When fifth-year senior Tony Phillips went out with a knee injury at the start of the season, the UCLA football coaches did a lot of cringing and head shaking. Phillips' replacement at outside linebacker would have to be a sophomore who had played very little as a freshman.
The Bruins already had a sophomore starting at the other outside linebacker spot, the one vacated by Neal Dellocono, the graduated all-conference player.
"We were very concerned about the position when Tony went down," UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. "He was a good, experienced player and he was a leader. We knew we would miss his personality on the defense. We knew we would miss a lot of things about him.
"We had several very good players, but they were all inexperienced."
Since the initial head-shaking, though, the coaches haven't said much about the outside linebackers.
The sophomore starters and their cast of freshman backup players have kept the position covered.
Melvin Jackson, a 6-foot 3-inch, 223-pound redshirt sophomore from Suffolk, Va., and the guy who is replacing Dellocono on the left side, is tied with inside linebacker Tommy Taylor for second in tackles with 65.
Eric Smith, a 6-3, 222-pound true sophomore from Oakland who is replacing Phillips on the right side, has just 41 tackles, but he also has been credited with five sacks and a fumble recovery and with hurrying eight passes.
Jackson is backed up by redshirt freshman Chance Johnson and freshman Carnell Lake, and Smith is backed up by redshirt freshman Billy Ray.
And they all get playing time.
That says a lot for UCLA's depth, and the strength of recruiting the last few years.
As Jackson said: "Any time a player is recruited at UCLA, you have to assume that he can play. There's not that much difference between the third-string guy and the first-string guy. The competition keeps you on your toes."
Jackson was not recruited by UCLA at first. He was being recruited by North Carolina State, the University of North Carolina, Virginia, Florida--schools in the neighborhood--until the entire staff found itself on the way out at North Carolina State.
Jackson said: "When the NC State coaches found out they wouldn't be back, they turned over their recruits to Coach Robinson."
Greg Robinson, who coaches the UCLA defensive line, had played with and coached with Pete Carroll, who was on the outgoing NC State staff. Robinson got a call from Carroll alerting him to Melvin Jackson.
"I would give my high school coach, Willie Ricks, credit for convincing me that it would be good for me to come all the way here," Jackson said. "But he didn't have to try too hard. The trip said it all for me. I loved it out here."
Donahue said: "Obviously we thought Melvin Jackson was a good player when we signed him, but he has gone beyond any expections I had for him at this point. He has to be one of the most improved players on the team.
"He's playing with more intensity and confidence this year. And he's getting stronger. He came in as kind of a tall kid who hadn't reached full maturity. I thought of him as a long-term project, but he has gotten stronger and he's doing a nice job for us already.
"On the other side, Eric Smith is, potentially, one of the strongest outside linebackers we've had in our program in a long time. He has real good size and strength, and as he gets even stronger, he has a chance to be very, very good. He is, now, one of our top pass rushers."
Smith was recruited by the schools in his neighborhood, too--Cal and Stanford. He was also recruited by USC, among others. But he chose UCLA, he said, "for the combination of great athletics and great education."
The fact that he did not redshirt and played as a freshman indicates how much the Bruin staff thought of him.
"One thing that helped me a lot last season was playing behind Tony Phillips," Smith said. "He was like a big brother to me. He helped me with football, with getting used to school, with everything."
Also helpful has been Smith's playing beside fifth-year senior defensive tackle Mark Walen. "He has so much experience and he's so good, I can learn from just watching him," Smith said. "And he's the kind of guy who will take time to help you, even during a game.
"It has eased the pressure on me, too, because I think they run away from our side sometimes."
No matter which way teams run against the Bruin defense, they don't usually get far. UCLA continues to rank No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense, giving up an average of just 66.6 yards a game rushing. Last Saturday, at Arizona, the defense limited the Wildcats to 179 total yards.
Besides Walen and Taylor, the defensive unit includes senior Steve Jarecki at inside linebacker and senior strong safety Craig Rutledge or, while he's out, senior Joe Gasser. But the majority of the defensive spots are filled by underclassmen.
"I think that right now, Melvin Jackson and I are doing our jobs," Smith said. "People seem to be satisfied for the most part."
Smith, in fact, likes the potential of the Bruins' entire defensive unit.
"Look at who we have in the secondary," he said. "Look at what (junior cornerback) Chuckie Miller did last week. He batted down four balls. James Washington and Dennis Price are sophomores.
"If you think about that, it makes you realize how much potential we have as a group."