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Linebacker Jayon Brown fills a new role, literally, for UCLA

Linebacker Jayon Brown fills a new role, literally, for UCLA
UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown brings down BYU running back Squally Canada in an early season game on Sep. 19. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA has inside linebackers and outside linebackers, but only one "fatbacker."

That's not a deep-pocketed booster, mind you. It's undersized linebacker Jayon Brown, who became a bit of a roly-poly when he beefed up to play his favorite position.

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"I needed to gain weight after my freshman year," said Brown, a junior. "I ate a lot of protein and came back with a little linebacker gut."

Little?

"It was mostly just a belly, a little round one," linebacker Aaron Wallace recalled.

The nickname "fatbacker" stuck and Brown, who smiles at just about everything, reveled in it.

"I wanted to do everything I could to be a linebacker," Brown said.

It's a good thing for UCLA he did.

When the season began, Brown, who is 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds, was a terror on special teams. He also was inserted at linebacker in certain packages.

But then Myles Jack sustained a season-ending knee injury and Brown's playing time substantially increased.

Getting on the field was one thing. Lately, he's been moved to the middle of the action.

By the fourth quarter of UCLA's game against Colorado last Saturday, Bruins linebackers — middle linebackers in particular — were an endangered species.

Brown was moved inside — where he had never played before — and finished with 18 tackles in a 35-31 victory.

"He went in and took charge in the fourth quarter," said Tom Bradley, UCLA's defensive coordinator. "Was he perfect? No, but who is? He had never had reps at that spot. He went in and figured things out."

Brown now waits to see where the Bruins need him this week. UCLA plays at Oregon State on Saturday.

UCLA linebacker meetings require a registered nurse these days. Jack is long gone, having dropped out of school after his knee injury to prepare for the NFL draft. Isaako Savaiinaea sat out the Colorado game with an ankle injury. Deon Hollins played, but has a sore knee. Kenny Young (head) and Josh Woods (hamstring) left the game.

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UCLA coaches are now constantly tinkering with who can play where and do what.

"That's the part that's getting interesting," Bradley said. "You have to make sure you don't ask players to do stuff they can't do."

Brown has come a long way since wondering if he could play linebacker at all.

Brown played the position at Long Beach Poly High at 5 feet 11 and 195 pounds. His stature was more along the lines of a defensive back or running back. He said people at UCLA mistook him for Bruins running back Paul Perkins, who also has dreadlocks.

"That's why I dyed mine," Brown joked.

Brown was a strong safety as a freshman. It was a way "to get on the field," he said. But he knew where he belonged.

"I grew up being close to the ball, close to the action," Brown said.

So Brown went on a weight-gaining program. "I ate a lot," he said.

And it showed, something teammates made clear.

"He came back with this little pot belly," linebacker Cameron Judge said. "He's slimmed down since, but we can't let him forget it."

Brown remains a less than imposing figure by linebacker standards, but he's managing to get the job done. He has 49 tackles, tied for the team lead with Savaiinaea.

Bradley said Brown "can get manhandled at the point of attack" at times by larger players, but Brown has been working on that problem since he was a kid.

His older brothers, Jason Lee and Juwuan, provided formidable training. Jason Lee, 6-1, 230, was a linebacker who played at Idaho. Juwuan, 5-10, 290, was a defensive lineman at Southern Oregon.

"I fought with them all time," Brown said, "and still try to fight with them."

Persistence seems to have grown from Brown's lack of size. Nothing, it seems, fazes him, which showed when Brown incurred the wrath of linebacker coach Scott White after a game this season.

"I guess Jayon had what you could say was a bad game and Coach White was just bagging on him so bad, cursing at him," Hollins said. "Anyone else in that situation, they would be pretty mad. I looked at Jayon and he had such a cool smile on his face."

It's the Brown way.

"He's kind of a clown, a funny guy," Judge said. "He can be oblivious to stuff, stuff that you would think was obvious. He will completely miss it and you're like, 'Jayon, come on.'

That's off the field, though. On it, Judge said, "Jayon doesn't miss much."

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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