SAN BERNARDINO — A year ago, they were one of the most lauded position groups in the nation. With a quartet comprised of two now-NFL players in Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, and two possible soon-to-be NFLers in sophomore Myles Jack and redshirt senior Eric Kendricks, the UCLA linebacking corps served as a stabilizing force for the Bruins’ defense, if not the most talented group on the team.
Now, the group appears more of an uncertainty than anything else.
“I think it’s just really fluid now, there’s different ways you could go,” said coach Jim Mora.
However, fluidity doesn’t necessarily mean instability and uncertainty doesn’t necessarily translate to lack of talent. Kendricks and Jack both return to lead the group, with Kendricks manning one of the inside spots and Jack playing on the outside. It’s just a matter of figuring out who exactly will be joining them.
“(Kendricks) is going to be out there, and Myles is going to be out there. And then you’ve got to figure out the configuration that gives you the best chance to have success with the best players on the field,” Mora said. “It’s an impressive group of linebackers. So I think for us, we have to try to just lock into it in the next two weeks, (and figure out) what’s the best position of all those guys. It’s a really good problem to have.”
Still, a week into fall camp, there are concerns about who will make up for the 23.5 sacks Barr produced in his two years on the edge. Likely, the responsibility will fall to a rotation of linebackers comprised of sophomore Deon Hollins, junior Kenny Orjioke and redshirt junior Aaron Wallace. Hollins in particular has shown an ability to get to the quarterback in the past week, as his initial burst off the line may be the best on the team. On more than one occasion he has been in the backfield just after the snap, easily beating the tackle lined up against him. All three are likely to see the field during the season, with each bringing something different to the table.
“I think all the guys in the running have flashed. They all have different skill sets, they’re all very unique,” said first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “Deon has just an unbelievable ability to rush. Aaron Wallace, he’s just a great run defender; he’s strong, he’s stout, he’s long. Kenny’s kind of the hybrid, he’s kind of in between the two. So it’ll be interesting to see who’s the guy that wins that spot.”
The starting role at the second outside linebacker spot will likely come down to Wallace and Orjioke, who ran with the first team for most of spring camp while Wallace was out with academic issues. Mora referred to Hollins as a “role player,” albeit one who will almost certainly see his fair share of playing time for a team in need of a pass rush.
The battle for who joins Kendricks as the second starting inside linebacker has proved equally contentious. A host of players could fill the spot, as Ulbrich named sophomores Jayon Brown and Isaako Savaiinaea, redshirt senior Ryan Hofmeister, and freshmen Kenny Young and Zach Whitley as contenders for the starting role.
A week into camp, the front runners appear to be Young and Brown. After working at safety early in his freshman year, Brown looks to have found a spot at inside linebacker. His weight is up to 230 pounds, after coming to UCLA at around 200 pounds. The weight gain increases the likelihood of Brown playing, as does tutoring under a player who has 28 career starts at the position.
“(I’m) just taking advice from Kendricks as an older guy and as a leader. He builds me up when I’m down, (helps me) stay confident, stay positive,” Brown said. “I’m watching him during film, I’m watching him and how is he moving, how is he attacking the lineman, how is he holding his gap. I’m just learning from him as a starting inside backer.”
Wrong side of the bed
Monday morning’s practice was notable for two reasons, neither of which are exactly what a coach wants to see, as the session was noticeably more sluggish and chippy than in days past.
Jack was ejected from practice by Mora following an altercation with sophomore tackle Caleb Bennenoch. Jack slapped Benenoch’s helmet and Benenoch pushed the linebacker. A verbal taunt earned Jack the ejection.
Later, freshman cornerback Denzel Fisher and redshirt junior wide receiver Logan Sweet also had to be separated after a play during the team’s seven-on-seven passing period.
- Freshman running back Nathan Starks missed the morning period with flu-like symptoms, while fellow running back, redshirt freshman Craig Lee, attempted to play, but later exited practice for the same reason.
- Junior defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy (soreness) and sophomore receiver Thomas Duarte (hamstring) worked on the side. Both have missed the last couple of practices with the same issues.
- Redshirt senior running back Jordon James (hamstring) was suited up but did not participate in team drills.
- Sophomore guard Alex Redmond returned to practice after missing the last few due to heat exhaustion.