Myles Jack laughs when admitting it, because he knows how ridiculous it sounds: The 2013 Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year still hasn’t memorized UCLA’s playbook. “I know, I know,” he groaned. “I’m always joking with [quarterback] Brett [Hundley], ‘Hey, teach me this play,’ but nah, he’s got other stuff to do and I wouldn’t bother him anyway.”
In Jack’s defense, he has other stuff to do, too, such as watch defensive game film. He might not be an offensive expert when it comes to the Bruins’ schemes, but the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder is more than up to speed on the other side of the ball. That much became clear when Jack was also named the conference’s defensive freshman of the year. Forgive him if he’s a little behind in other areas.
“Personally, I’m definitely up for [playing] offense, but I came to UCLA to be the best linebacker I can be,” said Jack, who notched 75 tackles last season (including seven for loss) to go with 267 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. “But I know ESPN is more about the offensive highlights -- they show a 66-yard run more often than they show a goal-line stand.”
Regardless of where he lines up, Jack is sure to attract plenty of attention this fall. The Bruins are a preseason top-10 team, fresh off a 10-3 campaign in which they defeated Nebraska, USC and Virginia Tech. Hundley, who passed for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns, is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, while sophomore nose tackle Kenny Clark looks primed to break out.
Jack, however, may be the key to UCLA’s College Football Playoff aspirations. He is one of the premier defensive playmakers in the nation, and he has proven to be quite popular: He acknowledged a cascade of interview requests dating back to his first offensive showcase, a six-carry, 120-yard rushing effort in a 31-26 win at Arizona on Nov. 29 that caught everyone off guard, including Jack.
“There were a few surprises last season, from me earning the starting spot on defense to how well the season started off for us [at 5-0],” Jack said. “Then the offensive stuff, I was just like, ‘What are you guys doing calling this play?’ I didn’t even think we were going to run it at all, then here we are running it in the middle of a game. They had a lot more confidence in me than I did.”
In fact, Jack hadn’t previously practiced with the offense, unless fans count a walkthrough in the hotel ballroom the night before the game. But with a depleted running back corps, coach Jim Mora inserted the freshman, and Jack responded with tremendous results. The highlight came with 10:58 remaining in the fourth quarter, on third-and-two from the UCLA 34-yard line. Taking a cue from his linemen, who advised Jack to flash inside and then cut outside, he burst through the right side and raced for a 66-yard score. That touchdown helped the Bruins to a crucial midseason victory.
“I wasn’t too surprised that he came over to the offense but, uh, I was surprised when it’s third [down] and he takes it 60 yards,” Hundley said. “When he does get the ball, it can be special.”
Recalled Jack: “When I broke the last guy’s tackle, and I was jogging into the end zone, everything kinda slowed down. All the sudden I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just scored a touchdown! Did that just happen?’ Then I look up, and all my teammates are sprinting at me full-speed, and the Arizona fans are so quiet.”
Later, Jack found out that back home in Bellevue, Wash., his mother, La Sonjia Jack, started screaming when he took off running. Though he’d be happy to sidestep all the attention that comes with double duty -- Washington linebacker turned sometimes-runnning back Shaq Thompson joked this spring that he was trying to keep up with Jack -- his mom “loves all these people talking about me.”
Mora has been mostly hush-hush about his plans for Jack in 2014, though Jack focused solely on defense this offseason, studying offensive linemen’s movements and increasing his muscle mass. He says he put on 15 pounds of “good weight,” which means he’ll be even more physically imposing come Aug. 30, when the Bruins open the season at Virginia. He is eager to help in any way he can, but believes “if you understand defense, you can figure out anything on offense.”
“In high school, I just fell in love with defense, because tackling people is so fun,” Jack said. “Offense is all scripted, where defense is about making plays and making tackles. Playing defense has taught me how to be a student of the game, because you just have to read and react. My football IQ is higher because I play defense.”
Case in point: When Jack took advice from his linemen on his 66-yard touchdown run last season, he thought about how he might defend a runner making a hard cut. Especially as a freshman, Jack says it’s easy to be overly aggressive and fall for fakes. As an offensive player, he waits to read if a defender seems almost too eager to follow him; if a defender bites, Jack knows he has him beat.
The favorite in the Pac-12 South and a popular pick to challenge Oregon for conference supremacy, UCLA will need even more out of Jack this season. There is plenty of production to be accounted for now that linebackers Anthony Barr (65 tackles, 20 for loss, 10 sacks) and Jordan Zumwalt (93 tackles, 5.5 for loss) are gone to the NFL. Jack would be happy to fill that role.
“Truthfully, I don’t know if my body could do it, go back and forth all the time,” Jack said. “Offense is more exciting but, man, I love defense. It’s more fun to be the hammer instead of the nail, you know?”
That depends on one’s perspective. For opposing coaches who already dreaded seeing Jack on defense, the realization that he can also carry the ball might have been one of the worst moments of 2013.
Just imagine how good he’ll be once he fully grasps the playbook.