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2018 UCLA Football Spring Preview: The Bruins Need to Get Better at Linebacker

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A look at the unit with the most desperate need for improvement.

Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes line up during Spring Practice last year.
Joe Piechowski

Let’s continue our UCLA Bruins Spring Football preview by taking a look at the linebackers, aka 2017’s worst position group. Things can’t get worse, right?

Who’s Gone?

There’s only one actual loss in the linebacker group, but it just so happens to be the best performer from last year. Yes, Kenny Young has finally ridden off into the sunset after 4 years of being one of the more polarizing players in recent memory. Young never could quite live up to his potential while at UCLA, but he never received the help he truly needed. He was constantly being asked to do too much and play positions that weren’t natural for him. Even with all of that, Young still led the Bruins in 2017 with 110 tackles, so that’s a level of production that will need to be replaced.

Who’s New?

Goodbye Scott White. Hello Don Pellum and Roy Manning!

Don Pellum will be the main linebackers coach in 2018, and he brings a wealth of experience that should prove valuable for a young linebacker crew, especially considering the high-end talent Pellum was able to develop up in Eugene. Roy Manning, meanwhile, will help out as outside linebackers coach, with the idea that he’ll be focusing specifically on the Jack linebacker spot and how to help the Bruins generate more pressure in the backfield in 2018.

Oh yeah, that reminds me: 3-4 defense! I’m not planning on covering Jaelan Phillips or Keisean Lucier-South much in this preview, as I think they end up at the Jack spot and spend most of their time rushing into the backfield, but they will have more linebacker responsibilities going forward, which is something to watch out for going forward.

Who’s Back?

Outside of Kenny Young (and Breland Brandt, who medically retired during the year after suffering 3 concussions in 4 years), everyone from 2017 is back, for better or for worse.

The good news here is that most of this group is incredibly young. Outside of Josh Woods, who will be a senior in 2018, most of the linebacker core in 2017 was getting their first sustained run of playing time. Unfortunately, Pellum and Manning will have their work cut out for them, as Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes will be juniors thanks to Jim Mora’s love of burning redshirts for special teams play, and with two small linebacker classes the past few years (only Rahyme Johnson in 2017 and Bo Calvert and Tyree Thompson in 2018), there isn’t much waiting in the wings as far as reinforcements.

If there is good news, it’s the fact that Barnes and Toailoa are both former heralded prospects and, perhaps, the change in coaching can help unlock that potential. While we’re at it, let’s throw in former 5-star Mique Juarez, who had a rough start to his UCLA career, but showed some promise late last year when he finally got some play on special teams and on defense. And we should also mention that Dechaun Holiday finally appears to be healthy, and this may finally be his opportunity to prove he can play for this defense.

Outlook

A new staff, combined with how poorly this unit played last year, means this competition is wide open, so here are some guesses at how things may start out.

2018 UCLA Football Spring Linebackers

Jack Linebacker Will Linebacker Mike Linebacker Sam Linebacker
Jack Linebacker Will Linebacker Mike Linebacker Sam Linebacker
Jaelan Phillips Lokeni Toailoa Krys Barnes Josh Woods
Keisean Lucier-South Mique Juarez Leni Toailoa Dechaun Holiday
Rahyme Johnson

If that looks small, well, it is. Again, there isn’t much here to work with, and I honestly expect new arrivals Bo Calvert and Tyree Thompson will be given every opportunity to earn playing time this fall. But, considering UCLA will be breaking in a new defensive scheme, much of the Spring could be spent by the new coaching staff figuring out what they have, which is why I went fairly conservative here. I think Juarez could earn a spot somewhere, as there isn’t anyone really locked into any position, not even Josh Woods.

You might also notice that Brandon Burton, who is listed as a linebacker, is not listed here. That’s because I honestly have no idea if he sticks here, especially since he played safety in high school, and I really expect he might see a position move, but we’ll see.

In any case, things have to get better for this unit in 2018 for the Bruins to have any chance defensively, so this will be a group to watch.


Go Bruins!