Linebackers give UCLA an outside shot

Jordan Zumwalt has an alpha-dog view about his job in UCLA’s defense.

Or is it rabid dog?

“You get to run around and be a wild man,” Zumwalt said.

Out on the edge, at outside linebacker, is where the wild things roam for the Bruins.

On one side is Zumwalt, a linebacker his whole life, with a let-me-at ‘em attitude. On the other is Anthony Barr, passive as a receiver and running back, but with newfound inner rage since switching sides.

“I get to be reckless and cause havoc,” Barr said.

The two can’t wait to be turned loose in what defensive coordinator Lou Spanos describes as “controlled chaos.”

UCLA ranks a modest 68th among 120 major college teams in defense, based on yards given up, but the Bruins are high on the charts in interceptions (first), sacks (15th), tackles for a loss (23rd) and fumble recoveries (28th).

Zumwalt and Barr are the ones coming from the attack points.

“The key word is length, arm length,” Coach Jim Mora said. “They can separate and get guys off them. They can also bend and dip and get the corner, keep moving forward and going downhill.”

The result?

“The more I disrupt the offense, the better I feel about myself,” Barr said.

The Bruins are off to a 3-0 start. The offense, which is third nationally in yards, has been getting the spotlight during UCLA’s climb to 19th in the Associated Press media poll.

And the defense? Well, there has been a little disruption here, a little chaos there, and some occasional havoc.

“You play with no regards sometimes,” Zumwalt said.

The Bruins had 14 sacks in 14 games in 2011. They have 11 in three games this season. UCLA linebackers had four sacks a year ago. They already have six this season. Barr has three and Zumwalt one.

The Bruins’ defense has bent, but it’s the other teams who have broken. UCLA has intercepted seven passes and recovered three fumbles, two of which have been returned for touchdowns.

Where Barr and Zumwalt fit in is … everywhere.

In the Bruins’ 3-4 defense, one or both could have a hand on the ground as defensive ends, or they could be backed off from the line of scrimmage. One of them is almost certainly busting into the backfield.

“If there is a slot receiver, you act like you’re covering him,” Barr said. “You creep down and creep down, [and] when the ball is snapped you go.”

As in, go after the quarterback.

“I empathize with those guys,” UCLA reserve quarterback Kevin Prince said about opposing quarterbacks. “Those two are not allowed to hit me in practice, but it looks pretty bad. The thing that makes them great in this defense is they are so fast. Coming from the edge, with their size, is pretty scary.”

That was the plan.

The job description is extensive, with the need for speed topping it. But size does matter. Zumwalt is 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds. Barr is 6-4, 235.

“They wear many hats in our defense,” Spanos said.

Zumwalt has been doing this for years, falling in love with being a linebacker as a kid. He was the Southern Section’s Pac-5 defensive player of the year as a senior at Huntington Beach Edison High in 2009. He was the Bruins’ third-leading tackler last season, finishing with 60.

“His first step is explosive,” Mora said. “He is relentless.”

Barr played on offense most of his football life. He had 1,890 yards rushing as a junior at Los Angeles Loyola High — he was injured most of his senior year — but to Mora he looked like a linebacker. Barr came to the same conclusion last winter.

“He’s football smart,” Spanos said. “And he knows how to cover ground.”

If anything, Spanos said, Zumwalt and Barr need to tone it down at times. “They do a great job of being maniacs on the field,” the coach said. “They just have to know the calls.”

Which is why outside linebacker was a perfect fit for both.

“Inside linebacker, you’ve got read running backs, you’ve got to read guards, you’ve got to read blocking combinations,” Mora said. “Outside linebacker there is a little bit more … I don’t want to say freedom, but maybe less thinking and maybe more attack.”

You don’t have to tell Zumwalt that twice.

“This defense,” Zumwalt said, “lets you work with your instincts.”

Especially those animal instincts.