Tuesday, March 31

Linebacker options improve as football recovers from season impeded by injuries

Rising senior linebacker Lokeni Toailoa became a starter when the Bruins were hit by injuries in the preseason. Toailoa racked up 32 tackles last year. (Andy Bao/Daily Bruin)

The Bruins are getting healthier at linebacker, which means coach Chip Kelly is going to have plenty of options as the season approaches.

UCLA football suffered multiple losses at the position in August, including season-ending injuries to rising redshirt senior Josh Woods and rising redshirt junior Je’Vari Anderson.

In the absence of Woods – who was slated to be the team’s starting middle linebacker – a number of players, including rising senior Lokeni Toailoa, stepped up to fill the void. As the Bruins enter year two under Kelly, Toailoa said he is looking forward to building off the progress the unit made last season.

“We kind of just went from being a coaches-led team to a player-led team,” Toailoa said. “What I mean by that is we, kind of as a whole, started taking pride in what we’re doing and taking ownership. Leaders started stepping up, other guys started following, we just started doing different things together.”

[RELATED: As spring practice picks up, football sees potential on both sides of the ball]

Toailoa also stressed the competition at linebacker is “all love” and added the group wants to see everybody succeed.

“With the linebackers, it’s not just a one leader or two leaders kind of thing,” Toailoa said. “We all have a voice in everything we do. It’s not like ‘We’re the upperclassmen, you do what we say.’ We’re really just one big brotherhood who works together no matter what.”

Anderson – who didn’t get a chance to play last season due to several concussions after transferring to UCLA from Laney Junior College – is also working his way into the team’s linebacker rotation.

Anderson said his forced time away from the game last season taught him to cherish the time he has remaining on the field.

“It made me appreciate football, just to know that it could be taken away from you at any given moment,” Anderson said. “I really appreciate being out here and appreciate being healthy.”

Toailoa said he has been impressed with Anderson’s performance this spring.

[RELATED: UCLA linebacker Josh Woods out for season due to knee injury]

“(Anderson’s) athletic, coming from safety – a lot of things he sees – he just has a natural feel for things in the pass game,” Toailoa said. “It’s things you can show on film. It’s fun to have (Anderson) back. It’s nice to have him back.”

Anderson was converted to linebacker by Kelly and the coaching staff upon his arrival April 2018, but he said that he is still getting used to the transition.

“When you’re at safety, you’re seeing the bigger picture,” Anderson said. “When you’re at linebacker, it’s kind of close. Everything’s faster, so you’ve got to react faster. I don’t have that much time to think about what’s going on.”

Fortunately for Anderson, he still has over four months to learn the position before the team’s season-opener Aug. 29.

Sports Senior Staff

Smith is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the football and men's basketball beats. He was the 2018-2019 Sports editor and an assistant Sports editor in 2017-2018. Smith was previously on the women's basketball, men's water polo, baseball, men's golf and women's golf beats.

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