UCLA's Myles Jack emerging as true two-way star; Walkthrough

Thursday November 21st, 2013

UCLA freshman Myles Jack (30) has played a key role for the Bruins as both a linebacker and a tailback.
Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

LOS ANGELES -- The move was inspired less by genius and more by necessity. UCLA coaches didn't set out to turn Myles Jack into the most exciting two-way player in years. They only wanted to gain a few more yards on the ground.

Forget Charles Woodson, the Michigan cornerback who caught 11 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown as a receiver during his 1997 Heisman Trophy season. Jack -- who has rushed for five touchdowns in two weeks as a tailback, and has been one of the nation's best freshman linebackers the entire season -- seems shot straight out of the 1930s, an ironman who can dominate on both sides of the ball. He'll likely play a role in the Bruins' offense again on Saturday, when they face Arizona State in the Rose Bowl in a game that could determine the winner of the Pac-12 South. But making Jack a regular feature of the offense wasn't necessarily the intent of UCLA coaches when they decided to hand him the ball. With three backs nursing injuries heading into the Bruins' game at Arizona on Nov. 9, the coaches needed a creative solution to keep their running game alive.

Enter offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, known affectionately to some of his players as Heisenberg. The Bruins aren't well versed in quantum mechanics, nor are they offering a commentary on the unpredictability of Mazzone's schemes. Mazzone, with his shiny dome, glasses and goatee, simply bears a striking resemblance to Walter White, perhaps the most beloved antihero in television history. In Breaking Bad, White begins as a high school chemistry teacher and ends up as a drug lord. His nom de meth? Heisenberg, in honor of the physicist best known for the uncertainty principle.

With backs Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen all hobbled by ankle injuries, Mazzone had to go into the lab and create some way to move the ball on the ground. His playbook included an inverted wishbone formation, which featured a ballcarrier running behind two fullbacks, and a heavy line with two tight ends. Such a formation would allow a player unfamiliar with carrying the ball at the college level to run behind a protective wall of beef. If that player was explosive and instinctive enough, he just might gain a few yards.

STAPLES: UCLA sits at No. 11 in latest college football Power Rankings

From what he had seen across the practice field all season, Mazzone admired Jack's explosiveness and instincts. When Jack arrived on campus from Bellevue, Wash., over the summer, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos knew he had to get the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder on the field. By the time the Arizona game rolled around, Jack was playing two defensive positions. On normal downs, he played outside linebacker. On obvious passing downs, he shifted to middle linebacker. Though Jack already had a lot on his plate, Mazzone asked Spanos if he might be able to borrow the freshman for a few minutes at practice. He had an idea, and he thought Jack might like it.

Mazzone also requested another favor of Spanos. He needed some extra heft. So Mazzone borrowed defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes, Cassius Marsh, Kenny Clark and Keenan Graham, as well as linebacker Jordan Zumwalt to help block for Jack. "Personnel-wise, offensively, we're kind of a small, quick group," Mazzone said. "We don't have a lot of the big, physical guys that can play on the edge. [The defense has] those guys."

Jack still didn't quite believe that his coaches were going to hand him the ball in a full stadium. "I thought they were playing," Jack said. "They had been hinting at it since summer. They finally called it in a game. I didn't think we were actually going to run it. I thought we were going to hard-count them and call timeout." Against the Wildcats, Jack carried six times for 120 yards. Early in the fourth quarter, he broke free down the right sideline and raced for a 66-yard touchdown. On defense, he made eight tackles and recovered a fumble.

Last week against Washington, UCLA used the package again. Jack carried 13 times for 60 yards and four touchdowns. Mazzone also added another wrinkle. He had quarterback Brett Hundley fake to Jack and throw a touchdown pass to Marsh who's a defensive end. Meanwhile, Jack made five tackles and broke up a pass on defense.

On Tuesday, camera crews from ESPN and Fox descended on the Bruins' practice field to examine the curiosity of a true throwback player in this era of specialization. For his part, Jack still considers himself a moonlighting defender. Asked to choose between the two positions, he'd choose linebacker. In fact, he made that exact choice when he was being recruited, receiving offers from around the Pac-12 as well as interest from Florida State and Georgia. Jack had starred as both a running back and a linebacker at Bellevue High, but he always preferred defense. "It was mostly linebacker," Jack said. "A couple schools here and there were running back. Some let me choose what I wanted to be, and I made it clear that I wanted to play linebacker."

Jack still wants to play linebacker. He prefers tackling to being tackled, and he considers his interception to seal a 34-27 victory at Utah on Oct. 3 more satisfying than any touchdown. It's unlikely that UCLA will expand Jack's role in the offense beyond the current package, because that would require Jack to learn all the blocking assignments and pass protection rules. During game weeks, defensive coaches must prepare Jack the linebacker to face the opposing offense. That leaves the offensive coaches no time to teach Jack the finer points of blocking. "We can't," Bruins coach Jim Mora said. "So we don't even try."

In the offseason, coaches will have to decide how to best use Jack going forward. Jack has made his preference known, but he'll do whatever he is asked. "Whatever the team needs," he said. "It's not my choice. It's what my coaches say." For now, Jack will also do whatever his team requires. If that means making tackles and then turning around and carrying the ball, so be it. He is only 18, so his body can recover more quickly than most. Plus, now he has some empathy for the offensive players. Two games of playing tailback at the college level have taught Jack what his opponents feel when he tackles them.

"It's definitely harder than it looks," said the guy who makes it look so easy.

Pregame adjustments

Michigan State at Northwestern: The Spartans can clinch the Big Ten Legends Division with a win in Evanston. If that happens, the snake-bitten Wildcats will fall to 0-7 in conference play. Remember when undefeated Northwestern led Ohio State in the fourth quarter? It feels like two years ago. It was less than two months ago.

Oklahoma at Kansas State: The Oklahoman reported this week that Trevor Knight will start at quarterback in place of Blake Bell (concussion), so the Sooners should be able to use the quarterback run game. But Knight will have to play without two of the offense's better playmakers. Tailback Damien Williams and receiver Lacoltan Bester have been suspended for the game, according to a report from KOCO-TV.

Michigan at Iowa: In an interview this week on the Stoney & Bill show on Detroit radio station 97.1 The Ticket, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke offered the following assessment of his program: "Honestly, we're a pretty good football team." Michigan fans might disagree. They expected more in Hoke's third season in Ann Arbor, and a division title is out of reach. Now the Wolverines are playing for respectability. They salvaged some last week with an amazing fire-drill field goal at Northwestern as regulation expired, but they'll have to keep their edge against a Hawkeyes team that is neither good nor bad. A loss would send Michigan into the Ohio State game with four defeats, and a 7-5 campaign is not what most Wolverines signed up for.

Indiana at Ohio State: Given the Hoosiers' obvious disdain for defense, it's entirely possible the Buckeyes could score 100 points if they so desired. Because Ohio State is in a no-win situation relative to the BCS standings, a blowout probably wouldn't make much of a difference. The Buckeyes would just get ripped for running up the score. So maybe they should try to stop at 70.

MANDEL: What's holding Ohio State back in the BCS race?; more mail

Oregon at Arizona: ESPN.com's Ted Miller made a convincing case this week for why one loss shouldn't eliminate Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota from the Heisman race. Miller is correct, of course. Even the best players occasionally lose games in a team sport, and Mariota has remained one of the nation's best passers in spite of being limited on the ground by a knee injury. His line and backs may need to pick up the slack a little more in the rushing department, but Oregon is in prime position to win the Pac-12, and Mariota remains one of the nation's top threats through the air.

Idaho at Florida State: That Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston's DNA matched a sample collected from the underwear of the woman accusing Winston of sexual assault doesn't change much about that case. Winston's attorney said on Thursday that he expected Winston's DNA would come back a match. This case will come down to a question of consent, and at this point, there are few clear facts. We've heard from lawyers on all sides of the case -- the prosecutor, Winston's attorney and the alleged victim's attorney -- but we won't know what the accuser and the witnesses actually told investigators unless the state attorney's office decides whether to pursue a charge against Winston. For now, Winston's status with Florida State hasn't changed. He is expected to play against the Vandals on Saturday, but expect plenty of snaps for Sean Maguire. Maguire was the Seminoles' third-string quarterback, but a knee injury suffered by backup Jacob Coker has elevated him to No. 2 on the depth chart. If Winston were to be charged with a felony -- school rules prohibit athletes facing felony charges from playing -- Maguire would become the guy.

Texas A&M at LSU: Like Mariota, Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel remains in the Heisman conversation, but how seriously voters take his quest for a second consecutive trophy will depend on the next two weeks. Manziel will face LSU and Missouri, and huge performances in those two games could catapult him back to the top of the list. Heading into his 11th game last year, Manziel had completed 227-of-336 passes for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns, with six interceptions, while running for 1,014 yards and 15 scores. Heading into his 11th game this year, Manziel has completed 230-of-315 passes for 3,313 yards and 31 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions, while running for 611 yards and eight scores. There is one catch. Texas A&M may need to win both games for Manziel to be heavily considered. The Aggies' defense has not helped the offense much this fall. With matchups against high-powered offenses in Baton Rouge and Columbia, now would be a good time for that unit to start providing some aid.

Wisconsin at Minnesota: If you've watched a lot of football this year, you know the Badgers are underrated relative to their results so far. If you follow advanced statistics, you know that Wisconsin is severely underrated. A win over the 8-2 Golden Gophers should earn a measure of respect for the Badgers, but it certainly seems as if people stopped watching them after their controversial loss to Arizona State. On the flip side, a win over Wisconsin would be huge for a Minnesota squad that is one of college football's best stories in 2013.

Missouri at Ole Miss: Tigers coach Gary Pinkel has done well this season keeping his team focused on playing one game at a time, but that will be tougher than ever this week. Missouri's players are being bombarded with big-picture scenarios; they have to beat the Rebels on the road and then return home and beat Texas A&M to win the SEC East. Any slip, and South Carolina would take the division. So Pinkel has spent the week trying to remind his players that they can beat only Ole Miss on Saturday. If the Tigers take the field worried about anything besides beating the Rebels, Ole Miss is certainly capable of pulling off an upset. "They've got really good receivers, running backs," Pinkel told the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. "They've got a stable full of athletes at those positions. The numbers they're putting up, the stress they put on defenses are real."

Baylor at Oklahoma State: Bears coach Art Briles said on Wednesday that tailbacks Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin -- who missed last week's 63-34 win over Texas Tech with injuries -- should be ready to play against the Cowboys. Even if they do, Baylor's depth will be tested against the best defense it's seen to date. Bears left tackle Spencer Drango ruptured a disk in his back and will be out for a while. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State hopes to have receiver/returner Josh Stewart (ankle) back on Saturday. Stewart sat out the Cowboys' 38-13 victory at Texas last week.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles

USC interim coach Ed Orgeron was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Club Coach of the Year Award this week. Orgeron, last spotted on the field conducting the USC band with a sword following the Trojans' 20-17 upset of Stanford last Saturday, is 5-1 since taking over following the abrupt firing of Lane Kiffin.

The idea of an interim coach being named the best coach in the country seems preposterous, but what Orgeron has done with a roster depleted by injuries and NCAA sanctions is nothing short of amazing. On Wednesday, Orgeron was asked about the Maxwell Award. He said anything he could get "for the Trojans" would be fantastic, but he wasn't worried about individual prizes. "This is about a group of men that have galvanized, a group of players that have galvanized," Orgeron said. "And all of them have done a tremendous job. One team, one heartbeat. That's the mantra."

The ultimate prize for Coach O would be the permanent job at USC. That seemed ludicrous when he was elevated, but the thought has become less far-fetched with each win. USC athletic director Pat Haden will have to try to divorce the emotion surrounding the program's recent surge from his decision-making process and hire the coach he thinks will be best over the long run. Orgeron has coached his way into serious consideration.

THAMEL: Complete 2013 college football hiring and firing season primer

Vintage video of the week

This one isn't very old at all, but it should serve as a reminder of just how far Baylor has come in the past few years. These are the lowlights of the Bears' last trip to Stillwater, in 2011. Even though Baylor had eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, the Cowboys dominated and won by five touchdowns.

More Mazzone on cooking plays

UCLA's Mazzone thought a little harder about the Heisenberg comparisons, and as an avid Breaking Bad viewer, he determined that White -- at times brilliant and at times bumbling -- was an awful lot like an offensive coordinator. "He's the bad guy," Mazzone said. "You really want to like him. But just when you start to like him, he does something that you hate him for. Just when he's really doing good, he's scoring points, oh, [shoot], he's a dumbass."

On the menu

The Texans set to visit Baton Rouge for the Texas A&M-LSU game are probably convinced they can't get any brisket that tastes like what they make at home. They're wrong. Pimanyoli's Sidewalk Café is tucked into a suburban strip mall, and it doesn't look like a barbecue joint, but the smoked brisket Po' boy marries the taste of Texas with the signature sandwich of Louisiana. Just make sure you also order some tamales to start and save room for homemade cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

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