The future is how. How will a team that yielded 55 points in its most important game of the year respond, rebuild? How, especially if it loses what have been its two defensive mainstays over the past few seasons. Both Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore are more than flirting with the NFL draft ““ they have taken it home to meet their parents, asked it out on a second date and maybe even made it Facebook official.
The future is wow. Freshman Jordan Zumwalt has been more than impressive since taking over the middle linebacker position in the absence of the injured Patrick Larimore. The energetic Zumwalt has been all over the field, utilizing a combination of size, speed, aggression and youthful exuberance.
The future is pow. One of the more defining images ““ at least of the positive variety ““ of the Bruins’ season is the helmet of Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers being blasted off courtesy of a hit from freshman safety Dietrich Riley, who claims it’s the first time he’s pulled off that feat. Startling fact, given the youngster’s tendency for the big play and the punishing hit.
The future is now. Saturday at the Rose Bowl could be the very last time that Ayers and Moore suit up as Bruins. Come Sunday, the defense could belong to Zumwalt and Riley.
Ayers and Moore, for their part, aren’t exactly giving strong indications one way or another as to where they’re headed after this season.
“I haven’t thought about that yet,” redshirt junior linebacker Ayers said. “We still have one game left in the season, and I still have a lot of time to consider my decision.”
“I don’t know what my decision is going to be,” junior safety Moore added. “I’m not really worrying about next year.”
In a season that many will consider lost given that the Bruins will not be playing in a bowl game, the future of Ayers and Moore has become one of the most intriguing subplots. It’s not like either of the two would be taking an enormous risk by leaving early; both are included in the top 25 of ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board, which ranks the top NFL prospects in the college ranks.
Kiper has Ayers ““ whom he calls an “ideal every-down 3-4 outside linebacker” ““ slotted at 12. Moore, whose decrease in production this year is credited to quarterbacks staying away from him, comes in at 24.
Good luck getting anyone at UCLA to acknowledge anything before the season concludes, but the Bruins have to be preparing for the worst-case scenario that sees Ayers and Moore take advantage of their high stock and make the leap to professional football.
If so, the situation is a lot less dire than it seemed just weeks ago. Thanks to the emergence of Zumwalt and Riley ““ fittingly, a linebacker and a safety ““ UCLA may have found its next dynamic defensive duo. Zumwalt got his first start against Oregon State and promptly proceeded to lead his team in tackles in a winning effort against the Beavers.
“I was real nervous,” Zumwalt said of that experience. “After stepping on the field, everything totally changed.”
Perhaps the most telling sequence of that contest ““ and most hopeful in terms of the future ““ occurred late in the second quarter, with Oregon State on the march. That’s when Riley sent Rodgers’ headgear into orbit. On the next play, Zumwalt got to quarterback Ryan Katz and flung him like a rag doll to the Rose Bowl turf.
“I didn’t think it was a big hit actually, until they replayed it on the jumbotron,” Riley said afterward. “Everybody was just like, “˜Ooohh.’”
There were moments in that Oregon State game, as well as in subsequent losses to Washington and Arizona State, when five freshman defenders were on the field at the same time. In addition to Zumwalt and Riley, rookie defensive linemen Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Cassius Marsh and Seali’i Espenesa have all seen significant playing time, particularly in the latter half of the season. Part of the reason for that has to do with talent, some of it has to do with necessity.
“You got to do what you got to do,” Zumwalt said after his coming out party against the Beavers. “I think our class right now is stepping up big time.”
But growing doesn’t come without pains. Experience doesn’t come overnight. That’s where the incumbents come in. When they’re not snaring interceptions or harassing quarterbacks, Ayers and Moore have to oversee the development of their apprentices.
“We’re trying to make a culture change here,” Ayers said. “If the young guys see me making plays and doing the right things, eventually it becomes contagious and can carry over.”
The emergence of Zumwalt and Riley probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the scouting services that ranked each of them as elite recruits leading up to their arrival in Westwood. But there’s only so much you can learn from how much a guy dominates his high school competition. The real tests come when thrown into the heat of a battle. The real pressure lies in following in enormous footsteps.
“It’s built my confidence a lot,” Zumwalt said of getting extended playing time. “I’m going to feel much more comfortable going out there and playing again.”
With reports from Eli Smukler, Bruin Sports senior staff.