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UCLA’s linebackers head into season as a largely unknown quantity

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) is tackled by UCLA linebacker Leni Toailoa.
UCLA linebacker Leni Toailoa tackles USC quarterback Kedon Slovis during last year’s rivalry game. Toailoa is one of the few linebackers back with the Bruins this season.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

In the span of a few months, UCLA has gone from Linebacker U to Who?

Name tags might be helpful after the Bruins lost all four of their top linebackers from last season, including Krys Barnes, a surprise rookie standout with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers after going undrafted.

Part-time starters Bo Calvert, Leni Toailoa and Carl Jones are back, but the majority of the linebacking corps is new. Eight true freshmen, three junior college transfers and two players who switched positions are among the newcomers.

They will all operate in a 4-2-5 alignment that’s designed to rely more on instinct than reaction. Three days into training camp, none of the new players seems lost.

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“I’ve been really impressed with how quickly we’ve been able to turn around and get those guys on par and be able to fly around and have a really mobile defense and be able to fly,” Calvert said Sunday via videoconference.

Chip Kelly knows UCLA’s success weighs heavily upon the defense improving significantly this season. What changes have the Bruins made to address the issue?

Calvert is a veteran who is light on experience, the junior having played in only six games during his two college seasons after sitting out all but the final game in 2019 because of a suspension for unspecified reasons. He’s been playing middle inside linebacker alongside true freshman Jeremiah Trojan, redshirt freshman Adam Cohen and Toailoa, who has also played some weakside linebacker.

Toailoa said Caleb Johnson, a transfer from Fullerton College, and true freshman Kenny Mestidor have been manning weakside linebacker during practices that are closed to the media.

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The linebackers have been bolstered by the addition of Kain Medrano, a converted wide receiver, and Sitiveni Kaufusi, a converted running back. Toailoa said Medrano “looks like a natural” at his new position.

The Bruins also hope to receive significant contributions from outside linebackers Mitchell Agude, a transfer from Riverside City College, and true freshmen Damian Sellers and Myles Jackson.

Calvert intimated that the current group of linebackers may be more focused than its predecessors.

“We haven’t had many problems with guys getting out here early or guys having problems staying late after practice, working on things,” Calvert said. “Everybody has been on top of their stuff, so I think that’s a big change I’ve seen from years prior.”

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UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson believes a month of practice before the Bruins’ opener against Colorado gives them plenty of time to be ready.

Toailoa is also experiencing something different, going into a season without his older brother Lokeni on the roster for the first time since the eighth grade.

Leni moved into a studio apartment after the graduation of his sibling and longtime roommate but still receives some brotherly advice.

“He keeps telling me to work hard and all that,” Leni said, “so keep going.”

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LBU, the next generation

UCLA received a nonbinding verbal commitment Sunday from former Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, who announced on Twitter that he would play for the Bruins in 2021.

Genmark Heath was mostly a reserve in his three seasons with the Fighting Irish, making a combined 42 tackles, including one for loss. He was a candidate to play a bigger role this season before slipping on the depth chart and entering the transfer portal.

The Bruins begin camp on Friday, hoping to bounce back from two poor seasons under Chip Kelly. Here’s a look at five players who could have a big impact.

A native of San Diego, Genmark Heath is expected to complete his degree at Notre Dame before heading to Westwood. He could have as many as two seasons of eligibility remaining based on extensions granted by the NCAA.

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The Bruins could also add a linebacker with a familiar last name if they can land Ethan Calvert, a senior at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, who is being wooed by his older brother in addition to coaches from several Pac-12 Conference schools.

“Obviously, I’m pushing hard for him at this point,” Bo Calvert said. “The biggest thing, I don’t want him to go across the street to SC.”


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