EL PASO — Usually, losing your leading tackler would cause some consternation. But UCLA linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich has a carefree attitude these days.
The Bruins will be without linebacker Eric Kendricks, who had right ankle surgery last week, when they play Virginia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Tuesday. Few seek out ballcarriers better than Kendricks, who has led the team in tackles the last two seasons.
Into that breach goes freshman Isaako Savaiinaea, who seems to have a calming effect on Ulbrich.
"From Day 1, he has had an uncommon maturity for a freshman," Ulbrich said. "I am not worried at all."
It helps that Savaiinaea has been tested. He has played in every game this season, including the second half against Stanford and the entire game against Colorado, when Kendricks was forced to sit out with shoulder and back injuries.
It was on-the-job training.
"Stanford wasn't a great second half," Savaiinaea said. "I had happy feet. I fixed my technique and calmed that down."
He had seven tackles against Colorado, six unassisted.
Ulbrich wasn't surprised. He had seen Savaiinaea steadily grow into the position. Kendricks underwent surgery on his right ankle early in the summer, allowing Savaiinaea extra playing time during training camp.
Even before camp, he was bringing himself up to speed.
"We had, like, two plays in high school, so I knew I was going to have to study a lot," said Savaiinaea, who played at Honolulu Punahou High.
Said Ulbrich: "He is one of those guys who came in during the summer when it was nonmandatory and made sure he understood this defense before he touched the grass in our fall camp."
As Kendricks did, Savaiinaea also will call signals for the defense.
Again, Ulbrich said, not a problem.
"He has natural leadership," Ulbrich said. "He has a voice. He has earned guys' respect."
Running on full
Coach Jim Mora said the Bruins' cadre of running backs is all healthy for the first time this season.
Jordon James and Steven Manfro have recovered from ankle injuries. Damien Thigpen missed the first part of the season while recovering from a knee injury, then also sprained his ankle.
"All look really sharp out here today," Mora said Friday after UCLA practiced. "We're going to have to find a way to distribute the workload and get them all reps."
Having a backfield at full strength does not mean Myles Jack will be limited to defense. Jack, a linebacker, has been a two-way player since debuting as a running back last month.
Defensive lineman Brandon Tuliaupupu has decided to transfer.
Tuliaupupu, who played at Claremont High, sat out this season after suffering an injury to his left knee during training camp. He played in five games last season and has three seasons of remaining eligibility.