UCLA's defense got a little weaker Friday.

Linebacker Eric Kendricks had right ankle surgery, leaving the Bruins without their leading tackler when they face Virginia Tech on Dec. 31 in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.

Kendricks had surgery on the same ankle last summer, which kept him out of training camp. Still, he didn't miss a game during the regular season despite more injuries. He left the Stanford game Oct. 19 with a back injury and the Oregon game the following week with a shoulder injury.

BOWL TIMELINE: Matchups, schedule and picks

But Kendricks, a fourth-year junior, has not been able to practice since the USC game Nov. 30 because of inflammation and pain in the ankle. After meeting with coaches, trainers and doctors, Kendricks decided to have surgery. He is expected to be back for spring practice.

Kendricks leads the team with 106 tackles, third most among Pac-12 players this season.

Freshman Isaako Savaiinaea has been practicing in his place. Savaiinaea has played in every game this season.

The loss deprives UCLA not only of one of its top defensive players, but an on-field leader. Kendricks is a team captain and handled defensive signals.

Kendricks led the Pac-12 in tackles in 2012 with 150. He was second on the team with 76 tackles as a freshman.

UCLA began keeping statistics on tackles in 1975.

On the job training

Tackle Caleb Benenoch came to UCLA like most freshmen, certain he could walk in and play. He received a couple reminders that it wasn't going to be that easy.

"The first practice at training camp, I was about ready to pass out," Benenoch said. "Everybody was like, 'This is our slow day. This is taking it easy.' I thought, 'I got to get going here, turn it up.'"

Benenoch did and got a chance to play after Torian White broke a bone in his leg against Utah on Oct. 3.

That led to reality check No. 2.

"I wasn't technique-sound, and that caused me a lot of problems," said Benenoch, who played at Seven Lakes High in Katy, Texas. "I still did an OK job, but I wasn't where I wanted to be. I watched the tape and knew I couldn't just muscle guys. Your techniques are going to save you in college football. Utah had smaller guys, but they were dominant because their techniques were sound."

Benenoch is one of three freshmen offensive linemen who will start against Virginia Tech. Alex Redmond and Scott Quessenberry start at guards.

"In most programs, guys come in and redshirt, and the next year they figure it out a little bit and then the following year they play in competitive situations," offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said.

Klemm has seen growth in Benenoch.

"He's become more consistent," Klemm aid. "The game is really fast at this level. He has matured as the season progressed."

Benenoch said Klemm is a big reason.

"Coach Klemm is hard on us, very hard on us," Benenoch said. "That has helped us grow. He demands so much from you.'

Last day

The Bruins will have a mock game Saturday, their last day of practice before Christmas.

Players will take Sunday off to recover. They will have three days off and will be allowed to go home for Christmas. The team will reconvene in El Paso on Thursday and begin practice.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes