UCLA Football 2019: Position Group Preview – Linebackers

The UCLA football team has a deep and talented linebacker group which should help them improve the overall state of the defense. Go Joe Bruin looks at who will help the Bruins improve off a lackluster 2018 season.

The defense did not give off a good first impression in year one of the Chip Kelly era. They were supposed to be aggressive and fierce, but they had a lot of problems which disallowed them to meet that style of play. Injuries and youth had a huge part in this, and as we saw, the defense struggled.

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As discussed in our last article, one of the biggest issues with the defense was their lack of a pass rush. That put pressure on the linebackers when running backs would hit the second level. The LBs would scramble to the ball and do all they can to slow the advancing opposition, but they gave up a lot of yards and points in the process.

The upside is that a lot of young players got experience which will be handy this season. It also helps that the Bruins return a lot of players from injury which will result in five seniors playing this year. If the Bruin linebackers are going to show what they are made of, this would be the year.

Outside Linebacker (EDGE)

  1. Odua Isibor (R-So) 6’4, 245
  2. Elijah Wade (So) 6’5, 250
  3. Noah Keeter (Fr) 6’5, 225
  4. Hayden Harris (Fr) 6’5, 215

This position might be subject to the most change this season as the Bruins’ coaches are going to be looking for someone, anyone, that can get to stepping off the edge and into the backfield. Isibor is the most likely candidate as he spent a lot of time with the ones in spring. He has a good jump off the snap but needs to find a way to apply more pressure at a more consistent rate.

Wade will be backing him up and has the experience, but both he and Isibor should be in contention for the starting spot. They also have a couple of young players helping out, both of which had experience rushing the pass in high school. If they display any kind of consistent pass rush, they could land a supporting role.

Inside Linebacker

  1. Josh Woods (R-Sr) 6’2, 245
  2. Tyree Thompson (R-Sr) 6’2, 230
  3. Je’Vari Anderson (R-Jr) 6’0, 230

There’s a little bit of debate about what Woods is going to do when he returns from injury. He missed all last season after he injured his leg in fall camp and his absence was apparent, especially with several other linebackers going down throughout the year. He might be needed in an outside linebacker spot, but with depth thin in the middle of the group and with his experience as an inside linebacker, I don’t see how they can’t use him as an ILB. Either way, the team has a lot of experience at this position. Thompson came on late last season and continued to show progress during spring. He’s going to be a very aggressive linebacker and should get a lot of time on the field. Anderson was injured early in 2018 and did not get to play but his talents should get him some game minutes this year.

Inside Linebacker

  1. Krys Barnes (Sr) 6’2, 250
  2. Lokeni Toailoa (Sr) 6’1, 250
  3. Bo Calvert (So) 6’4, 230

Krys Barnes was quite possibly the most improved player last season. Not only is a very smart player that can get in opponent’s faces but can also be a threat in coverage. He had the most tackles among all returners last year with 85, was second on the team in tackles for a loss with 10.0 and tied for the most breakups with six. Needless to say, he will play a very important role in the progress of the defense. Toailoa is another defender that has slowly come on to the scene and made some good strides over the last year. One aspect of his game that really improved (and hopefully continues) is getting into the backfield. Last season he recorded 5.5 TFLs and 3.0 sacks. Calvert played quality minutes in the middle of the season as injuries accumulated, but a late-season injury ended his freshman year. The talented underclassmen should see more time on the field this season as his skills are undeniable, but he will have to fight for playing time.

Outside Linebacker

  1. Keisean Lucier-South (R-Sr) 6’4, 245
  2. Leni Toailoa (R-Jr) 6’2, 225
  3. Jayce Smalley (R-So) 6’0, 225
  4. John Ward (Fr) 6’3, 225
  5. Jason Harris (Grad) 6’6, 225

Lucier-South did not participate in the second part of spring camp as he was focusing on academics. At that point, head coach Chip Kelly said that he would be back by summer, but we have not heard anything about his return as of yet. But similarly, we have not heard that he is no longer with the team, so until there’s been an announcement, we’re going to expect that he’s the starter at this outside linebacker spot. If he returns, he’s going to be the most part of the pass rush. Not only was he good coverage but he had the most sacks and tackles for loss last season. He’s not a true pass rusher, but he can get the job done.

Behind him is a grab bag of talent that has a lot of potential. The younger Toialoa emerged as a reliable linebacker, but he still has a lot of room for improvement. Smalley was very impressive during spring. He was not only aggressive but could easily get in the backfield.

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Ward was the only new linebacker to enroll early so he has some experience with the defense but will look to take a further step forward with his development this fall. Harris could contribute as he has experience on the outside, but the coaches have to find the best fit for him,