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Young stars like Myles Jack show UCLA is no flash in the pan

Jeff Eisenberg
Yahoo Sports

Shortly after driving her younger son to the first day of youth football practice a little more than four years ago, La Sonjia Jack spotted a vaguely familiar-looking man giving instructions to the team.

"I think that's Jim Mora," La Sonjia whispered to her older son Myles. "I know that's Jim Mora," the 13-year-old football know-it-all responded enthusiastically.

It took the Jacks a few minutes to figure out why the then-coach of the Seattle Seahawks was running a youth football practice, but they soon learned that Jim Mora Jr.'s son Ryder was a member of the team. A friendship blossomed between the two families over the course of that season, a development that seemed innocuous at the time but soon took on greater importance when Myles emerged as an elite linebacker prospect about the same time as Mora accepted an offer to coach UCLA.

One of Mora's first actions after taking over the UCLA program in Dec. 2011 was to reaffirm the Bruins' interest in the young linebacker and to make him a priority target. Jack committed to UCLA the summer before his senior year at Bellevue High School and signed in Feb. 2013, citing his comfort level with Mora as a primary factor along with the school's renowned communications department and the new staff's success developing linebackers.

"Having a prior relationship with Coach Mora definitely helped UCLA," Jack said. "When it comes to my college decision, at the end of the day I'm going to ask my mom what she thinks. She already had trust in Coach Mora and as he started recruiting me, she only gained more and more trust. She knew that this man would take care of her son."

Crossing paths with Jack before other coaches was serendipitous for Mora because the 18-year-old true freshman has emerged as one of the catalysts for ninth-ranked UCLA's surprising 5-0 start. 

Jack has started every game at outside linebacker and performed like a future star, showcasing terrific instincts, a penchant for bone-rattling hits and the speed to cover not just running backs and tight ends but also wide receivers.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound freshman has tallied the second-most tackles and the most pass-breakups of any UCLA defender and sealed a 34-27 victory at Utah on Oct. 3 with his first career interception in the final minute.

If quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Anthony Barr have spearheaded UCLA's ascension into the AP top 10 for the first time in eight seasons, then promising young players like Jack provide hope that the Bruins' success will be sustainable for years to come.

Only five UCLA players slated to start at No. 13 Stanford on Saturday are seniors. Seventeen members of the Bruins' decorated 2013 recruiting class have already seen action as true freshmen, with Jack, defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, receiver Thomas Duarte and offensive linemen Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch all seizing starting roles.   

"We have some great young players in this program and Myles is certainly one of them," UCLA linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. "His ceiling is very, very high, and he has the will to be great. I know it's early, I know he's a true freshman, but I get a little frustrated when I look nationally and there are other true freshmen getting more attention. I want him to get the attention and credit he deserves." 

The impact Jack has made as a freshman comes as a surprise to many because he wasn't hailed as a can't-miss recruit. Not only did no scouting services rank Jack as a five-star prospect, one pegged him as the just 19th best player in the state of Washington's 2013 class after his junior season and the second best linebacker on his own high school team.

It's difficult to pinpoint how Jack could have been undervalued when playing for a perennial state-title contender, but a few theories have emerged why so few of the nation's elite programs showed interest in him until late in his senior season.

One possibility may be that schools briefly lost track of him when La Sonjia landed a job with Microsoft that forced the family to move to Georgia not long after Jack's sophomore season, only to return to Bellevue in time for the start of Jack's junior year. Another is that Jack wasn't in quite as good shape as usual during his junior season because a broken leg suffered the previous spring in Georgia curtailed his usual offseason workout routine.

The other factor that may have contributed is college coaches simply couldn't figure out what position best suited Jack. He began his high school career at Bellevue exclusively as a running back but made defense his bigger focus when a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior seasons enabled his coaches to also use him as a pass-rushing defensive end.

Whatever the reason for Jack being overlooked, he rewarded the handful of Pac-12 schools that did show early interest with a mesmerizing senior season. In great shape after running the 200 and 400 meters for the Bellevue track team the previous spring and putting himself through a rigorous lifting and conditioning program over the summer, Jack averaged 19 yards per carry on offense, registered 21 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss on defense and routinely made plays that left mouths agape.

There were the six sacks Jack piled up in the first half of a 45-0 playoff victory over Lincoln High in Tacoma. Or the clean but devastating hit that knocked the opposing quarterback from the game in the fourth quarter of Bellevue's season-opening overtime victory over powerhouse Trinity from Euless, Texas.

"Trinity was loaded with guys, a bunch of Division I lineman, and Miles was absolutely dominant," Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff said. "He basically shut down half the field playing with his hand in the ground as an outside backer and rush end. He was incredible and then he went on to dominate the entire state. He has such an ability to change the game on defense. There are very few kids with his size and his explosion."

Since word of Jack's exploits spread quickly in football circles, national powers like Florida State, Georgia and South Carolina expressed interest in him following his senior season.

Jack visited a handful of schools in the weeks leading up to signing day after Mora and Ulbrich encouraged him to explore his options, but ultimately he decided UCLA was still the best fit football-wise and for his aspirations of someday becoming a TV analyst. Perhaps more schools would have recruited Jack sooner were they aware of his indefatigable work ethic and passion for football.

A Georgia native who didn't move to Bellevue until before his freshman year of high school, Jack began playing youth football at age six and slept with a football tucked underneath his arm for years. As a teen, Jack possessed the discipline to motivate himself to run 30 laps around the outside of his family's home at dawn, to set up an obstacle courses for himself in the front yard or to go to the football field on Saturday mornings to jump rope and do extra drills.

"I have enough orange cones that I could open up a store," La Sonjia joked. "He would call me at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and say, 'Can you bring four more gallons of water?' I'd ask how long he'd been there, and he'd say, 'Oh, since about 6 a.m."

The most notable example of Jack's work ethic came last December when he grew tired of hearing that pass coverage was going to be his biggest weakness when he transitioned from defensive end to linebacker in college. Shortly before dawn every morning of winter break, Jack would rouse step-brother Stanton Truitt, pick up Bellevue safety Budda Baker and drive to the football field. For the next few hours, the speedy Truitt and Baker would alternate running route after route and the bigger, stronger Jack would try his best to cover them one-on-one.

"They were killing me at first," Jack said. "I looked uncoordinated. I couldn't get on their hip. I couldn't run with them. They would cut and I'd be way behind them. I was ready to quit the first day, but they talked trash when they beat me and that motivated me to get better."

Thanks to more drills and time spent studying YouTube clips of Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, Jack indeed got better -- a lot better. By the time UCLA's preseason training camp began in August, Jack was so adept at pass coverage that his coaches could hardly believe he had virtually no prior experience at it.

"When we did one-on-ones, it took me about two days to realize that covering running backs and tight ends was almost too easy for him," Ulbrich said. "He has started working with the defensive backs, and he gets challenged every single day by the best receivers that we've got."

It would be easy for someone else in Jack's position to get complacent thanks to all the early praise he has received, but those close to him insist his humility and work ethic won't allow that. He continues to work on his technique, he continues to pepper the UCLA defensive coaches with questions and he continues to closely observe Barr's habits on the practice field and on game days in hopes of emulating the future first-round draft pick's success.

As UCLA prepares for back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon that could either vault the program into the national title picture or send it tumbling down the national rankings, Jack still takes the time to reflect on how happy he is to be part of the Bruins' resurgence. He also chuckles at his first encounter with his future head coach as a shy 13-year-old watching his younger brother's football practice.

"When I first shook Coach Mora's hand and introduced myself, I was in awe," Jack said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have pictured playing for him one day. That never crossed my mind."

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