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UCLA sophomore Lokeni Toailoa earns respect —  and perhaps a starting role

UCLA linebackers coach Scott White has a mantra that his players might tire of hearing had it not helped a handful rise to prominence: Make it so we can’t leave you off the field.

It led to Jayon Brown becoming a starter and eventual team captain. Now it appears to be having a similar impact on Lokeni Toailoa, the sophomore who might be the Bruins’ new starting middle linebacker.

“Lokeni’s a guy that’s kind of ahead of his time here, he’s a guy that everybody respects,” White said Wednesday. “He made it hard for us to keep him off the field.”

His build also doesn’t hurt.

Standing 6 feet 2 and a sturdy 245 pounds, Toailoa appears to be a natural middle linebacker, where his strength and durability allow him to deliver punishing hits on play after play.

“I kind of like the contact,” Toailoa said. “I like thumping guys.”

Putting Toailoa at middle linebacker has allowed the Bruins to shift senior Kenny Young to weakside linebacker, where he can be a blitzing menace and a master of pursuit. Junior Josh Woods has manned strong-side linebacker, a spot that demands versatility in run and pass coverage.

“They just fit the positions perfectly,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Young had been a second team All-Pac-12 selection at middle linebacker last season, but Mora said Young projected as a weakside linebacker in the NFL. Young has been a major disrupter of the offense on blitzes and Toailoa has capably plugged the middle of the field. Woods, whom White has called the smartest player on the team, has provided strong run support while also dropping into pass coverage when needed.

Toailoa bears primary responsibility for making the defensive calls but often relies on an assist from the more experienced Young, whose recognition of subtle cues provided by the offense helps shift the Bruins into a favorable alignment.

“That’s one area I wanted to take strides in is trying to be aware of a play happening before it’s actually happening,” said Young, who compared his mentoring of Toailoa to the counseling he received from Eric Kendricks, now a middle linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings.

In nickel defense situations, when an extra defensive back is needed, Toailoa has been the linebacker to come off the field.

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said the linebackers are learning all three positions to increase versatility and provide depth in case of injuries. Breland Brandt and Krys Barnes are among the other linebackers who have generated highlights during training camp and DeChaun Holiday could contend for significant playing time once he returns from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since spring practice.

Mora said he’s also liked what he’s seen from a visibly slimmer Mique Juarez, the redshirt freshman who sat out last season while dealing with the pressures of being a highly touted recruit. Juarez recently delivered a jarring hit on running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, reminding observers why the linebacker had been so widely coveted.

“You’re starting to see what we saw in Mique when we recruited him,” Mora said. “He’s trimming down, he’s getting in shape, he understands the system, he’s happy, his discipline is good, so it’s good to see that.”

Juarez has split time at middle and weakside linebacker, with Mora saying he projected as a weakside linebacker once he fully rounds into shape. White said he’d like Juarez to lose seven or eight more pounds.

UCLA’s linebackers appear to have multiple standard bearers among their underclassmen, with Toailoa in line to become perhaps the most indispensable.

“He’s just continued to push and he’s in the right spots, he makes all the calls for us out there,” White said. “Everybody really respects him and he’ll be a guy that’s a future captain around here for a long time.”

Quick hits

Receiver Jordan Lasley returned to practice after a one-day absence, but tight end Austin Roberts and running backs Brandon Stephens and Nate Starks were absent. … Running back Soso Jamabo and receiver Audie Omotosho rode the stationary bikes usually occupied by injured players. … Michael Alves replaced Najee Toran at left guard; Toran was visibly limping along the sideline. … Poasi Moala played some right tackle, the spot usually occupied by Sunny Odogwu and Kenny Lacy. … Kicker J.J. Molson made a 55-yard field goal. … Mora dismissed defensive back Octavius Spencer from practice for what appeared to be excessive celebration after a play.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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