It’d be safe to say that, heading into the 2016 season, the linebacker group had the most questions of any defensive grouping. The linebackers had just lost all-everything Myles Jack, and his assumed successor, Mique Juarez, went MIA early in fall camp. Meanwhile, Kenny Young and Isaako Savaiinaea were still embroiled in a competition for the starting Mike linebacker spot, and Jayon Brown appeared to be the only sure thing, with a group of heralded new recruits possibly being thrown into the deep end early.
By the end of the season, things had changed.
The light came on for Kenny Young in the biggest way, as he won the starting Mike linebacker job early and became something of a do-everything player for Tom Bradley’s defense, able to drop back in coverage when necessary while leading the linebacker group in sacks with 5. Young will be the only returning starter from last year’s linebacker group, but considering how last year went, Young seems primed to become a breakout star this year.
Behind Kenny Young, you have to like Lokeni Toailoa’s chances for increased playtime. Lokeni was a solid contributor last year in spot play on both defense and special teams, and while he’s a natural middle linebacker, his play last year, combined with a potential good spring could force the defensive coaching staff to try and find a way to get him on the field wherever possible.
The other two spots will be interesting. Last year Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge were locked in at the Will and Sam linebacker spots, but both Bruins are off to the NFL after solid UCLA careers, so there’ll be two new starting linebackers in 2017, and the spring battles will be critical in establishing a leader at both spots.
If you were a betting individual, you’d have to assume Josh Woods will grab one of those spots. Woods was first-off-the-bench for the linebacker unit last year, routinely taking over for Cameron Judge. Woods is an athletic freak, and his game has started to come together. I slotted him in at the Will linebacker slot as the successor to Jayon Brown, as I think he’s the most ready to replace what Brown brought to the defense.
The interesting battle to watch will be for the Sam linebacker spot. No matter how you slice it, UCLA will be starting an underclassman at the position, specifically someone without a large amount of in-game experience. That lack of in-game experience also means it’s harder to figure out if anyone has an inside track on the position.
Linebacker Depth Chart
|Josh Woods (Jr.)
|Kenny Young (Sr.)
|Krys Barnes (So.)
|Dechaun Holiday (RS So.)
|Lokeni Toailoa (So.)
|Breland Brandt (RS Fr.)
|Leni Toailoa (RS Fr.)
|Mique Juarez (RS Fr.)
You’ll notice I put Krys Barnes in that starting slot as of right now. Don’t consider that a done deal by any stretch. That third linebacker spot has competition from 5 guys, and a ton of question marks. Barnes actually played a bit last season, and looked like he could handle a bigger workload without a drop-off in play, so I gave him that top spot. Breland Brandt is also a strong contender for the spot, especially after a redshirt season where he was able to get stronger. That said, he’s also a potential defensive end, so it should be interesting to see where he gets most of his work this spring.
You also can’t rule out the potential of either Dechaun Holiday or Leni Toailoa impacting one of these spots. Holiday came into the program as a cornerback (and the best recruit at that position until Darnay Holmes arrived this year), but moved to linebacker last year, as the coaching staff felt he could have a better impact at the position. Holiday didn’t play much last year, but taking a year to learn the position could pay off. Meanwhile, Leni Toailoa redshirted last year, but there’s a hope that the younger Toailoa brother will really benefit from that redshirt year, as he seems to have similar instincts to his brother.
Finally, we should maybe talk about the wildcard of the linebacker group: Mique Juarez. Juarez seemed destined to start at a linebacker position last year until personal issues caused him to leave the team in the middle of fall camp. While he is officially back with the team, it will be hard to know just how much he will be able to contribute. If things work out, he could be a missing piece to the defense, but we should definitely take a “wait-and-see” approach here.
Oh, and if you’re wondering where new Bruin Rahyme Johnson is on this list, don’t worry, I didn’t forget about him. Johnson just isn’t in school just yet, so I left him off the spring preview. Suffice to say I think Johnson potentially redshirts this year, but he definitely has potential for playing time.