SAN BERNARDINO — As school let out in Westwood this year and UCLA’s campus began to grow quiet, the chatter surrounding the Bruins’ corps of linebackers on the Internet was just building.
In June, UCLA football’s Twitter account posted a photo of assistant head coach and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich with the title “Linebacker U” in block lettering, a move that Penn State, claiming to be the original “Linebacker U,” took slight offense to.
Reflecting on the back-and-forth, Ulbrich, a former NFL linebacker, said he played no part in the tweet’s composition but that in many ways, his group, which includes three Butkus Award watch list honorees, has embraced the title.
“I think our marketing department or something kind of picked it up and ran with it and that wasn’t our linebackers doing that,” Ulbrich said. “To me, they have great pride in their unit and they think – which I absolutely believe – that they’re starting something special here, a tradition of great linebackers.”
Anchoring that proud group is senior outside linebacker Anthony Barr, who has received his fair share of accolades and praise following a season in which he broke onto the scene after experiencing some disappointment in the offensive backfield.
To Barr’s left all last season were inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt – a redshirt junior and a senior, respectively – who amassed a combined 220 tackles total and far less attention.
What developed from Barr’s success, however, wasn’t jealousy from his accomplished comrades, according to Ulbrich. It was a sense of pride for one of their teammates who had finally found his calling after two incomplete years in blue and gold.
“Honestly, they’re proud of him,” Ulbrich said. “He’s a guy they know so well and … everyone here felt for him because he was so frustrated here for so long. I mean, he almost quit football, so it definitely showed them what’s capable of happening.”
Even off the stat sheet, Barr has been an example to follow for his teammates, particularly for a young group of outside linebackers that includes freshmen Deon Hollins and Myles Jack.
Jack, who earned the praise of both coach Jim Mora and Barr at Pac-12 media day in July, said he came into camp with the intention of absorbing all he can, both in the film room and on the field, from the first-team All-Pac-12 linebacker from a season ago.
“In camp, how I’ve been (proving myself) is basically mirroring whatever Anthony does,” Jack said. “He’s going to the NFL next year and I’m trying to emulate that, so whatever he does, I’m trying to do the same thing. “
With what appears to be three-fourths of UCLA’s linebacker positions already filled, the outside linebacker position that doesn’t belong to Barr remains the sole position in question.
Redshirt sophomore Aaron Wallace and sophomore Kenny Orjioke have received the lion’s share of repetition at the position, while others, like Jack and Hollins, while talented, might not receive as much playing time unless they can find a way to win the job outright in the 22 days that remain before the season opener.
While Ulbrich mentioned that there can never be too much talent at any one position, including outside linebacker, Mora joked that a carbon copy of the Heisman hopeful – Barr – would make his crucial depth chart decision slightly easier.
“If they could look just like Anthony, that’d be great,” Mora said. “I think if you look at Kenny or you look at Aaron Wallace, or you look at some of the young guys, they fit the same type of profile. If they could all be 6’4″, 250 (pounds), and run a 4.5 (40-yard dash), I’d be fine with that.”
Jokes aside, Mora has remained complimentary of the young Orjioke, who just turned 18 in June and has shown strong athleticism thus far in San Bernardino.
“He’s really developed at that position in terms of his knowledge of the game,” Mora said. “He’s a kid who hasn’t played a ton of football, but that outside linebacker position looks very natural to him.”
For a position like linebacker, though, the man for the job could be determined once the pads emerge and hitting begins later in camp, and regardless of the circumstances, Wallace remains hopeful.
“I’m seeing myself as being the starter when this is all said and done,” Wallace said. “That’s my goal, is coming out here and doing my best every day, no matter where I am on the depth chart.”