Bru­ins have a lot of back­ing

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Ben Bolch ben.bolch@la­times.com Twit­ter: @latb­bolch

With Jayon Brown, Lo­keni Toailoa and Kenny Young, UCLA should be strong at line­backer.

UCLA lineback­ers coach Scott White has a mantra that his play­ers might tire of hear­ing had it not helped a hand­ful rise to promi­nence: Make it so we can’t leave you off the field.

It led to Jayon Brown be­com­ing a starter and even­tual team cap­tain. Now it ap­pears to be hav­ing a sim­i­lar im­pact on Lo­keni Toailoa, the sopho­more who might be the Bru­ins’ new start­ing mid­dle line­backer.

“Lo­keni’s a guy that’s kind of ahead of his time here, he’s a guy that ev­ery­body re­spects,” White said Wed­nes­day. “He made it hard for us to keep him off the field.”

His build also doesn’t hurt. Stand­ing 6 feet 2 and a sturdy 245 pounds, Toailoa ap­pears to be a nat­u­ral mid­dle line­backer, where his strength and dura­bil­ity al­low him to de­liver pun­ish­ing hits on play af­ter play.

“I kind of like the con­tact,” Toailoa said. “I like thump­ing guys.”

Putting Toailoa at mid­dle line­backer has al­lowed the Bru­ins to shift se­nior Kenny Young to weak­side line­backer, where he can be a blitz­ing men­ace and a mas­ter of pur­suit. Ju­nior Josh Woods has manned strong-side line­backer, a spot that de­mands ver­sa­til­ity in run and pass cov­er­age.

“They just fit the po­si­tions per­fectly,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Young had been a sec­ond team All-Pac-12 se­lec­tion at mid­dle line­backer last sea­son, but Mora said Young pro­jected as a weak­side line­backer in the NFL. Young has been a ma­jor dis­rupter of the of­fense on blitzes and Toailoa has ca­pa­bly plugged the mid­dle of the field. Woods, whom White has called the smartest player on the team, has pro­vided strong run sup­port while also drop­ping into pass cov­er­age when needed.

Toailoa bears pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for mak­ing the de­fen­sive calls but of­ten re­lies on an as­sist from the more ex­pe­ri­enced Young, whose recog­ni­tion of sub­tle cues pro­vided by the of­fense helps shift the Bru­ins into a fa­vor­able align­ment.

“That’s one area I wanted to take strides in is try­ing to be aware of a play hap­pen­ing be­fore it’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing,” said Young, who com­pared his men­tor­ing of Toailoa to the coun­sel­ing he re­ceived from Eric Ken­dricks, now a mid­dle line­backer for the Min­nesota Vik­ings.

In nickel de­fense sit­u­a­tions, when an ex­tra de­fen­sive back is needed, Toailoa has been the line­backer to come off the field.

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tom Bradley said the lineback­ers are learn­ing all three po­si­tions to in­crease ver­sa­til­ity and pro­vide depth in case of in­juries. Bre­land Brandt and Krys Barnes are among the other lineback­ers who have gen­er­ated high­lights dur­ing train­ing camp and DeChaun Hol­i­day could con­tend for sig­nif­i­cant play­ing time once he re­turns from the shoul­der in­jury that has side­lined him since spring prac­tice.

Mora said he’s also liked what he’s seen from a vis­i­bly slim­mer Mique Juarez, the red­shirt fresh­man who sat out last sea­son while deal­ing with the pres­sures of be­ing a highly touted re­cruit. Juarez re­cently de­liv­ered a jar­ring hit on run­ning back Bolu Olorun­funmi, re­mind­ing ob­servers why the line­backer had been so widely cov­eted.

“You’re start­ing to see what we saw in Mique when we re­cruited him,” Mora said. “He’s trim­ming down, he’s get­ting in shape, he un­der­stands the sys­tem, he’s happy, his discipline is good, so it’s good to see that.”

Juarez has split time at mid­dle and weak­side line­backer, with Mora say­ing he pro­jected as a weak­side line­backer once he fully rounds into shape. White said he’d like Juarez to lose seven or eight more pounds.

UCLA’s lineback­ers ap­pear to have mul­ti­ple stan­dard bear­ers among their un­der­class­men, with Toailoa in line to be­come per­haps the most in­dis­pens­able. “He’s just con­tin­ued to push and he’s in the right spots, he makes all the calls for us out there,” White said. “Ev­ery­body re­ally re­spects him and he’ll be a guy that’s a fu­ture cap­tain around here for a long time.”

Quick hits

Re­ceiver Jor­dan Lasley re­turned to prac­tice af­ter a one-day ab­sence, but tight end Austin Roberts and run­ning backs Bran­don Stephens and Nate Starks were ab­sent. … Run­ning back Soso Jam­abo and re­ceiver Audie Omo­to­sho rode the sta­tion­ary bikes usu­ally occupied by in­jured play­ers. … Michael Alves re­placed Na­jee To­ran at left guard; To­ran was vis­i­bly limp­ing along the side­line. … Poasi Moala played some right tackle, the spot usu­ally occupied by Sunny Odogwu and Kenny Lacy.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

UCLA SE­NIOR Kenny Young, a sec­ond team All-Pac-12 se­lec­tion at mid­dle line­backer last sea­son, was shifted to weak­side line­backer for the up­com­ing sea­son.

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