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UCLA Football Spring Preview: Linebackers and Secondary

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The Bruins return to their 80-yard practice field next week for Spring Practice, heading into the 2015 season. Today, Bruins Nation takes a look at the linebackers and defensive backs.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, a football article. Means that things are headed towards the UCLA Bruins' first season under Jim Mora without Brett Hundley. Luckily, this is still going to be the most talented roster Jim Mora has ever had.

Yesterday, gbruin kicked things off with the OL/DL preview and Bruins Nation will continue looking at the defensive side of the ball today with yours truly looking into the linebacker and defensive back situation heading into Spring Ball.

The Bruins head into 2015 losing perhaps the most underrated defensive player in Pac-12 history in Eric Kendricks along with arguably the most consistent Bruin defender aside from Kendricks in safety/cornerback Anthony Jefferson (as well as Ryan Hofmeister, a steadying force and team captain). Despite this, the Bruins should have one of the most talented groups of defensive backs in the conference and a ton of talent at LB as well.

The Bruins will have a new linebackers coach by title in Scott While, but he was heavily involved with the unit and was promoted from within to fill the void left by Jeff Ulbrich's move to the LB coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Demetrice Martin stays at DBs coach but gets the additional title of Assistant Head Coach (along with what I assume is a cushy little bonus and/or pay raise). The big addition is Tom Bradley at defensive coordinator. Bradley has been one of the best developers of talent at LB for the last 20 years, so expect little drop off or learning curve from the previous regime under Jeff Ulbrich.

Without any further adieu, let us move on to the previews because that is the stuff we all want to hear about.

Linebackers

Outside Linebacker/Edge Rusher Inside Linebacker Inside Linebacker Outside Linebacker
Deon Hollins JR Kenny Young SO Jayon Brown JR Myles Jack JR
Isaako Savaiinaea JR Dwight Williams RS FR Cameron Judge JR Kenny Orjioke SR
Keisean Lucier-South/Rick Wade FR Josh Woods FR Cameron Griifin RS FR Aaron Wallace RS SR

On the bright side, UCLA returns three starters in this unit. There is sure-fire 1st round pick Myles Jack for one more season (hopefully two, but I'm going to be realistic before optimistic), Deon Hollins and his 9 sacks, and Kenny Young who broke through late last season and looks to be a steady 3-down type of LB.

Myles Jack will have to step into a huge leadership role with this group after it lost two team captains in Kendricks and Hofmeister. Seeing more of that side of Jack will be interesting to observe. Maturity on the field has been a question at times and that will need to change. He will likely bump over 100 tackles this season with the lost production from EK. Jack is a known quantity, mildly inconsistent at times but one of the most impactful defenders in all of college football. No sense in worrying here, as he'll be a borderline All-American if healthy.

Hollins is a decent bet to get around double digits in sacks again in 2015 and start getting some hype about his future in the NFL as well. His development was a god-send in 2014. He might have the quickest get-off at the snap of any UCLA defender since Brian Price. More of a DE than a LB, but he is listed where he is listed on the roster.

UCLA will get physical freak Kenny Orjioke (not sure if he'll get a medical redshirt, so he's listed as a SR) back from injury to bolster the rotation and depth outside, along with the rock solid Aaron Wallace and Isaako Savaiinaea returning. Quality depth is tough to find and the Bruins have that on the outside. Savaiinaea will be one to keep an eye on, as he had in-game experience at ILB as a freshman in 2013 but was moved into basically a DE role in 2014. Could be a candidate to move back to ILB, as could Myles Jack if necessary.

The not bright side is trying to figure out what will happen with the other ILB spot formerly occupied by Eric Kendricks. Technically, Kenny Young should be the one that moves into that role, but there is a massive void left in Kendricks' wake.

My personal belief is that UCLA would be better off in a 4-3 setup with the present talent at hand. Myles Jack is an ideal Will LB (which he essentially does play quite a bit of anyway), Kenny Young at Mike and let talent and situation figure out your Sam LB (primarily only a spot you need for run situations anyway, which suits the whole group of Wallace, Orjioke and Savaiinaea).

I think that scenario is unlikely and, admittedly, UCLA has done a nice job of being a hybrid defense over the years, something not likely to change under Tom Bradley. Bradley has been a coach that adapts to surrounding talent as opposed to forcing talent to adapt to his system, which is always preferable in coaching.

Josh Woods, a 4* ILB from Upland, is enrolling early to participate in Spring Ball, so he will get a boost in perhaps sneaking onto the field as a freshman. Had UCLA been able to close the deal with Roquan Smith, I would probably consider him the favorite for the other LB job.

As of now, I think Jayon Brown will begin the Spring as the starter and it will work itself out from there. Let the cream rise to the top, as it were.

Cameron Judge, Cameron Griffin and Dwight Williams will be interesting to keep an eye on as well. A big developmental jump for any of them would be a boon to the defense.

Fitting in 5* Keisean Lucier-South and 4* Rick Wade into the equation is also something to consider due to their immense respective talents, though I believe redshirting would be wise for both players in order to develop more physically.

Secondary

Cornerback Safety Safety Corner Third Cornerback
Fabian Moreau SR Randall Goforth SR Jaleel Wadood SO Ishmael Adams RS JR Marcus Rios RS JR or Priest Willis JR
Denzel Fisher RS FR Tahaan Goodman JR Adarius Pickett RS FR Charles Dawson JR John Johnson RS SO
Justin Combs RS JR Ron Robinson RS FR Erick Zumwalt RS SR Jalen Ortiz JR
Dechaun Holiday/Colin Samuel FR Octavius Spencer/Will Lockett FR

The secondary is losing an NFL-level player in Anthony Jefferson and is in line to be even better in 2015.

Fabian Moreau may not have delivered on Coach Mora's hyperbole in 2014, but he was an All-Pac-12 performer and steady as hell. No reason to expect that to change in 2015.

Ishmael Adams was targeted quite a bit, but had another solid season and will continue to be an explosive threat to score any time the ball is near his hands.

The Nickel corner spot is going to be the most intriguing battle in the secondary. Both Priest Willis and Marcus Rios performed well in 2014, so I have them listed as an either/or instead of picking one. Both will play a bit.

Returning from injury for the 2nd straight season after impressing in Fall Camp is Johnny Johnson. I said this many times, but it bears repeating that he was performing working with the 1st unit as a freshman and looked better than any freshman DB before he was injured in 2013 and was right back in the 2nd group in 2014 before injury. If he can stay on the field, he can break into the rotation.

Jalen Ortiz will also be in the battle, but I do not expect him to be more than quality depth. Also in the mix for depth will be Justin Combs, Erick Zumwalt and Charles Dawson (not sure if he is back at corner or at slot back on offense, flip flopped last Fall). Denzel Fisher will be another guy to keep an eye on, long, physically talented corner in his second year.

The safety situation will be intriguing because there are three proven talent back there for two spots.

Randall Goforth will be returning from an injury suffered early in the 2014 season, which was shaping up to be Goforth's best. I have zero reason to expect Goforth to not come back and continue balling out as a starter.

The other spot will be a battle between Jaleel Wadood and Tahaan Goodman. Might not be a more polarizing disparity between two players competing for a spot than between these two. Goodman is a monster in the mold of the Seahawks' secondary, near 6'2" and 200 pounds and cut up from the neck down. Wadood is much smaller (listed at 5'10" but if that were the case then Goodman is about 6'4") and not one of the players that you would pick to come off of the bus first. However, Wadood proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can contribute at a high level as a true freshman. Expect a lot of improvement from both.

The anticipated return of Adarius Pickett to safety (too much at RB for him to stick) and the development of the already most physically impressive DB in Ron Robinson should make the depth at safety insane as well.

The four freshmen showing up on campus are immensely talented, but I do not see anyway that one of them can get meaningful reps in this secondary. I would redshirt all four, but this coaching staff likes to get players on the field in some capacity so you cannot write them off right away.

That raps it up for the preview today, keep an eye out for the remainder of the position groups over the next few days.

As always (and it has been far too long since I have gotten to do this), Go Bruins!