If the linebackers corps was the heart and soul of UCLA's defense the last two seasons, either Anthony Barr or Jordan Zumwalt could be called heart, and the other soul. Both are bound for the NFL draft and leave behind high standards for their successors.
Finding suitable replacements for a duo that so capably manned the interior (Zumwalt) and outside (Barr) is a tall task. But if there's any one unit new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is qualified to retool, its linebacker.
UCLA returns a solid foundation from the 2013 starting rotation, a group Ulbrich oversaw as its positional coach.
Injuries limited inside linebacker Eric Kendricks last season. He missed two games and finished with 44 fewer tackles than in 2012 but still led the Bruins for a second consecutive season with 105.
It hurt him so bad not to be out there with his team. You just love that. You want that passion in all of your players, and when your leader, a guy like Eric, has that, it resonates with everybody else. He’s going to be hard to keep off the field.
With Kendricks as the leader, UCLA also has its explosive playmaker in Myles Jack.
Jack is already well established as one of the most exciting athletes in the Pac-12, winning the conference's Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year. His offensive services likely will not be needed any longer with the stable of Bruins running backs having an offseason to recover from injuries.
That means Jack can focus at a position where Ulbrich said the youngster was "unlike anything [he had] ever seen," per former Bruin Brendon Ayanbadejo for FoxSports.com.
“He is a better athlete than Patrick Willis," Ulbrich said, noting he played alongside Willis as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Kendricks and Jack are both known commodities, however. UCLA needs the supporting cast from 2013, those linebackers who operated in anonymity, to show their stuff if the Bruins are to compete for the Pac-12 championship in 2014.
One candidate is Isaako Savaiinaea, a 4-star recruit in UCLA's impressive 2013 signing class. Savaiinaea already has experience filling in for a Bruins leader, stepping in for an injured Kendricks in the Sun Bowl.
Overall, Savaiinaea appeared all 13 games last season as one of 18 Bruins true freshmen to see playing time. Another was Deon Hollins, a 2013 signee from Missouri City, Texas, who recorded nine tackles in 11 games.
The two highly touted recruits will have more opportunities to shine with the vacancies in the starting lineup.
Freshmen contributions to the 2013 season serve as resounding evidence that Mora will not shy away from playing newcomers, and the linebacker corps is getting a few to watch in the 2014 class.
Ulbrich and Mora won't have to rely exclusively on youngsters to plug the holes in the linebacker corps. Kenny Orjioke is entering his third year in the program and showed flashes of the same ball-hawking tenacity that made Barr so difficult to contain off the edge.
Barr's two-year reign as one of the nation's most fearsome pass-rushers is a reminder that stars can emerge from unlikely sources. Barr floundered at running back before moving to outside linebacker, and the rest is history.
His replacement could come from a similarly unlikely place, adding further intrigue to the Bruins' upcoming spring practice season.
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