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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Linebackers

Redshirt senior linebacker Darius Muasau leaps towards Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald during a game last season. (David Rimer/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Joseph Crosby

Aug. 18, 2023 10:14 a.m.

This post was updated Aug. 27 at 10:00 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before game day. Sports editor Joseph Crosby continues the look at the defense by breaking down the linebackers.

Personnel

Turnover has been a common thread among UCLA football’s position groups this offseason.

But for every rule, there’s an exception, and the linebackers are one of them.

While the secondary had its long-time safeties depart, the Bruins’ are bringing back both of their starting linebackers, headlined by UCLA’s leading tackler and 2023 Butkus Award Watch List member redshirt senior Darius Muasau.

Senior JonJon Vaughns forms the other half of the linebacking duo and is coming off a year where he was fourth on the team in tackles and tied for second in interceptions. Vaughns started in the final 11 games, while Muasau picked up the start in all 13.

UCLA’s nickel defense – a scheme that may change under new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn – meant it only needed two linebackers on the field at any given time. With Muasau and Vaughns all but guaranteed to continue in their starting roles, the focus turns to who will earn the remaining available playing time, whether that comes as a starter in a three to four lineback set or a reserve.

Senior Kain Medrano is sure to see the field plenty, with his 38 tackles in 2022 trailing only Vaughns and Muasau among linebackers. The departure of Bo Calvert opens the door for redshirt junior Choé Bryant-Strother to build on his 22 tackles and one forced fumble in 13 games last year.

The trio is set to be rounded out by redshirt senior Ale Kaho, who is making his return after a foot injury kept him out last season. The Alabama transfer was third on the team in sacks and fourth in tackles for loss in 2021, and his ability to penetrate the offensive line is a talent the Bruins will need.

And while the linebacker corps may have suffered minimal losses to the NFL and eligibility expirations, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a victim of year-to-year change.

Senior Laiatu Latu and redshirt senior Carl Jones Jr. have shifted positional groups to the defensive line. The former outside linebackers are now listed as members of the Bruins’ front four and are sure to see even more playing time as edge rushers in the year ahead.

Regardless, the return of Kaho and the potential for further steps forward from the quartet of Muasau, Vaughns, Medrano and Bryant-Strother have the Bruins primed for a strong year in the midfield.

Predictions

The sky is the limit for UCLA’s linebackers in 2023.

After a stellar season ending in an All-Pac-12 Second Team Defense selection, Muasau has found himself on the 2023 Preseason All-Pac-12 First Team. He leaves behind a distinctly UCLA-shaped vacancy on the Second Team, a spot Vaughns is primed to slot right into.

The starting duo each tallied two interceptions last season, trailing only redshirt sophomore defensive back Jaylin Davies for the team lead. Vaughns also recorded five pass breakups, the most among any linebacker last season. Empowered by a strong front four, Vaughns is set to continue his trend of coverage defense and is poised to once again lead his position group in picks and breakups.

With the consistent talents of the starters assured, as well as the known quantities in Medrano and Bryant-Strother, the biggest storyline for UCLA’s linebackers is likely to be Kaho’s return and impact in 2023.

Kaho played behind starters Calvert and Mitchell Agude in 2021 and provided regular pressure in the backfield.

UCLA’s defensive scheme has changed since former defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro led the program in 2021 and may see changes again under Lynn. However, Kaho complements the pass-defense abilities of Muasau and Vaughns with his own rushing talents, helping establish an equilibrium within the position group.

As Muasau and Vaughns rack up interceptions and pass breakups, don’t be surprised if it’s Kaho that ends up leading the linebackers in sacks this season.

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Joseph Crosby
Crosby was the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats.
Crosby was the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats.
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