LOS ANGELES — Lokeni Toailoa can’t help but boast about his unique dinner companion on Twitter. It’s a thick white three-ring binder with a photo of the Rose Bowl on the front: UCLA’s playbook.
For an improving middle linebacker, it’s the perfect company for a meal of Fruity Pebbles cereal.
The sophomore’s growing understanding of the playbook and an improved skill-set on the field forced UCLA coaches to make a change at linebacker early in training camp.
To maximize the talent on an inexperienced linebacker unit, coaches moved senior Kenny Young, who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors at middle linebacker last year, to the weak-side position, shifted junior Josh Woods from the weak side to the strong side, where he played last season, and stuck Toailoa right in the center. The sophomore has made the change worth it so far.
“Lokeni’s a guy that’s kind of ahead of his time here,” linebackers coach Scott White said. “He’s a guy who everybody respects, he’s come right in the door, obviously being a very heralded recruit here and he’s lived up to that every day.”
Toailoa, once a four-star prospect from Carter High in Rialto, didn’t take any major defensive snaps as a freshman in 2016. He went through all of spring practice and the first few days of training camp as the second team’s middle linebacker. But he studied his playbook and worked to improve his coverage skills. White had no choice but to find the sophomore a place on the field.
“He’ll be a guy that’s a future captain around here for a long time,” the coach said.
Young and Woods, the only current linebackers with playing experience, worked in the middle and weak-side positions, respectively, all spring as the Bruins searched for a solution on the strong side. The new alignment puts UCLA’s three most consistent linebackers on the field together, head coach Jim Mora said, and slots each player into the position he is most meant to play from a body-type perspective.
Young, at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, is a classic Will linebacker with speed. That’s where the senior will make his NFL money one day, Mora said. The 6-2, 235-pound Woods is rangy, fast and versatile and can maximize his athletic ability at the Sam position, where he will need to tackle bruising running backs as well as cover fast receivers. Toailoa, who wears the No. 52 jersey as a nod to NFL greats Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis, is the 6-2, 245-pound thumper.
Young is coming off his best season…