The most important aspect of the spring, aside from setting a general tone for the Jim Mora era, was the successful implementation of a 3-4 defense. While you have to give Lou Spanos credit for staying on message throughout the entire offseason, consistently referring to the defense as “Bruins defense” and refusing to acknowledge that there was going to be a fundamental shift in fronts, the cat was more or less out of the bag in March that the 3-4 was going to be the base D for the Bruins.
But there were a lot of hurdles to leap through to make sure that could happen, and most of those obstacles had to be surmounted by the linebackers. In a 3-4 front, the linebackers simply have to be more dynamic, especially on the outside, and UCLA was unveiling a host of new outside linebackers. Heading into the spring, we had a pretty good idea that some combination of Patrick Larimore, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt would be in the starting lineup. But that last outside linebacker slot was up in the air, with several candidates (Damien Holmes, Keenan Graham, and Anthony Barr) who just switched to linebacker vying for the spot.
Holmes, by far, was the biggest shock of the early spring in terms of his physical change. Although he claims he only went down from about 260 pounds to 248 or so, he looks like an entirely changed man. Honestly, if you look back at the last few years, Holmes main issue was that he simply wasn’t strong enough to match up against offensive tackles consistently; he was always good in pursuit, and generally looked quick for his size. Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out that all these years he was just playing out of position? All spring, he was probably the most consistent pass rush threat off the edge, and really seemed like a lot to handle for Xavier Su’a-Filo, who he was most often matched up against among the offensive linemen. Heck, Holmes took to outside linebacker so well that the coaching staff moved him inside temporarily due to injuries because he already knew how to play the outside spot well enough that he could afford to branch out. One big caveat is that Holmes has always been a good practice player, simply because he gives such a strong effort all the time. Some guys shine in practice, because they’re trying harder than everyone else. It’ll remain to be seen if his success can translate to games, since he’s generally always had difficulty making that leap.
Weirdly enough, Graham didn’t make the transition as smoothly, although he still looked good. Before the spring, we expected Graham to be the one of the two former defensive ends to make the leap easiest, since he already was pretty athletic, and had difficulty in the past putting on enough weight to be a defensive end. But he struggled playing in space, which is to be expected. Of the two, Holmes actually moved better in space. The most important role for both, though, was the pass rush, and each of them caused havoc in the back field, which is probably due to a variety of factors, among them the quality of the offensive tackles, the scheme, and their own skills from their time as defensive ends. We’ve said it a few times this spring, but it bears repeating: it’s tough to say how strong the defense will be at this point, but you can virtually guarantee that it’ll have a better pass rush than its had in four or five years.
We didn’t get much of a look at Barr before he got injured, but he looked like he was still getting comfortable playing defense. You have to remember that the last position Barr played on defense was safety (in high school), and he actually never played linebacker (ever). Without a spring of work, he’s going to go into the fall about as raw as he went into spring, which is going to put him behind the learning curve of a guy like Aaron Wallace, who leapt over him on the official depth chart (that Mora clearly doesn't put a lot of stock in). There’s also an argument that his body type would be much better suited to, say, the Y position on offense. But if they keep him on defense, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that he could redshirt this year, just looking at the guys potentially ahead of him.
Jordan Zumwalt went down very early in spring with what we’ve heard is a bruised kidney. There’s some argument that he’s not a natural outside linebacker, and might be better suited to playing inside, but as of right now, we know that the coaching staff liked what he gave them in terms of athleticism off the edge.
Aramide Olaniyan bounced around a little bit during the spring, shifting from primarily an inside linebacker to primarily an outside guy by the end of spring, and we feel that’s more his natural position. As he proved last year in limited time, he is a very effective pass rusher, despite his somewhat skinny frame, and pound for pound is one of the stronger guys on the team. This spring, he also showed the ability to work in space a lot better, looking especially good covering in the flat and actually showed off some playmaking ability, picking off a couple of swing passes during the spring. Given the way he played this spring, we’d expect he and Wallace to compete for that last second string spot on the outside.
On the inside, Larimore missed most of the last half of the spring, but before he went down with a concussion, he looked much better than he did last fall. First, he looks a little leaner, and seemed to be moving a lot better than he was last fall. There were a couple of times where he actually looked pretty good in coverage, and he even had an interception during one of the scrimmages. The big thing that I noticed was that he was playing with a lot of attitude. He was one of the guys in the early stages of spring who really set the tone in terms of physicality, frequently tackling during the “thud” drills, and tackling hard during the live drills. If there was a poster child for “buy in” through the first couple of weeks, it was Larimore.
Kendricks has moved from freshman with a lot of potential to defensive anchor. He looks like he’s gotten a little bit bigger through the shoulders, but hasn’t lost much, if any, athleticism. The main criticism of Kendricks last year was that he didn’t always know his assignment, and would frequently be out of position, especially in pass coverage. He’s improved by leaps and bounds in that regard, and, like Larimore, seems to have made pass coverage a point of emphasis in the offseason. He was a little dinged up with a shoulder injury during the last week of practice, but that’s not expected to be serious, so the two inside linebackers look like they’re set for the fall.
After that, though, the depth chart is wide open, and not in a fun competition kind of way. Behind Kendricks and Larimore, Isaiah Bowens tore his ACL, Mike Orloff was in and out of the lineup with a variety of injuries, and Todd Golper tore his meniscus prior to the spring. That left the second string for much of the last two weeks as some combination of Jared Koster (who’s probably too small), Ryan Hofmeister (who actually looked OK at times, but probably can’t be expected to contribute much), and Jason Stewart (who was also hurt for much of the spring). The stage seems set for one of either two things: Aaron Porter coming in and playing right away, or Holmes flipping between outside and inside depending on the matchup.
The good news is, with the way UCLA practiced this spring, many of the linebackers have some versatility. Holmes and Olaniyan both played significantly inside and out. Hofmeister started outside and moved in; Ryan Medina started inside and moved out. Zumwalt has looked good, at times, playing both inside and out. If they need to, the defensive staff should be able to mix and match if they need a little bit of flexibility. But the real desperate need is more bodies.
The main glaring issue with the linebackers this spring was run defense, which we attribute to a combination of having two inexperienced guys (Graham and Holmes) playing outside linebacker and frequently non-starters playing with the 1’s inside. With a much healthier linebacker corps in the fall, and more experience for Holmes and Graham, it’ll be interesting to see if that continues to be an issue.