If there’s such a thing as an embarrassment of riches in college football, Jeff Ulbrich must be looking away shyly, rosy-cheeked and sheepish, afraid to look you in the eye.
UCLA’s second-year linebackers coach is Donald Trump, only with better hair.
When Ulbrich arrived along with head coach Jim Mora and Co., in 2012, the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker inherited two already good linebackers: then-redshirt sophomore Eric Kendricks, whose Pac-12-best 150 tackles in 2012 were the most by a UCLA player in more than 30 years, and then-junior Jordan Zumwalt.
Then Ulbrich and Mora had a chat with Anthony Barr, and Barr switched from offense to defense, and a switch went off, and boom, a future top-five pick was born.
Adding true freshman Myles Jack to the group, though, was like giving brass knuckles to Mike Tyson.
It’s almost unfair, and Ulbrich knows it. UCLA will face Arizona on Saturday night boasting a linebacking corps as good as any in the conference, if not the country.
“I’m pretty fortunate as far as being their coach,” Ulbrich said. “They make me look good. You put those four guys together, and that group I’ll put up against any other in the country.”
The quartet has combined for 218 tackles, 22 tackles-for-loss and has seven forced fumbles, countless bruises and infinite ouches.
Zumwalt is the ferocious one, Kendricks the heady one, Barr the freak and Jack the self-deemed “sidekick.”
While the former two are future NFL pros in their own right, the latter two have coaches across the conference trembling in their headsets.
“You’re talking about two unbelievably dynamic football players,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, against whom Barr had eight tackles, including a tackle-for-loss, and Jack nine tackles in a 24-10 Cardinal win on Oct. 19. “I can’t even imagine what Barr was like as a running back; he’s a natural at linebacker. Fast (and) with length. Myles is interesting because he doesn’t have that length, size or girth, but he is one of the most explosive football players that you’ll ever see.”
Barr was somewhat of a known quantity when he switched to defense after being almost comically miscast in Rick Neuheisel’s variation of the pistol offense.
His transfer to linebacker was an instantaneous hit. Despite being projected as a potential top-10 pick in last season’s NFL draft, Barr chose to return for another year.
“He gets a lot of attention because of his athleticism, but he doesn’t get enough credit for being tough and physical and a gritty football player,” Ulbrich said. “Shoot, we played Oregon, and he basically played the five-technique on the tackle the entire game. Didn’t complain, didn’t bitch. Just went out there and did it.”
Barr’s return to UCLA was not a surprise to those who knew him best, though it came as a shock to those who so rarely see a player postpone NFL millions. But even after a second-team All-America junior year, which included 13ƒ sacks (second nationally) and 21ƒ tackles-for-loss (tied for fourth in the country), Barr saw some holes in his game. His coaches don’t see as many.
“If I were in a position to draft a linebacker in the NFL, he’d be an absolute no-brainer,” Ulbrich said. “His thought was, ‘I don’t want to just make it to the NFL, to be a splash pick, but to be an All-Pro, to play for championships.’ If he can stay healthy, he’ll play a long time in the NFL. As long as he wants to.”
Ulbrich would know: He played 10 years in the NFL.
So, too, would Mora, who coached in the league for 25 years. Mora, whose son Cole has been friends with Jack since junior high in Washington state, said that Jack’s been surprising him “since he was 12.”
“I watched him grow up,” Mora said. “I know the kind of kid he is: work ethic, character, intelligence.”
They see the same kind of future for Jack, who just may be the second luckiest guy in the world to Ulbrich, as he gets to learn from three of the best in the conference at their position.
“I’m just listening, being coachable, learning from the guys around me,” Jack said. “I’m soaking up everything they tell me. I watch them on film more than I do myself.”
He’s missing out.
Promoted to starter quickly this season after a heated battle with returning linebackers Aaron Wallace and Kenny Orjioke, talented players in their own right, Jack has been a terror. He has 54 tackles, four tackles- for-loss, eight passes defended, an interception and a blocked kick.
The level-headed youngster isn’t getting ahead of himself, though.
“I know my role; I haven’t done this long enough,” Jack said. “I can’t say, ‘Jordan go right, Anthony make that play.’ That doesn’t even sound right coming out of my mouth. I’m still trying to earn their respect.”
He’s already earned it from coaches around the league.
Asked recently on the weekly coaches’ conference call to name the league’s top newcomers, Jack was a near-unanimous pick.
“He’s a heck of a player,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who watched Jack seal a 34-27 road win with a late 43-yard interception return, the team’s sixth of the game. “We recruited Myles; really wish we could’ve gotten him here. I thought without a doubt he could get here and start as a freshman. He’s going to be a force in this conference.”
Ulbrich should be thanking his lucky stars. Too late: he already is.