UCLA's Myles Jack emerges as a 2-way threat
(Eds: Updates with details. With AP Photos.)
LOS ANGELES (AP) - If Myles Jack had wanted to be a running back coming out of high school in Bellevue, Wash., last year, he had his pick of several SEC schools. He also could have played any position he wanted at the University of Washington, just across the lake from his hometown.
UCLA's freshman linebacker didn't really want to carry the ball, though.
''I like to hit,'' Jack said. ''I like to tackle people.''
Yet one of the nation's top young defensive players is currently the Pac-12's offensive player of the week. The 13th-ranked Bruins' coaches couldn't resist turning Jack into a two-way player in a key victory over Arizona - and they just might do it again.
Jack rushed for 120 yards on just six carries last weekend in Tucson, scoring a touchdown in a 31-26 win for UCLA (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12).
Jack definitely isn't changing positions, yet coach Jim Mora, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and quarterback Brett Hundley are all excited to have another dangerous new toy as the Bruins prepare for Friday's visit from Jack's hometown Huskies (6-3, 3-3) at the Rose Bowl.
''I play defense, but wherever they ask me to play, I'll make it happen,'' Jack said. ''As many times as they ask me to, I'll do whatever the team asks.''
Jack's teammates didn't seem terribly surprised by the freshman's nearly surreal debut at tailback. Jack made a 29-yard run the first time he touched the ball, and he saved his biggest play for the fourth quarter on a 66-yard TD run down the sideline, scoring the Bruins' final points.
''He's amazing,'' Hundley said. ''He's very good. He's going to do big things for this program, no matter if he's at running back or linebacker. Just having him in the backfield, he's very athletic at what he does. He's a phenom.''
Mora had long hinted he might use Jack on offense at some point this season, but even Jack didn't quite believe it would happen. The Bruins are deep at tailback, with starter Jordon James, Damien Thigpen and freshman Paul Perkins leading a big group of ball-carriers.
But James hasn't been healthy for weeks while hobbling around on his right ankle - and few athletes at any position have Jack's sublime abilities. When he wasn't carrying the ball, Jack also had a big defensive game in Tucson, making eight tackles and recovering a fumble by Arizona star Ka'Deem Carey in the end zone.
Jack was bombarded with texts from friends and family who saw his performance on national television. Even his mother demanded a phone call when the Bruins returned to Los Angeles at 3 a.m.
Jack wasn't the only defensive player utilized on offense in Tucson by Mazzone, who loves unusual stratagems. Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt had a 12-yard reception, and he joined defensive linemen Cassius Marsh, Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark and Keenan Graham in lining up with Jack in a sort of inverted wishbone formation.
''It depends on the situation,'' Mora said. ''We're not going to do something just to gimmick. It's got to have merit. It's like with all of our players. If we can find a role for them that's not necessarily typical of what they usually do, that helps the team win, then we're going to put them in that position. You're always looking for ways to utilize your talent.''
Jack said he regularly carried the ball in high school, largely lining up in a Wing-T formation for sweep plays or blocking for others. Jack said he didn't get many opportunities to run downhill between the tackles - and he likes it.
The Huskies heavily recruited Jack, while other schools - South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Arizona among them - wanted him as a running back. Jack chose UCLA over Washington and Arizona State because he was enticed by the chance to play for Mora, who has known Jack since the linebacker was 12.
Jack has been spectacular on defense at times this season while joining Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Zumwalt in one of the nation's top groups of linebackers. The freshman stepped into the spotlight with an interception near the UCLA goal line in the final minute of a victory at Utah last month, but he has been a major contributor ever since making eight tackles in UCLA's season opener against Nevada.
Jack is so comfortable in his dual role that he doesn't even mind providing a scouting report on how to stop the Bruins' new tailback.
''I'd probably hit myself low,'' Jack said with a laugh. ''That's really one of the reason I don't like playing running back, because getting hit in the legs and stuff, I don't like that.''
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