Scott White has heard the criticism of UCLA’s linebackers. He won’t just shrug it off.
“I think there’s a narrative out there that every issue that goes on with our defense is because of the linebackers, and I don’t agree with that,” White, the Bruins’ linebackers coach, said Wednesday. “It’s a collective thing.”
UCLA’s defense has been bad across the board, at least statistically. The Bruins are allowing 39.2 points per game, and their struggles have been particularly pronounced against the run, giving up 284.2 yards rushing per game.
Linebackers can be an easy target for a defense’s difficulties. White recalled watching a replay of Alabama’s recent game against Texas A&M in which the commentator blamed the linebackers for a breakdown that originated with the defensive line.
“Because they can see that,” White said, referring to a running back getting deep into the coverage, “they point to the linebackers.”
White said UCLA’s linebackers have been “pretty solid all year long.” They seemed to make some improvement in their last game against Colorado on Sept. 30 after moving Kenny Young back to middle linebacker, where he was flanked by Josh Woods and Krys Barnes. Young played weak side linebacker earlier this season, but the Bruins found they missed his savvy in making calls for the defense.
“A lot of the stuff that we do is kind of a check-with-me type of deal,” White said, “so you gotta have a guy in there who can make all of the calls.”
Young also can play, including an open-field tackle of Colorado quarterback Steven Montez in the fourth quarter that forced the Buffaloes to punt. He finished the game with a team-high 12 tackles and disrupted a fake field-goal attempt, providing inspiration as well as production.
“He’s out there balling every time he’s on the field,” Barnes said. “He gives it his all and his heart, and he’s very passionate. I try to mimic my game after him.”
UCLA coach Jim Mora has identified improved tackling as the biggest focus of the defense in the two weeks between games for his team. The challenge will only be heightened by whichever quarterback Arizona decides to start, Khalil Tate or Brandon Dawkins.
“It’s like playing a wildcat offense with a quarterback that can throw,” Mora said. “We have to play hard but play with patience, play with speed but play with patience, and that’s sometimes a difficult combination. But we’ve been working really hard on it, and our guys have a great understanding of what we’re up against.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Mique Juarez has played only on special teams this season but continues to impress coaches with the way he’s progressed since sitting out last season to deal with the pressures of being one of the team’s most highly touted recruits.
He’s slimmed down considerably since spring practice, giving him more speed to make plays. Now he’s trying to turn knowledge into production.
“I think he’s getting to a point where he knows what to do, the next step for him is to know how to do it,” White said. “Just in terms of the technique and the eye progression and the block shed, all that now needs to come in and we need it to come together.”
Juarez has made two tackles on special teams, which eventually could lead to a bigger role.
“I think getting him out there on the field and letting him feel the game is only going to help him moving forward,” White said.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch