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Spaulding Report: UCLA Linebackers Adapting to the Times

DC Tom Bradley talked after practice about how defenses have needed to change in recent years, especially at the linebacker position, in order to adjust to the evolution of the offense in college football.

Deon Hollins. I think it's Latin for "I destroy quarterbacks".
Deon Hollins. I think it's Latin for "I destroy quarterbacks".
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It was day 13 for the UCLA Bruins Spring Football Camp and the team practiced in shorts and shells this morning.

It's a Wednesday, so that means it was DC Tom Bradley's day to meet the press. He talked a lot about the role of the Bruins linebackers, and the linebacker position in general. It was a really interesting discussion because, as he notes, the role of the linebacker has really changed in recent years, primarily in response to the marked changes in offensive schemes across college football. Hopefully IE can add some of his first hand knowledge on this topic.

Facing the spread offense means that LBs have to play more often in space and they can't just line up in the same position play after play. The higher tempo means that defenses can't substitute the way they used to so the LBs have to be prepared to be a pass rusher or a run stopper or to drop back in coverage on any given play, based on what the offense shows and runs. He says the defensive line faces similar pressures so that the skill set across the defense has changed. A player can't just be a pass rushing specialist because an offense will stack up over him and run the ball at him. Similarly, a good run stopper will get spread out and isolated by a tight end or slot back and be forced to cover. Bradley's task has been to cross train the defensive players to get them better at skills and positions where they aren't as comfortable or accomplished.

Pressuring the QB consistently was a problem at times for the Bruins last year, but Bradley expects that will be better this season. His defense will present some different fronts and looks to keep offenses off balance on their side, and while he thinks he has the players to get pressure with a 4 man rush, he says the defense can also bring 5 or 6 guys on the pass rush at times, too.

Bradley spoke specifically about OLB Deon Hollins and his pass rush, noting he has a unique skill set among the linebackers by virtue of his amazing first step off the ball, but that the defense will ask Hollins to do a lot of things this year. Bradley called him "a cerebral player" and says he'll do fine in his expanded role.

Thank you to Ed Lewis and Bruin Sports Report for the video.

Speaking of Deon Hollins...I won't lie. Deon is already one of my favorite Bruins.

It's not just that explosive first step that no one in the conference can match. It's not just the tremendous improvement he made over the course of last season. It's not just the way he speaks so comfortably in these interview. It's not just the Leonidas quality beard.

It's this:  I wrote this comment after the Colorado game in response to an awesome post from his mom:

Here's what I want to say about Deon at Colorado. After the game, I was gathered with the remaining Bruin fans and families across the road outside their locker room at the end of Folsom Field so we would say some hellos and thanks and congrats to the players as they exited the locker room and hiked up the short hill to the team buses. Most players politely waved and said hello back, and we could see they were tired and not thoroughly satisfied with the day and were anxious to get headed back home. I recognized Deon as he walked by and said something simple like, "Nice game, Deon". He looked as tired as the rest, but he stopped, looked over, and took the time to walk across the road with his hand extended to say hello and thank you for the wishes, and shook mine and my son's (that hockey player) hands. That was cool, and that is a very classy young man you have raised.

Anyone who goes out of his way to shake my son's hand has a fan for life in me.

But that beard does totally rule, too.

Hollins began by admitting he was surprised to be named to the Lott Impact Watch List, and he was very pleased because the award considers off-field accomplishments as well as on-field performance. He immediately credited the recent linebacking legacy at U.C.L.A. with Jordan Zumwalt, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks, and that he and the current linebacking crew at "LinebackerU" (Deon's words, Penn State fans!) are motivated to live up to those new standards. Of course, his biggest challenge for some of those post season awards may come from his middle linebacker and sometimes running back and wanna be kick returner (see below).

Hollins said he has spent his off season working on becoming a more complete player with a real focus on pass coverage by working with the DBs and Myles Jack (lol, of course) on things like pre-snap reads, coverage techniques and especially footwork. This will be key because he says that Coach Bradley is asking more from him than last year, particularly in regards to dropping into coverage more often. Deon was one of the players that met with Bradley in the one on one sessions the coach was planning and Deon said he is a "great guy", "full of wisdom", and that he "relates well" to the players.

Hollins also had high praise for Bruins left tackle Conor McDermott, calling him the toughest tackle to go up against on the Bruins roster. He said McDermott's patience is what sets him apart from other linemen who are in a rush to use their big frames to control the defender. The continued development of McDermott and Hollins is a testament to the depth that the Bruins have accumulated on the roster in recent years, and the opportunity for each of these players to get multiple reps against each other top is clearly making both of them better.

Hollins was probably the most improved player on defense last season, going from an explosive pass rusher who was a bit undersized and overwhelmed on the edge to a much more complete linebacker by season's end. It showed his dedication to his role and his huge ceiling. If Deon makes a similar jump this year, opposing offenses will be very depressed, and Bruins fans will be very very happy. The young man deserves great things.

Thank you to Ed Lewis and Bruin Sports Report for the video.

Jake Brendel has become the voice of the offensive line this spring, and in part, because OL Coach Adrian Klemm is still out of action (with no news on a timetable for any action). Brendel says Klemm's suspension has not been as huge a setback as one would expect. He is trying to keep things going vocally and to "instill a certain mindset" in Klemm's absence, but he is benefitted by the fact that the Bruins are running the same offense as last year (good news…bad news) so the process isn't new and it's just different voices on the coaching staff that are giving feedback. He also says the increased leadership role is helping him get ready for the next level or for a foray into coaching.

Our friend, Chris Foster at the LAT, added that the coaching staff is praising Brendel's leadership.

[DL Coach Angus] McClure, a former offensive line coach, has worked with the unit this spring and has seen the value of Brendel.

"I think Jake's experience has been huge for that offensive line," McClure said. "He has been the rock for that offensive line the last four years. He has a coach's mentality. He pushes the guys around him. They look up to him, so they respect him."

The consistency and health (knocking on wood all over) has also been a great asset for the OL. Brendel notes that having all 5 guys through spring and not playing "musical chairs" has been nice. The consistent lineup and the opportunity for the group to work on a combined technique has allowed them to make big strides as a unit.

Brendel's #1 priority during the offseason has been to increase his strength. At "about 300" pounds, he says he's still a bit light for the next level, and he wants to add a few more pounds because he anticipates losing a few pounds in San Bernardino. Imprvoing his footwork has also been focus, and working daily against Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes is fantastic. He calls them "both amazing players" and it's another example of how the improved quality of the roster is paying dividends on both sides of the ball.

So yeah, I gushed about Deon, but...Line still wins games.

Thank you to Ed Lewis and Bruin Sports Report for the video.

Jack Wang at InsideUCLA added his usual excellent observations from today's practice. The biggest, and best news in a way, is that Asiantii Woulard shone as the best QB of the day.

Asiantii Woulard has clearly improved through the course of this spring, and he probably had the best day out of all the quarterbacks today. But his best moments this month have usually come in 7-on-7 situations, and that was the case again on Wednesday. While he's capable of making good-looking throws when there isn't pressure bearing down on him, he hasn't shown that consistency against an actual pass rush.

I say best news because while all the talk this spring has rightly been about Josh Rosen, it's a bit discomforting for the Bruins hopes to weigh so much on a true freshman quarterback. The team needs to have one of the veteran QBs step up. You can't count on having your #1 QB for every snap of every game, and we've been waiting to hear some noise from Woulard that he's catching up to the speed of the game and can be that go to guy when we need someone to come in in relief or to spark the team out of a slump. No one questions Woulard's physical gifts, but learning the position to a Pac-12 Title Contender's standards has been a big question mark for a guy who is still relatively new to playing QB. So it's encouraging to hear that on a day where the Rosen, Jerry Neuheisel, and Mike Fafaul looked mediocre that Woulard came through.

I called Myles the wannabe kick returner above, partly in jest because the kid can play anything he wants to, and partly because Mora yesterday said Jack was just goofing around in other drills.

Mora wouldn't ever deceive us about a player's position or role, right?

Jim Mora said yesterday that Myles Jack isn't on the depth chart at kick returner, but the star linebacker continued working on special teams for the second straight day. The Bruins could always decide to take him off of those duties, but it's starting to look like a legitimate option.

(see further below, too). Hey Myles, our field goal kicker has struggled the last couple years. You wanna…you know, maybe go see Jerry and ask him to tee up a couple for you?

Ed Lewis at BSR and Joey Kaufman from the OC Register (a Yankees cap, Joey?, Really?) did their daily outstanding Cover Two Recap and talked details with clips of Wednesday's practice, including today's quarterback performances, more raves for Nate Iese, and calling Fabian Moreau and Marcus Rios the starting corners. Oh, and you want to see what Jack looks like returning kickoffs?

Thanks again to Ed Lewis and Bruins Sports Report for the video.

Coach Mora can't seriously be considering risking Myles Jack on kickoff returns, right? Right?!

Finally, on a personal note, and since I'm not doing the Roundup tomorrow so this is my last chance, I want to give huge shout out of appreciation to the people who really make it possible for a crazy fan in exile to do these practice recaps and blog posts and talk U.C.L.A. Football, and that's the beat writers who have followed the Bruins through spring practice. U.C.L.A. didn't always get much any respect from the media, and still nothing is perfect (canceling all coverage of Southern Cal's team would be a step in the right direction) but the quality and quantity of coverage of Bruins Football continues to get better and be more professional. So I want to give a huge thanks to guys like Jack Wang at Inside UCLA/Daily News and Chris Foster at the LAT and ex-trogan at the OC Register Joey Kaufman and the gang at Bruin Report Online, and above all, Ed Lewis at Bruin Sports Report. The latter two are pay sites so some of their content is behind firewall.  Both sites are well worth the subscription, but Ed Lewis and BSR (and Jack Wang to a lesser degree) made all the post-practice interviews available to the public without subscription every day and really gave Bruin fans a fantastic look into UCLA Spring Football. No one has done more or done better. If you're considering just one pay site for football, check out BSR.

The Bruins have one more practice tomorrow morning at 7am, and will finish Spring Camp with the Spring Showcase at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. So while the team gets some final preparation in for the 2015 season, you all can get your tailgating game some work on Saturday morning. We'll have plans for pre game tailgates and for the practice session itself on BN over the next couple days, so stay tuned.