Dealing with lingering injury issues as the draft looms is a bit like winning the lottery and crashing your car as you drive to pick up the check, especially for top prospects. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack knows this feeling. Jack starred on both sides of the ball as a true freshman in 2013, logging 51 solo tackles, seven tackles for loss, a sack, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed in addition to 267 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as a running back. He followed that up with 57 tackles and an interception in 2014, the year in which he became the very model of the modern linebacker, able to do everything from knocking blockers back to hanging with speed receivers in coverage.
His rise to stardom hit a snag in September 2015, when a torn meniscus brought an end to his season after just three games. Since then, Jack has been focused on his recovery and how he’ll come back to the game—but more specifically, how he’ll fare in the draft, where he was once thought to be a surefire top-five pick. That may still be the case, but the uncertainty coming out of his medical re-check last week may have clouded the picture.
One day before his medical re-check in Indianapolis, before we started watching tape of his standout college career together by phone, he didn’t seem nervous at all.
“The knee right now, I’m past the point of worrying about it,” he says. “I’m trying to get in shape. I got medically cleared to do everything [at the combine in February], and everything’s been fine. I haven’t had any setbacks. No swelling or anything, so mentally, I’m not even focused on that. I’m just trying to get that endurance back that I had in college. I’ve been doing a lot of change of direction work—being able to go hard in spurts, take a little rest and go hard again. A lot of cone drills, and even suicides, running back and forth on the field. The Fisher Sports Institute has me on a great program, where it’s really designed to get me back to being a football player. I got cleared to be a pedestrian, and now, it’s time to be an NFL football player.”
Will Carroll, who has covered injuries extensively for a number of outlets, including SI, said that none of the teams he has talked to have red-flagged Jack. Neither have two prominent knee surgeons familiar with Jack’s injury.
“So he has a knee problem—a pretty common one, with a meniscal tear,” Carroll said. “He had it repaired rather than removed, a decision he made to think about his long-term future. Many would just have it pulled and be back in a couple weeks, but his knee would be missing the cushioning, so he’d have lost something and the expectation would be a re-injury down the line. That’s still a possibility, but it’s not an expectation.
“Lots of players have had meniscal repair and come back well, for years. Sure, if it tears again they could pull it. If he still has problems, [microfracture surgery] is an option. And sure, somewhere years down the line he might need a knee replacement, like a lot of NFL players. My guess is he’ll be retired by then.”
Jack said that he hasn’t talked with other players who have overcome similar injuries, but he has taken some inspiration from Rams running back Todd Gurley, who recovered a more serious knee injury to put up a tremendous rookie season.
“Just watching him and watching the season he had last year ... he did his thing, you know what I mean? And that gives guys like me hope. I didn’t have the severity of injury that he had, and it goes to show you that if you work hard and take everything seriously, it’ll all come out the way it’s supposed to. I’m excited, man.”
The healthy Jack that shows up on tape is one of the best players in this draft class, and if he can maintain that going forward, he will be a difference-maker on whichever NFL defense he joins.
Doug Farrar: Had you played the entire 2015 season, what were you looking forward to working on? Where would you have liked to improve?
Myles Jack: I was really focused on winning the Pac-12 championship for my junior season. That’s all I wanted to do. In the three games I played last year, I got moved around to so many positions. That was just the coaches putting me in positions where I could showcase my skills, and at the same time, put the team in the best position to win. I was focused on that, and that’s why the injury was so drastic to me, because I really wanted to do something special last year in Westwood.
DF: How much has it helped you in your development as an NFL prospect that UCLA coach Jim Mora has so much NFL experience, and that the UCLA defense had so many pro concepts?
MJ: Yeah, that’s definitely the reason I committed to UCLA in the first place. I knew what Coach Mora and his staff brought to the table—his expertise, and just what he's done in the NFL. I definitely wanted to learn from that and grow in a system like that. It’s gotten me to the position I’m in today, his coaching and everything. I’m definitely appreciative of that, and it’s the reason I went to UCLA.
DF: Did it surprise you when Coach Mora questioned whether there was enough tape on you after you decided to enter the draft? What would you say to anyone who actually agreed with that?
MJ: No, we had that conversation when I told him I was leaving. He’s been in the NFL, and he’s been in those war rooms. He knows how the draft goes down; people can second-guess themselves and everything. Teams look at everything—they turn little things into big things, so that was just him letting me know, this is what’s ahead of you. Teams brought that up at the combine. The things he said in public were the things he said to me, so I didn’t take any offense at it. I appreciate him keeping it real with me.
DF: Great. Let's get to the tape.
Play 1: 2014 vs. Virginia, 8:39 left in the second quarter
DF: I wanted to start with this play because it’s a great example of what the modern-day linebacker is tasked with in the NFL—not just deal with run fits and screens and things like that but also cover in the slot and prevent short passes, as you do here against Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell. Two questions about this play: First, what are the qualities that make a great slot defender, and how have you learned to time route jumps so well?
MJ: Well, I should have had a pick-six in this game [laughs]. With the qualities, you have to be very patient. They’re gonna know it’s a linebacker on them at the line of scrimmage, so they’re going to give you their best moves. You have to understand that when they’re coming at you, eventually, they have to pick a direction to go. That’s kind of where I’m at, just being very patient. In guarding the slot, when someone looks up, you can tell when they’re about to catch the ball, when their eyes get big and their hands start to form a catching position. ... I understand angles, and I know when to jump, when not to jump and what the situation is.
On this play, it was third-and-five, so I’m trying to reach over and not get a pass interference call while playing outside leverage. I wasn't called, and I’m just trying to make a play.
DF: On something like that, short-yardage coverage, what are your keys? What are you looking for? Are there instances where the receiver might go vertical and you’d hand him off to the safety and peel off to cover someone else?
MJ: Correct. So, this was our Cover-1, and I think we had [linebacker Eric Kendricks] in the low hole, defending, so I know I can’t get beaten outside. I can get beaten inside somewhat because I don’t have help, but at the same time, I’m playing to the strength of the defense. It worked in my favor, because there was enough room between Eric and me to where I had to reach inside and try not to get a pass interference, and it all worked out.
DF: Is your coverage man against a two-way go? Are you covering him no matter where he goes, or is there a zone concept installed?
MJ: It’s definitely man—if he ran to the stands, I’d have to run with him. It’s just about understanding your defense and understanding your leverage. I knew with Virginia, Taquan was their high-point. He's the guy they want to get the ball to—he’s a running back and a slot receiver, very good player. I just had to understand that on third-and-five, that’s who they’re going to. I have to play to my defense but at the same time understand that the quarterback may try and force-feed him. You just have to make a play and swat it down.
Play 2: 2014 vs. USC, 2:00 left in the third quarter
DF: I could have used a ton of different examples of this, but this play against USC is the best I saw in the six games I watched: You take an outside receiver (USC’s Nelson Agholor) up the boundary, establish inside position and basically remove him as a target in the same way a Richard Sherman would. It’s very unusual for a 245-pound linebacker to do that consistently. How did that develop to the point where your coaches could actually count on you to do something most linebackers just don’t do?
MJ: Coach Mora put that challenge on my plate. He came up and told me, “Nelson Agholor is their guy, and we want to put you on him.” And when he told me that, I was locked in that week, man. I watched Nelson Agholor’s high-school highlights, I watched all his [college] games and tried to get his tendencies. When I got on him, no disrespect to him, but it seemed that he didn’t really like hands on him. I tried to be physical, and it seemed that he tried to take people on a track meet. I figured I was fast enough to run with him; let me see if I can disrupt him a little bit and be on him, just pester him the whole game.
On that particular play, I was on an island, and I was saying, Don’t get beat inside. If he wants to run outside, let’s run. It’s a big testament to Coach Mora having that trust in me, and I have to answer the call. I can’t make him look wrong.
DF: Judging from the motion, is that Cover-1 as well?
MJ: Yeah, it’s Cover-1. I was basically locked on Nelson the whole game, and that was that. The corner ran with the other guy, and I was locked on [Agholor]. I was playing cornerback too, I guess.
DF: In a case like that, where you’re following a guy all over the field no matter what, do you see receivers trying to change their moves and tendencies to adjust to your coverage, beyond whatever routes they may be running?
MJ: He definitely adapted his game. There were a couple times he hit me with some new stuff, but I’m hitting him with new stuff, and you have to adapt. It’s kinda like life. He throws you a curveball, you see he has that in his arsenal, and I adjust so I don’t get hit with that again. It’s chess, really—you always have to have a plan. The play may not go as expected, but you have to stick with it.
DF: Who was the receiver that gave you the most fits in college?
MJ: I would say Tyler Lockett from Kansas State. He’s very good, as you see in the NFL. And Paul Richardson from Colorado, I still think he’s one of the better receivers. [USC’s] Marqise Lee was very good, too. There are a lot of good guys, but those were the main ones that were fun to play against because of how dynamic they were.
Play 3: 2015 Alamo Bowl vs. Kansas State, 12:47 left in the first quarter
DF: Pass rushers who weigh only 245 pounds are at a disadvantage going face-up with bigger players, so this play in which you stood up left tackle Cody Whitehair, a potential first-rounder in his own right, makes for an impressive highlight. What techniques do you use to deal with bigger blockers in run fits (especially when you’re double-teamed), and how do you think you project as an edge rusher?
MJ: When you’re double-teamed, it’s just understanding where you fit in the defense. That’s the main key. If you have outside contain, stay outside. That’s huge, just understanding where you can and can’t be beat. That’s the biggest thing about defense. You can show whatever look you want and play around with it, but at the end of the day, if you understand where you can’t get beat and how the defense is supposed to work, everything will be okay.
In this instance we ran a “saw” blitz—me and Eric Kendricks are coming, so I know that if I collapse the pocket ... we both got through, and E.K. made the play. Playing within the defense and trusting your guys that they’ll be there and doing your job. That’s all that play is, really.
DF: Su’a Cravens of USC told me that blitzing for him, weighing about 220, is about speed through the gap as opposed to strength. Is that true in your case, as well?
MJ: I think it is. I’ve been blessed with a nice combination of power and speed, so to keep it consistent in what you’re doing with these linemen, I think that’s the key. Most of the time, they assume you’re coming with speed, so they’ll backpedal and kick-step really fast, and you’ve got to get them on their heels and drive them back. That’s what I tried to do. I think [Whitehair] was anticipating speed, so I closed the pocket really quick, and I knew he thought I wasn’t going to get the sack.
DF: Let’s say your NFL team wanted you rushing off the edge a good percentage of the time. They want to turn you into a 10-sack guy. Are you ready to do that right now?
MJ: Yeah ... I think that’s a part of my game I really need to work on. If there’s a weakness in my game, it’s that I need to improve my pass rush and be more consistent. I want to have better technique and better moves, but I’m definitely capable of it, and I’ll put in the work. Whatever a team wants me to do, I can do it.
DF: What do you think you do best?
MJ: I would say, run and hit. That’s the makeup of my mentality: Whoever has the ball, get them down.
Play 4: 2015 Alamo Bowl vs. Kansas State, 14:28 left in the second quarter
DF: This tackle for loss displayed a few of your primary attributes: sideline-to-sideline speed, tracking ability and closing speed. And I’ve seen countless examples of your diagnostic skills, where you’ll peel off a rush and shift to correct coverage or redirect to the ball in a split second. How have you developed your field vision and diagnostic skills, and how important are those skills to your game?
MJ: Again, just knowing the defense and understanding that I had outside leverage. The fullback came to block me, but he didn’t come to block me. I knew it was a read-option, so the Mike ’backer had the fullback in pass coverage. So that didn’t faze me. I was getting to the ball, forced [the quarterback] to pitch it, and then I’m just sitting there, waiting to make the tackle. I was checking the offense, making them think that I’m sitting there waiting for a second, and then going in to make the tackle.
DF: This is one of many plays where your head is always to the target, but your body’s moving. It’s a combination of physical and mental focus, and you seem to work on that a lot.
MJ: You have to see what you hit—you have to be very in sync. You’re moving fast on that field, but if you can lock in and zoom your focus, just keeping your eyes on the target ... that’s how a lot of people miss tackles. They close their eyes, they blink, they turn their head, little things like that. If you can really look through the target, wrap up and get them on the ground, that's the perfect way to tackle somebody.
Play 5: 2015 vs. BYU, 0:39 left in the first quarter
DF: I wanted to include this play even though I already have one of you as a slot defender, because this is my favorite example of your ability to cover the slot. NFL cornerbacks have told me how difficult the slot can be because you’re dealing with no boundary, two-way goes, all kinds of different things. But on this play, you do a great job of mirroring Colby Pearson’s route and jumping the route at the last second. How have you learned to stick with guys in open spaces like that, and how much pattern-reading did you use at UCLA?
MJ: This is a “robber” call, so I can’t get beat outside again. As far as pattern matching, that’s all preparation and film study. Me knowing I was going to play nickel this week, I just studied each receiver, jotted down the numbers and said, O.K., these are the routes they run—this guy is physical, this guy is quick, this guy is mainly in the slot. Understanding how I go up against them, and understanding this particular receiver, he was a speed guy, so I really just trailed him. Once he broke [on the route] and I saw his eyes get big and his hands coming to make the catch, I just batted it down. I really should have picked it off, but I batted it down.
DF: Final question: Are you the best player in this draft class?
MJ: I definitely believe I am. Without a doubt.