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UCLA has two-man battle for leader on defense

There is a heated quarterback competition going on during UCLA’s spring practices. It’s just on defense.

Kevin Prince more or less has a vise-lock grip on the job of running the offense, but the defensive signal caller has yet to be determined. Steve Sloan and Patrick Larimore are the two fighting to fill that role as the Bruins’ middle linebacker.

The Bruins have some big holes to fill on defense. There is a lack of experience at cornerback. UCLA lost three of its four defensive tackles, including NFL-bound Brian Price. The Bosworth twins -- Korey and Kyle -- and their intensity are gone.

But finding a replacement for Reggie Carter at mike linebacker, the command-and-control center of the defense, might be the most pressing need.

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There is reason for optimism, defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said.

“We have Sloan and Larimore and they are both moving better than they did last fall,” he said.

There are upsides and questions with both.

Sloan has a firm handle on the defensive system and offers experience, having started nine games in 2008 when Carter moved outside after Kyle Bosworth was injured. But Sloan finished 11th on the team in tackles that season, well below what is expected of a middle linebacker.

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But Sloan, now 6 feet 4 and 232 pounds, has reshaped his body during the offseason.

“He cut weight and added muscle,” linebacker coach Clark Lea said. “His body is in the condition he needs to be to move. He has always been a real heady player.”

Sloan said that his strength remains “knowing the defense. I know where the safety should be on the field, where the cornerbacks should be.”

Larimore has improved in that area. He has a made-for-collision body at 6-3, 250 pounds.

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“Football is a violent sport, and when you get out there you just want to kill everybody, especially as a middle linebacker,” Larimore said. “But I also have to make the calls and checks. You got play violent and aggressive, but at the same time, you have to be able to tone it down a little.”

That is a part of the game where Larimore has improved, judging by the first few days of spring practice. He remains a fierce hitter, but has also shown a lighter touch. He had an interception in Saturday’s practice.

“Body control was his biggest issue,” Lea said. “As a linebacker, you have to be able to drop back into coverage and stick the run. If you can’t control your body, it’s hard to make plays. He really has taken a bigger role as a leader this spring. He’s more assertive.”

Who will be handed control of the defense is far from being decided.

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“Competition is great,” Bullough said. “Even if we make a decision this spring, we might not tell them. Let them battle.”

Sermons injured

Cornerback Brandon Sermons fractured the femur in his left leg during Saturday’s practice and was scheduled to have surgery to insert a metal rod Saturday night.

Sermons, who was a redshirt as a freshman last season and was expected to compete for a starting spot, was injured cutting during a non-contact passing drill on the artificial turf at UCLA’s practice facility. He had his left leg immobilized and was worked on for 25 minutes before being taken off the field in an ambulance.

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“It’s an extensive injury and, unfortunately, freak things happen,” Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We are going to reach out and give as much support to Brandon as we can and he’s tough enough to handle this misfortune.”

Quick hits

The Bruins’ first day in pads was fierce, including on post-play fight between tackle Brett Downey and defensive end Keenan Graham. … The first Saturday practice of spring brought out a number of quality recruits, including cornerback Stefan McClure (Vista), defensive tackle Sioasi Aiono (West Covina South Hills), defensive end Jason Gibson (Gardena), tackle Brian Farley (San Diego Patrick Henry) and quarterback Javon Blackmon (Fontana Summit). … Daronte’ Jones has been hired as a graduate assistant who will work mainly with cornerbacks this season. He was previously the defensive coordinator at Bowie State.

chris.foster@latimes.com

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