Two-time All-Pac-12 linebacker Anthony Barr's departure to the NFL leaves UCLA with a tremendous void in its linebacker corps. After all, Barr accounted for 41 tackles for loss and 148 total tackles over the last two seasons.
But Barr was an unknown commodity heading into the 2012 campaign, his first as an outside linebacker after languishing on the depth chart at running back. His transformation into one of the most feared pass-rushers in college football and a first-round NFL draft pick surprised even head coach Jim Mora.
"I can't tell you that [UCLA coaches] foresaw that he was going to do the kind of things he's doing," Mora told me last season. "We saw a good athlete who had the measurables for the position...We saw a young man that had the athleticism and intelligence [so] we knew we wanted him on the field."
Barr's successor has a high standard to meet. However, Barr's success is proof that a star can shine unexpectedly. It's just going to take some magic from the Bruins coaches to unlock the next Anthony Barr's potential.
Mora's outlook for how the Bruins will replace Barr is perhaps clearer than the coach's expectations when he moved Barr to linebacker. The third-year head coach rattled off several names of untested but high-potential prospects he expects to break out on the May 1 coaches teleconference call, via Pac-12.com.
Among them, Kenny Orjioke and Deon Hollins are front-runners to replace Barr. Their combined game experience is limited: Orjioke appeared in all 13 contests a season ago, though primarily on special teams. Hollins played in 11 games as a reserve. Orjioke recorded two tackles for loss in 2013, and Hollins made one.
Adding further intrigue to the competition, Aaron Wallace rejoins the program. He was on leave because of an academic issue this spring. Wallace also saw time in all 13 games, but he was limited in his production.
Still, all three have more of a collegiate linebacker background than Barr.
The bad news for the Bruins in making this transition: Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos left for a position with the Tennessee Titans. Spanos' version of the base 3-4 defense thrived with Barr bringing pressure off the edge.
Now that Barr's gone, one way in which UCLA may compensate for the loss is with a schematic adjustment.
Spanos' replacement, Jeff Ulbrich, toyed with a 4-2-5 formation in the spring. The move got a stamp of approval from one linebacker in particular.
"I hope we stay that way,” Hollins told Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News. “We initially moved more nickel because we had a lot of injuries, but our nickel’s looking really salty."
The move to a nickel base also suits Orjioke, who played safety at the high school level.
Among the qualities of the new scheme that looks promising is the freedom for supremely talented sophomore Myles Jack to roam. Jack made an immediate splash in the linebacker corps a season ago, and along with returning leading tackler Eric Kendricks, is the unit's pillar for 2014.
Jack's ability to drop into pass coverage should free up Orjioke and Hollins as pass-rushers at the nickel linebacker spots.
It's an adjustment that could do wonders for the 2014 Bruins linebackers. And if there's anyone on staff who knows about getting the most of the Bruins linebackers, it's Ulbrich.
He was the corps' position coach the last two seasons, overseeing its rise into one of the most formidable in the Pac-12.
Ulbrich's success prompted the UCLA football Twitter account to share an image of him with the text "Linebacker U" last summer, a subtle play both on the coach's last name and challenging the title bestowed on various other programs—including UCLA's crosstown rival, USC.
As defensive coordinator, Ulbrich has an opportunity to solidify UCLA's new-found reputation as a linebacker's program—even without Barr.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
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