, the depth chart at the position is anyone's guess. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Wallace took the lead in Spring Ball and will look to hold on to the position. Wallace is a physical player at nearly 230 pounds and played in 10 games last season mostly on special teams but did force a fumble at linebacker against Stanford. This will be his third fall camp and second in San Bernardino, so experience is a big edge for him in this competition.
He'll try to hold off 5 true freshman, all of whom are talented enough to contribute at some point in their UCLA careers. The one that I expect to be the biggest threat to him is Jeremy Castro.
Castro was actually a late flip from Oregon in the 2012 recruiting class, but had an issue with his ACT score. After a very arduous saga to get into UCLA, the 243 pound linebacker finally enrolled this January. Castro is a coach's dream physically and has the bonus of having a full offseason under his belt. With his size and pass rushing pedigree (24 sacks in two seasons at Inland Empire power Vista Murrieta) he would likely be a DE in a 4-3 defense, but fits well as a 3-4 backer. How he will fair after a year away from the football field remains to be seen, but he played well in the spring.
The collection of outside linebacker recruits from the 2013 class is impressive. Myles Jack figures to see the field in some capacity this year and I wouldn't be shocked if he showed up and won the starting job. He's the most impressive of the four 2013 freshmen on tape. See below for the Barr-esque hit.
Deon Hollins is the other threat to see the field from the class of 2013. On film (as you can see below) he reminds me of a very raw and younger version of Akeem Ayers. He is quick off the ball, a physical tackler and has a projectable frame for Coach Alosi to work with. Anytime a player played primarily with his hand on the ground, it is hard to immediately adjust to a standup role. That's my only reasoning for placing his chances of starting or getting in the rotation a little behind Jack, but it isn't that far apart. Both are elite athletes that should be making highlights in blue and gold for many years.
Rounding out the outside linebackers are Cameron Judge out of Oaks Christian and Jayon Brown from Long Beach Poly. I would expect both to redshirt this upcoming season mainly because both were listed under 215 pounds as recruits. That size compared to that of Wallace, Castro and the combo of Jack and Hollins is not going to cut it. I could see one or both eventually ending up at the "mini-backer" spot, with the quicker Brown seeming like a natural fit. You can't look at this clip and not see a little flash of Dalton Hilliard.
There is a lot of potential in the outside linebacking core, obviously headlined by Barr. The next unit we'll take a look at is the more steady, slightly less flashy group at inside linebacker.
The leader here is redshirt junior Eric Kendricks. After a redshirt freshman year where he was 2nd on the team in tackles with 76, Kendricks basically doubled that mark as a redshirt sophomore with 149 total stops. That number was good enough to lead the entire Pac-12 and finish 9th in the nation in tackles per game (10.7). I searched for a clip of Kendricks, but I think it speaks to his play that I couldn't find one. No one clip does him justice, he makes an impact in volume. This should be the year Kendricks finally makes his way on to the First Team All-Pac-12. He is on several preseason watchlists for awards: Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski (both are for Most Outstanding Defensive Player), Lombardi (Most Outstanding Down Lineman/Linebacker) and the Butkus Award (Most Outstanding Linebacker. The other starting inside linebacker has a chance to make some noise as well.
True senior Jordan Zumwalt (also on the watchlist for the Butkus Award) is a player that UCLA fans are very familiar with. It seems like he has finally found a home at ILB after floating between the middle and the outside for the majority of his first three seasons. I've been an advocate for Zumwalt as an OLB because I see his ceiling there being much higher, but I concede that he has performed more consistently at ILB. Regardless of position, Jordan has produced as a Bruin since he was a freshman and has the ability to make impact plays like this one.
The only concern with Zumwalt is his tendency to play out of control, but while in the middle of the field I saw less of that than on the outside. In the last two games of the season, he was all over the field (27 total tackles, a TFL, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble). I'd expect the needle to continue pointing up for Jordan and he could be a big beneficiary of the extra attention that Barr will draw in pass rushing situations.
Backing up the tandem of Zumwalt and Kendricks are a couple of upperclassmen, two impressive younger players and a walk-on. The two upperclassmen have a heap of special teams experience. Redshirt senior Isaiah Bowens returns after a season ending injury suffered last spring. Before tearing his ACL, Bowens was a starter on special teams in 23 of 24 games his first two years, collecting 9 tackles. He doesn't project as much more than depth, but is a more than capable special teams player.
Redshirt junior Ryan Hofmeister gained some experience at the linebacker position last season (starting two conference games) and will be able to fill a role in a pinch if an injury should occur to the starters. He's an undersized backer, but plays smart and knows his limitations. He also changed his number from 27 to 53, if you want to keep an eye out for him on kickoffs and punts.
The younger players are more likely to contribute at a higher level on the field on defense as Bruins. Redshirt freshman Aaron Porter beefed up to 230 pounds after his redshirt year and has the pedigree to be the first linebacker off of the sideline behind the starters this year. A scenario that would not shock me would be Porter impressing the coaching staff more at inside linebacker than any of the potential starters at outside linebacker, causing Jordan Zumwalt to move back outside and slotting Porter in the starting lineup at ILB.
The other interesting option at the inside linebacker spot is true freshman Isaac Savaiinaea. As a top recruit at ILB out of the same high school as a certain oft-ridiculed Heisman finalist, expectations are pretty big for Savaiinaea (easier than it looks to type). He's technically sound and I'm optimistic about his ability to contribute early. Maybe not as a true freshman, but in 2014 keep an eye on him in spring ball. Some comparison to how he looks against some of the best linebacker recruits from 2013 can be seen here.
Less flashy than the other clips, but you can see his form shine in drills and he looks physically. That's a frame that will look scary after a year of Coach Alosi.
Rounding out the group is walk-on redshirt freshman Willie Green. The Beverly Hills High School product will look to contribute on the scout team and perhaps eventually move into a special teams role.
Next we move on to the Nickel linebacker spot that might see the most change of any spot during fall camp for reasons I'll discuss below.
The incumbent starter here is redshirt senior Stan McKay. McKay along with Dalton Hilliard filled this role for the bulk of last season with a lot of success. This is obviously a very rough measure of the impact of this position, but the two players tallied 77 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions, 8 pass defenses and 3 forced fumbles between them. Clearly, this is a big play position in this defense.
McKay is a steady player, one of the best tacklers on the Bruins and a player who rarely is out of position. My hope for him this season, especially with the medical retirement of Dietrich Riley, is to be the starter at one of the safety spots. I just feel like he is too consistent of a player in coverage to not get moved into a depleted secondary. As of now, he is at the Nickel linebacker spot and if he stays there, he'll be the guy. The rest of the depth is why I think a move to safety is possible. But, again, if he stays at the "Mini-Backer" he is the starter and the best player for the job.
True sophomore Kenny Orjioke is a player that made a big impression in spring practice and has developed into a physical specimen at 6'4" and 230 pounds. Orjioke played special teams in the 2012 season and looked like he belonged as a true freshman. He probably projects to end up at a traditional linebacker spot with that size, perhaps as an inside linebacker once Kendricks, Bowens and Hofmeister are all gone in the next few years. He's very athletic for his size, having practiced mostly at safety last season. But, that doesn't look like a safety to me, and neither does this, or this. The most shocking thing is that Orjioke just turned 18 this June. Scary to think where he could be after another offseason.
Rounding out the "Mini-backers" is redshirt junior Aramide Olaniyan. Olaniyan has really struggled to find a position in his time at UCLA. He wasn't big enough to stay at inside linebacker and probably isn't athletic enough to really contribute at the Nickel linebacker spot. He'll contribute on special teams without a doubt, but any playing time beyond that would likely be the result of injuries.
That finishes up the collection of players that'll be on UCLA's roster this season at the three linebacker positions and here is the way I see the depth chart going into Fall Camp at San Bernardino. As with every position group outside of quarterback and the specialists, expect a lot of movement over the first few weeks and throughout the early part of the season.
So there it is, your linebacking core preview for the 2013 season. As a final farewell, I'm dropping in a highlight video of the 2012 season, lots of defensive highlights that I didn't get to include here as well as offensive favorites.