This afternoon, we continue our Spring Training previews with a look at the linebackers. In 2018, the linebackers were the thinnest group on the defense due primarily to injury. The good news is that almost all of the linebackers will be back in 2019. The bad news is that the one who could have made one of the biggest impacts will not be back.
After two injury-plagued seasons, Jaelan Phillips first announced a medical retirement due to concussions. Then, later, he announced that he is transferring to the University of Miami. On one hand, Phillips was never healthy enough to have the kind of impact that was expected from him while he was in Westwood. On the other hand, we did get to see glimpses of his potential when he was healthy. Either way, he won’t be in the powderkeg blue in 2019.
The other departure is another transfer and that’s Rahyme Johnson. After playing in the final six games of 2017 as a backup linebacker, Johnson only saw action in the first two games of the 2018 season.
So, compared to last year’s team, the UCLA Bruins really aren’t losing much because neither of these players saw a lot of action in 2018.
There’s one other guy who’s gone as far as the linebackers are concerned and that’s outside linebackers coach Roy Manning. I don’t really have an opinion on the job he did last season as the OLB coach, but I do think the performance of the special teams all season long merited his departure.
While UCLA signed three linebacker recruits as a part of the 2019 recruiting class, none of them are expected to be available during Spring Training at this time.
With Roy Manning leaving, that means that the Bruins will have a new outside linebacker coach and, as we wrote in January, that is former Nevada assistant Jason Kaufusi. Kaufusi certainly seemed to improve the run defense of the Wolfpack. Hopefully, he can do the same for the Bruins. He is also supposed to be an
excellent recruiter. While he came on board a little late to have a large impact on the 2019 class, we look forward to his results in 2020.
Outside of Jaelan Phillips and Rahyme Johnson, the entire linebacker corps returns for 2019. But, the biggest return has to be the return of Josh Woods. Woods missed the entire season in 2018 due to a knee injury suffered during Training Camp in August and, frankly, his absence was huge.
The Bruins spent most of the season trying to fill the hole he left behind. When you throw in additional injuries, it meant that UCLA was incredibly thin at linebacker all season long.
So, a healthy Woods is definitely something to look forward to in 2019. Something else to look forward to is the maturation of the rest of the linebackers.
In fact, the Bruins should have a lot of leadership among the linebackers as five of the linebackers will be seniors or redshirt seniors this season. Obviously, Woods is one of them, but the others are Keisean Lucier-South, Krys Barnes, Tyree Thompson and Lokeni Toailoa. They will also have three redshirt juniors in Leni Toailoa, Je’Vari Anderson and former five-star recruit Mique Juarez, which, of course, renews the question about whether this will finally be the year that Juarez has an impact.
It’s feels like it would be hard for the linebackers to have a worse season than last year, but I think it’s always possible if the injury bug should bite. Hopefully, the linebackers will be able to stay relatively healthy both during Spring Training and Training Camp in the Fall
With a year more experience under everyone’s belt, the unit should be poised to perform better than last year. The addition of Kaufusi should help stop the run.
I’m not going to suggest a possible depth chart here because, to be honest, I think Chip Kelly is going to give everyone a chance to compete to start like he did during the season last year.
But, I do want to give you an idea as to what the linebacker roster will look like for the start of Spring Practice on Tuesday.
2019 UCLA Football Spring Training Expected Linebackers Roster
|Year (as of Fall 2019)
|Year (as of Fall 2019)
This unit has a chance to be the most improved unit on the team this year due to maturation and the return of Josh Woods. We’ll have to keep an eye on this as Spring Training progresses.