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UCLA begins spring football practice with positive vibes

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When UCLA opens spring football practice at the crack of dawn Tuesday — 7 a.m. — the Bruins can be thankful the sun has not set on quarterback Brett Hundley's college career. It makes things a little easier.

"You think?" Coach Jim Mora said, laughing.

Hundley's decision to put off the NFL draft for another year has UCLA gearing up for a Heisman Trophy campaign rather than a quarterback competition between Jerry Neuheisel and Asiantii Woulard.

"Hundley For The Heisman" will be a well-used phrase around Westwood this year.

To take home that hardware, as well reach expectations fermenting with UCLA fans — Rose Bowl? National championship? — the Bruins have work to do.

That begins with the first of 15 practices culminating with the spring game at the StubHub Center on April 26.

The Bruins return 14 players who started at least seven games last season, and four others who started at least five.

"I think the neat thing this spring is seeing who does emerge as a leader," Mora said. "Who will pick up the slack for some of the guys who are no longer in the program?"

Here are the main questions facing the Bruins:

How will the defense recover from the loss of three playmakers?

Linebacker Anthony Barr appears ticketed for the NFL draft's upper tier. Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt improved his draft prospects with a seek-and-destroy performance in the Sun Bowl. Defensive end Cassius Marsh should also get an early phone call on draft day.

That should bring a sigh of relief from offensive coordinators around the Pac-12 Conference. At UCLA, it creates what Mora calls "opportunities."

There is an obvious candidate to fill Marsh's spot. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who sat out last season after undergoing two hip surgeries, saw considerable playing time as a freshman, sophomore and junior.

"Owa plugs right in there," Mora said.

Sophomore Kylie Fitts and junior Ellis McCarthy give the Bruins options.

Linebacker is more of an unknown.

Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack are two of the best linebackers in the Pac-12. The Bruins will find another pair to match with them from a crowded field that includes Jayon Brown, Deon Hollins, Kenny Orjioke, Isaako Savaiinaea and Aaron Wallace.

Who's the next Myles Jack?

No one.

But linebacker Zach Whitley Jr. might be the Bruins' top freshman after choosing UCLA over Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and others.

Has the game of musical chairs among offensive linemen ended?

The Bruins are better off along the offensive line then they have been in more than a decade. Jake Brendel is back at center and Alex Redmond returns at guard. Caleb Benenoch started nine games at guard and tackle. John Lopez and Poasi Moala, redshirt freshmen, will get looks.

However, there are still concerns. Tackle Simon Goines is coming back from a broken leg and will be limited in spring. Torian White, who was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault in November, remains suspended.

The tackle spot was shored up with the arrival of Malcolm Bunche, who enrolled as a graduate student. He started 12 games as a sophomore at Miami in 2012, but was relegated to a reserve role last season.

The main concern is replacing guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, who is expected to go high in the NFL draft.

What are the needs on offense?

The roller-coaster ride that the Bruins call offense needs a tune-up.

Losing Shaquelle Evans hurts. The Bruins will miss his 47 receptions, 709 yards and nine touchdowns — and also his downfield blocking. Devin Fuller, a high-end talent, should soften the blow. Jordan Payton is a solid receiver and blocker. And Devin Lucien had strong games to finish the season, showing he is a deep threat.

Running back Jordon James was off to a fast start with 424 yards rushing through three games. His ankle injury slowed the running game.

Hundley finished as the Bruins' leading rusher, but it put him at risk. James is back and healthy. Paul Perkins had a few strong games. Craig Lee, a redshirt last season, is the wild card.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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