While the Bruins do return many of the key starters which propelled them to a successful 10-3 record last year and bowl victory over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, there are holes which need to be filled and those spots are up for grabs.
Highly touted newcomers and experienced returnees alike have a shot at gaining these spots, Spring practice should provide an answer to many of the questions at the vacant positions. Linebacker, offensive line, and running back have been highlighted as key sought after positions this upcoming season, let’s take a look and see the players vying for these spots.
Running back was largely a carousel of carries last year. There wasn’t a breakout player out of the bunch until Myles Jack burst onto the scene. Jack pulled double duty with the offense and defense, running like a man possessed. The unique combination of size and speed made for an explosive style of running not seen since Maurice Jones-Drew. Jack may see much of the same expanded role if Coach Jim Mora decides to play the ace up his sleeve as he did last year.
In speaking about Jack, there are three players in close competition for the bulk of the carries. Jordon James seems to be the early leader, James is shifty in the open field and catches the ball well out of the backfield. However, James isn’t the prototypical every down back which leaves a healthy amount of carries for the backups.
Paul Perkins was very productive catching the ball last year, he can stand to put mass on his slight frame as at times, he was taken down at first contact.
Redshirt Freshman Craig Lee might be the most talented out of the bunch. He combines a physical style of running with pure burst of speed. Lee did not see action last year, but if Lee can pair potential with production, we’ll be looking at a special player this year and the next few years to come.
Steven Manfro is another contributor, versatile, changes direction well and has the ability to get open on under routes. Manfro also returns kicks for the Bruins. A strong spring can place him in the running for a more expanded role this season.
At the Linebacker position there are two vacancies which need to be filled. No small task are these two as the athletic freak Anthony Barr, and physical middle presence of Jordan Zumwalt were huge staples of an attacking Bruin defense. With Myles Jack covering one outside Linebacker spot, Senior Eric Kendricks occupies the other of the middle spots.
Deon Hollins, Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace are three potential outside Linebacker candidates, Hollins, while undersized is the most natural of the pass rushers. Orjioke has athletic 6’4 240 frame, has much potential but is still very raw and a work in progress. Wallace has more experience than the other two and might be the favorite to win the starting spot as he is the more cerebral of the three players.
Middle Linebacker sees two players going head to head. Zach Whitley and Isaako Savaiinaea. Whitley out of Texas has a big motor which reminds coaches of Myles Jack. Quick, athletic, untested as of yet, but may provide a huge spark if he played anywhere near the level Jack did last year. Savaiinaea played last year, filling in downs for Barr and Zumwalt alike. He has a physical style of play, similar to Zumwalt, and performed well in his time on the field last year. His experience will give him time on the field, whether it’s in a starting role or filling in once again like last year.
Malcom Bunche is a transfer from Miami University who brings his versatility in playing either spot of offensive tackle or guard. With Xavier Su’a-Filo departing for the NFL that huge hole will need to be filled and Bunche figures to lead the bunch. Ben Wysocki who saw time last year due to injuries on the line could see time as well. This being such an important position in need, it will be interesting to see this one play out. If it doesn’t, some shuffling of positions might be necessary.
With the young talent coming in, and experienced players coming back, this spring figures to be a tough battle at the aforementioned positions. Breakout stars may be on the horizon at best case scenario. The Bruins certainly hope so as big postseason hopes hang in the balance for UCLA Football. They have the talent this year, avoiding the injury bug will be another aspect to factor into the success. The offense needs to score and the defense needs to tackle, sounds simple enough right? Go Bruins.
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