In the final four weeks leading up to the kickoff of UCLA football’s 2019 season, Sports editor Sam Connon and staff writer Jack Perez will be taking a look at the Bruins’ outlook at each position. From award favorites to comeback stories, Daily Bruin Sports will analyze each position’s depth chart and make predictions for how their seasons could unfold. Next up – linebackers.
The Bruins have a ton of depth at the linebacker position – at least they would if it weren’t for some early injuries. And the mix of experience and youth should lead to some interesting combinations in the middle of the defense.
Senior Krys Barnes recorded 85 tackles in 2018, second most for the Bruins. He figures to start at inside linebacker alongside redshirt senior Josh Woods, who missed all of last season due to injury but started six games in 2017.
Redshirt senior Tyree Thompson would be in the running for a starting spot after recording 55 tackles in Woods’ absence last season, but a foot injury sustained in practice will keep him off the field for at least the season opener. Thompson underwent surgery on Aug. 5.
On the outside, the Bruins could start senior Lokeni Toailoa and redshirt junior Leni Toailoa on the outside for the first few games while redshirt senior Keisean Lucier-South serves his academic suspension. The Toailoa brothers had a combined 62 tackles and three sacks in 2018.
With five of their six possible starters in their final years with the program, coach Chip Kelly brought in several fresh faces in order to prepare for the future.
Two prospects who may see some time on the field are freshmen John Ward and Hayden Harris. Both must serve time behind the veterans, but may be a big part of the Bruins’ plans soon.
Another breakout contender could be sophomore Bo Calvert. The former four-star prospect did not see much time last year, but after spending a whole season training and learning under Kelly’s staff, he could make a big impact in 2019.
UCLA constantly switches between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, sometimes from down to down in the same drive.
This allows the Bruins to confuse their opponents while also allowing them to slip some of their quicker linebackers into opposing backfields.
While the Bruins only had 15 sacks last season, the linebacker corps accounted for over half of them – Lucier-South and Lokeni Toailoa downed the opposing quarterback four and three times, respectively.
UCLA did struggle in containing the running game in 2018, and the linebackers were a big part of the problem. The Bruins allowed 199.4 rushing yards per game, ranking 100th out of 129 teams.
This year can be different. With even more experience under their belts and Woods making his return, the linebacking corps should improve – especially in helping stuff the run.
With many of the linebackers playing their final seasons in Westwood, the group will be responsible for leading the defense in a bounce-back year.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro has spent the spring and summer laying out a game plan for his defense, and the linebackers are the key to his plans running smoothly.
The main challenge for the linebackers is going to be communication. With a young group in front of them at defensive line and an even younger group behind them in the defensive backfield, the seniors – namely Barnes and Woods – will have to make sure the defense is ready for whatever the opposing offenses throw their way.
In the running game, the linebackers have to set the tone early and prevent big plays. Forcing most college quarterbacks to throw early and often would help keep the defense fresh and off the field.
The linebackers can be the main cog in a defense that has the potential to rank in the top half of the country in rushing yards per game and lead the Bruins to a positive point differential after posting a -114 one last season.
With returning starters and experienced backups, the unit has the potential to be on the same level as they were when the likes of Myles Jack patrolled the middle of the Bruins’ defense – even with some early-season injuries.