The armchair speculation about UCLA's defense this spring has centered on how the Bruins will replace Anthony Barr, the All-American linebacker who is expected to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft.
The Bruins have devised two answers to fill that void: scheme adjustments and Myles Jack.
Jack was named to the Freshman All-American team by the Sporting News last season, and was the Pac-12's defensive and offensive freshman of the year after a late season run at running back. He provides many of the same headaches for opposing offensive coordinators as Barr did the last two seasons.
And while UCLA's base defense uses four linebackers, the Bruins probably will spend considerable time in a nickel defense to counter the squirrel derby offenses scattered throughout the conference.
The Bruins certainly worked in nickel defense throughout practice this spring, using two linebackers and five defensive backs. It's not only a necessary adjustment in a pass-happy conference, it can be a way to get safety Tahaan Goodman on the field. Safety Randall Goforth moves to cornerback, with Ishmael Adams moving to the nickel package.
"The nickel changes the dynamics in all this," Coach Jim Mora said. "When we go to nickel, Myles goes back behind the ball [in the middle] … We play almost 60% of our defense is nickel."
The rest of the time, Jack can be the shiny bauble that has the attention of opponents.
"When we're in our base stuff, there's something to that," Mora said.
Jack was a child prodigy last season, just months out of Bellevue (Wash.) High. He was a reserve in the season opener against Nevada, then moved into the starting lineup.
By season's end, Jack was a sensation. He had had 267 yards rushing, averaging 7.0 yards per carry, and rushed for seven touchdowns in the last four games. But his impact at linebacker was even greater.
And it was Barr who made Jack's job easier.
"The other teams have to have protection to Anthony's side and that freed me up to make some plays," said Jack.
Jack had 75 tackles, recovered two fumbles and intercepted two passes — one saved the victory over Utah and the other he returned 24 yards for a touchdown in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
"I'm trying to set my own standards and my own pace," Jack said. "I'm trying to be one of the great linebackers at UCLA, that is where my legacy is headed. But I'm trying to do my own big things."
If he does, "other guys will get freed up to make plays," Jack said.
Who those "other guys" could be has been narrowed down this spring. Kenny Orjioke appears to have won the starting spot. Deon Hollins seems ticketed to be a pass-rush specialist.
Orjioke apprenticed under Barr last season.
"I just tried to soak up everything he did," said Orjioke, who played in all 13 games. "A.B. never cracked a smile in practice. He would stare at you. He was a real professional. He knew the defense. He knew everything. I have to focus like that."
Hollins, the Bruins coaches hope, can provide pressure on the pass rush.
"That's one of the big roles for me," Hollins said. "I trying to embrace it."
Zach Whitley, who enrolled this spring as a freshman to participate in spring practice, got a look as an outside linebacker, but was moved back inside last week.
"He is such dynamic athlete, a guy you want on field," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "We thought playing outside would give him an opportunity to get on the field faster. But you can see his strength is behind the ball, playing one of the inside spots."
UCLA has a clear job description in mind for who fills the void.
"We want somebody who can primarily affect the passer," Mora said. "We want the quarterback to feel them on a consistent basis. If not sack, at least get some pressure and push the pocket."
All the things that Barr did.
The Bruins will have their spring game at the StubHub Center on Saturday. Tickets are $5 in advance and $10 the day of the game. Kickoff is 5 p.m.
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