HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — When senior Jayon Brown calls UCLA “Linebacker U.,” as he did at Friday’s session of Pac-12 Media Days, recent history supports the point.
Brown flashed an infectious grin while talking up the recent run of play-makers at the position, from Anthony Barr to Eric Kendricks to Myles Jack, all of whom shined since Jim Mora took over as head coach in 2012.
“This is the standard for linebackers at UCLA,” Brown said. “We’ve got Butkus [Award] winners.”
But the linebacker lineage in Westwood runs much deeper than the Mora era: Akeem Ayers, Bruce Davis and Reggie Carter in the late 2000s, dating back to the 1980s and 1970s with Ken Norton Jr. and Jerry Robinson.
The continued growth of UCLA’s Linebacker U. reputation will determine the Bruins’ place in the Pac-12 in 2016. With Jack and star defensive tackle Kenny Clark gone, UCLA faces some unknowns in a front seven that struggled against the run in 2015.
“We need to eliminate those [long runs],” Brown said plainly. “We gave up a lot of those last year.”
Indeed, rush defense functioned as something of an Achilles’ heel for the Bruins in 2015. They allowed 198.5 rushing yards per game a season ago, No. 98 in the nation, and gave up totals of 353 against Arizona; 311 at Stanford; and 326 in the bowl game loss to Nebraska.
Only Arizona resulted in a UCLA win.
As the veteran leader, Brown accepts the responsibility of improving UCLA’s run defense. He also ushers in a new generation of representatives from Linebacker U.
Brown learned as an understudy to Kendricks and Jack, last year stepping up as the Bruins’ primary inside linebacker when Jack went down to a knee injury.
He finished 2015 with 93 tackles, doing much of his work in the second half of the season with four double-digit tackle games from Halloween day on. Brown’s rapid ascent didn’t slow going into the spring, either.
In April, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley called Brown one of the most improved Bruins. Brown’s growth is visibly evident, his work in the weight room showing in a more muscular physique.
Mora pointed to the strength and conditioning program’s place in improving UCLA’s defense for the coming season.
“If you look at the way Jayon looks today, and getting Eddie [Vanderdoes] back and adding some of the young men that we have that have some size,” Mora said. “Looking at Matt Dickerson who’s now a 290-pounder and Eli Ankou is 320 and not chubby but fit, I think we’ve moved in the right direction.”
UCLA also focused specifically on strengthening the front seven in spring practices with 9-on-7 drills, which Brown touted as a cornerstone for shaping the Bruins’ 2016 defensive identity.
“9-on-7 brings that physicality,” Brown said. “You can’t run away from the contact, so it’s making us more physical as a team and keeping us accountable to do your job.”
Additions and re-additions will also play a role.
Vanderdoes went down Week 1 against Virginia and never returned. He’s a former five-star prospect who can play both on the edge as a end, or on the interior as a tackle.
Brown described Vanderdoes as a “monster,” who of “throws grown men like they’re children.”
Five-star true freshman Mique Juarez enrolled at UCLA early and performed well in spring practices. Juarez looks like the next Bruin to carry the mantle for Linebacker U.
“Mique’s very athletic. He’s an animal,” Brown said. “He can help us win this year.”
Juarez’s place in the defense isn’t just a can contribute; it’s a must contribute, Brown explained.
“I told him that, ‘We need you this year,'” Brown said.
The new generation at Linebacker U. is here, and will be put to the test early. A promising season opens with a road game against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses of recent years, Texas A&M.