UCLA has a storied tradition at linebacker. Through the decades, Ken Norton Jr., Roman Phifer, Jamir Miller, Donnie Edwards, Robert Thomas and Akeem Ayers have rocked opponents in Westwood.
Anthony Barr and Myles Jack, senior and freshman, are poised to join the Blue and Gold honor society. Ask their position coach, Jeff Ulbrich.
“Barr is going to make more money than I ever saw in the NFL,” Ulbrich, a nine-year NFL vet with the San Francisco 49ers, said at a recent practice before UCLA faces Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31.
“Barr will sit there all day if he can and watch film with the coaches for 5-6 hours. He wants to make a splash in the NFL, he doesn’t just want to be a first-rounder — he wants to be the best.”
Barr, 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds, has won every All-American honor you can think of and is predicted to be a top-five pick when he attends the 79th NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in May.
While Barr remained under the radar his first two seasons, Jack finished his first collegiate season as the Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year, the first time the feat has been accomplished in the six years the award has been in existence.
When asked about Jack, Ulbrich’s eyes widened.
“He is like nothing I have ever seen before,” the linebacker coach said. “He is a better athlete than Patrick Willis after playing next to Pat for 3-4 years. Jack is freakishly athletic and has an enormous ceiling.”
When asked about being compared to Willis, Jack humbly stated, “It’s an honor to be compared to a (future) Hall of Famer. I can’t say it is true, but I will accept the compliment.”
The 6-1, 225-pound Jack sees himself like James Harrison, even though the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker is 70 pounds heavier. Jack loves the physicality that Harrison brings to the field and how diverse he is when in coverage or rushing the quarterback.
I asked Jack who he is as a football player.
“I am not bound by offense or defense,” said Jack, who rushed for 269 yards and seven touchdowns in 37 attempts. “I am an all-around complete football player. I really wanted to be the defensive freshman player of the year, I had my eyes set on that accomplishment, and the offensive freshman of the year was well … unexpected. I don’t mind coming into the game and scoring touchdowns.”
When Jack arrived at training camp last summer, he was an non-confident true freshman, hoping to find his way in an FBS program. He wasn’t sure he was going to see the playing field his freshman year. Camp had proven to be harder than anything he had ever done before in football, a game that has always come easy for the Washington high school star.
Barr felt the same way in 2010 when he arrived in Westwood as a running back. The ensuing two seasons, Barr bounced around from running back to receiver and tight end and lost his love for the game. “Coach (Jim) Mora saved me from football purgatory. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to play football, he changed my life and my career,” Barr said when recounting the switch from offense to defense and what Mora’s impact was on his UCLA experience.
I asked Barr why he stayed at UCLA for four years and what advice he had for Jack when it is his time to decide to stay or leave?
“I felt like I hadn’t grown enough as a player or a person,” he said. “I was able to do that my senior year. Jack needs to be selfish and not listen to outside factors. Go from his heart and do what is right for him in making the choice to stay in college or go pro.”
Jack looks up to Barr, who is a great role model and is teaching his protégé what it takes to be an All-American linebacker. From how to handle pressure, how to practice to get better each day, to off-field behavior and sticking to your goals.
The linebacking tradition, which I am proud to be a part of, continues at UCLA. After the Sun Bowl, Barr will turn the torch over to Jack. It will continue to burn bright.