UCLA Football: 5 Most Important Spring-Practice Position Battles

Jason FrayCorrespondent IMarch 6, 2014

UCLA Football: 5 Most Important Spring-Practice Position Battles

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    OLB Kenny Orjioke
    OLB Kenny OrjiokeMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    On April 1, Jim Mora and the UCLA Bruins will begin spring practice. The full spring practice schedule can be found here

    This will be an important period for Mora's squad. Expectations have been ramped up to high levels. Not only has the team been mentioned as a potential Top 10 team in 2014, but quarterback Brett Hundley will likely be a Heisman candidate as well. 

    Multiple positional battles will elicit excitement and intrigue. UCLA has the unenviable task of replacing All-Conference players in Xavier Su'a-Filo and Anthony Barr. 

    We will take a look at the five most important spring-practice position battles. This list will include players who are currently on the roster. Incoming recruits will be mentioned only if they have enrolled in time to participate in the spring. 

Offensive Line

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    OL Poasi Moala (not Cousin Itt)
    OL Poasi Moala (not Cousin Itt)Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Although four starters return from a season ago, the offensive line is still a bit unsettled. 

    The addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche was significant. The fifth-year senior has experience at both guard and tackle. His versatility will offer offensive line coach Adrian Klemm considerable flexibility. 

    Where Bunche plays will hinge on the health of starting tackles Simon Goines and Torian White. Both were out for the majority of 2013 due to leg injuries. 

    If Goines or White falters in any way, Bunche will be there as the proverbial security blanket. Rising redshirt freshman Poasi Moala will also get a shot at a starting tackle spot. His upside is perhaps the highest of any lineman on the roster.

    Sophomore Caleb Benenoch—the injury replacement for White last season—will also figure into the mix at tackle. 

    If Goines and White can solidify their starting spots at tackle, Bunche theoretically can slide in nicely at Xavier Su'a-Filo's vacant left guard spot. 

    For the first time in years, UCLA has viable depth (and talent) within the offensive line group. 

Running Back

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Returning starter Jordon James will assume the role of featured back. 

    In limited time last season, he finished with 534 yards and five touchdowns. An ankle injury robbed the Corona, Calif. native of perhaps accruing 1,000 yards. 

    He isn't the most durable back in the world. His smallish 5'9", 194-pound frame isn't conducive to being an every-down back. Truthfully, his ideal role would be as a change-of-pace ball-carrier. 

    Both Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will vie for carries. Perkins in particular came on strong toward the end of the 2013 season. 

    The wild card in this equation is redshirt freshman Craig Lee. His talent level is conceivably higher than any of his competitors at the position. His potential emergence in the spring could make an already crowded backfield even more congested. 

Wide Receiver

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Bruins will have to replace their leading receiver in Shaquelle Evans. He exhausted his eligibility and is now hoping to be drafted.

    This spring will be big for the trio of Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller and Devin Lucien. Now juniors, they need to take the next step in becoming more consistent pass-catchers. 

    Offensive coordinator loves to utilize multiple wide receiver sets. UCLA's fast tempo also allows for an implementation of up to eight receivers. One of those potential options is Eldridge Massington. 

    He should be fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered as a senior in high school. Other options to consider include quicker, smaller receivers such as Darren Andrews, Kenneth Walker and Jalen Ortiz. 

    It would be ideal for a big-play threat to emerge in the spring. UCLA desperately needs someone with the ability to stretch the field vertically. Whether this type of player exists on the roster or not, the competition in the spring will be something to watch. 

Middle Linebacker

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Jordan Zumwalt's departure to the NFL leaves a big hole in the center of UCLA's defense. 

    The two likeliest candidates to complete for the vacant spot are sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea and freshman Zach Whitley. 

    Savaiinaea cemented himself as the third linebacker behind Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks as a true freshman. He never seemed overwhelmed by the moment and generally performed well. 

    Whitley is an elite recruit from the Houston area. He graduated from high school early, which allowed him to enroll early. He will participate in spring practice.  

    When comparing them, Whitley has the higher upside. However, Savaiinaea is bigger and has more experience.

    Both will play extensively this upcoming season. If Savaiinaea wins the competition, it wouldn't be a shock to see Whitley see time at outside 'backer. With a player of his talent, there's no question he needs to be on the field in some capacity. 

Outside Linebacker

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    OLB Kenny Orjioke
    OLB Kenny OrjiokeHarry How/Getty Images

    This positional battle could be the most fun to watch heading into spring practice. 

    Replacing Anthony Barr will be no easy task. It isn't logical to assume the replacement will replicate the production that he brought to the table the past two seasons. 

    Kenny Orjioke, Deon Hollins and Aaron Wallace will all get their chance to take the starting spot. They differ when it comes to their respective strengths. 

    At age 21, Wallace is the oldest and most seasoned of the bunch. He's also the best at defending against the run.

    Although on the smaller side at 6'0", Hollins has a great burst. His pass-rushing skills make him—at worst—a solid option on third-down situations. 

    At 6'4", Orjioke has the best combination of size and athleticism. In limited time last season, he blocked a punt and had two sacks. With a bit of polishing, he could turn into a very legitimate outside linebacker prospect.