We are one month away from kickoff! That’s right, UCLA squares off against the Texas A&M Aggies on September 3, 2016, one month from today. If that isn’t enough to get you psyched for the 2016 UCLA Football season, maybe you are on the wrong blog!
The article will break down the linebackers on the roster, and consistent with the claims out of UCLA during Spring Practice and as echoed by Joe in BN's preview of the defensive line, we will approach the ‘backers under the assumption that UCLA will be running a 4-3 defense most of the time. As such, Deon Hollins and Keisean Lucier-South, both of whom are listed as defensive ends, will be treated as such and not addressed in this preview
The Transition from 2015
Obviously, UCLA has said goodbye to Myles Jack, but it is not as if they relied upon Jack for the majority of last season, as he was lost with a torn meniscus after the third game. Myles, however, played an important role in that particular game, a 24-23 victory over BYU in which he iced the game with an interception in UCLA territory as the Cougars were driving toward the winning score.
Without Jack, and having suffered additional injuries to the unit throughout the season, UCLA’s run defense was gashed on regular basis. The switch to the 4-3 defense should help, as should a solid returning core.
Other than Jack, only three other players do not return from the 2015 linebacking crew. UCLA lost Aaron Wallace to graduation and Kene Orjioke opted to leave UCLA after his redshirt junior year (and graduated in June). Zach Whitley transferred out of the program under a cloud of mystery after playing in nine games (but sitting out the Foster Farms Bowl) and recording one tackle in his freshman season.
UCLA's 2016 Linebackers
The 2016 UCLA football roster from the official site lists the following players at linebacker:
Although the injury to Myles Jack hurt the Bruins at linebacker last season, his absence helped other players get significant game experience, which makes the unit as a whole better going into this season.
One such player was senior, Jayon Brown, who recorded 69 tackles in the Bruins’ last seven games, averaging almost 10 tackles per game over that time span. Brown, who came into the 2015 season with only eight career tackles in two seasons in his UCLA career, was a one of the players who stepped up big time in Jack’s absence. Now entering his senior year, Brown most likely will get the starting nod at starting weak side linebacker, as he is a bit undersized to play on the strong side and his quickness make him a better fit for the weak side. Brown may very well turn out to be the best of the ‘backers this season, positioning himself well for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Another player who received unexpected, increased playing time last season was Isaako Savaiinaea, although Savaiinaea suffered an injury of his own during the Cal contest, missing four consecutive games. Even with the missed time, Isaako increased his tackles from eight in 2014 to 62 in 2015, including 14 tackles against BYU and 15 tackles against Arizona State. Entering his senior season and playing in a 4-3 set, I project Savaiinaea as the starting middle linebacker based upon his size and skill set.
Junior, Kenny Young, has shown flashes of brilliance in his two years at UCLA, appearing in all 26 games of his freshman and sophomore years. UCLA should expect big things out of Young, who possesses a great mixture of size (235 lbs.) and speed, this season. Young is versatile and can play different linebacking positions. I anticipate that Young will start at strong side linebacker, but could also see time at middle linebacker, especially if Mique Juarez lives up to his hype. Speaking of which . . .
UCLA welcomes highly touted true freshman Mique Juarez to the fold. Juarez, a five star recruit out of North High School in Torrance, is expected to push for playing time at outside linebacker, most likely on the strong side. Everybody should be extremely excited to see what this kid can bring to the table.
Cameron Judge also took significant steps in his development last season, although his pure stats do not reflect it. Judge, who most played on special teams in 2014, saw a lot more playing time at outside linebacker last season due to injuries to other players ahead of him on chart, and also started against UNLV. It will be interesting to see where Judge gets playing time this season. Although he is more suited to the strong side, he would likely be third on the depth chart at that position, behind Young and Juarez. If he is used on the weak side, he would likely back up Jayon Brown, although Josh Woods could beat him out for second on the depth chart too
Woods, a sophomore, is another player to keep an eye on this season. Woods saw action in the Colorado game last season as a true freshman, recording four tackles, before suffering a season ending hamstring injury in that game. Woods was called to action against the Buffs at middle linebacker because Savaiinaea was not suited up, and Kenny Young left the game due to injury. Although he played in the middle in the Colorado game last year, Woods is more suited to outside linebacker, and would likely back up Jayon Brown on the weak side.
Finally, UCLA will see three additional linebackers enter the program as true freshman. Breland Brant is a 230 pounder who is suited to play the strong side. Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes are projected to be middle linebackers. It remains to be seen which, if any of these true freshmen will see playing time this season, or will be redshirted. As you can see below in my projected depth chart, I slotted Toailoa in the 3 deep at middle linebacker simply because of his size advantage over Barnes--both are 6’2", but Toailoa is 240 lbs. and Barnes is 225 lbs.)--which might help him adjust to the college game more quickly.
BN's Projected Depth Chart
This is the way that I see the three deep depth chart at linebacker shaping up for the season opener next month:
|Strong Outside LB
||Middle LB||Weak Outside LB|
|Kenny Young||Isaako Savaiinaea
|Mique Juarez||Kenny Young*||Josh Woods|
* I have Young starting at strong outside linebacker and backing up Savaiinaea in the middle. If Savaiinaea gets hurt, I would expect Young to move to the middle and either Juarez or Judge (or maybe even Woods) to pick up the slack at strong outline linebacker.
The Keys to Success
Savaiinaea’s health is critical. If he gets hurt, there could be a lot of dominoes falling as players are switched around to put the best unit forward. Two of those dominoes would likely be increased playing time for Juarez and Toailoa, two talented but inexperienced true freshmen.
Of course, my projections could be waaaaay off, especially if there are injuries or certain players exceed expectations or fail to meet expectations during fall camp. Let’s hope that there is none of the latter.
Overall, UCLA’s linebackers are a position of strength going into the season. There is a nice mixture of senior leadership, young studs, and capable role players. Of course, the same could be said of last year’s unit, which ended up being a patchwork quilt with various players plugging in here and there throughout the season, as injuries mounted. The 2015 iteration of UCLA’s run defense suffered greatly. Here hoping that in 2016 the linebackers can stay healthy and contribute to make that unit back into one of UCLA strengths. After all, with Anthony Barr, Erik Kendricks, and Myles Jack drafted highly in the NFL in the last three consecutive years, UCLA is Linebacker U.
What do you think of UCLA’s linebacker situation? Do you see things differently than I do? Who do you think will step up this season as the leader of Linebacker U? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.