UCLA’s Kenny Young has his own approach to being a leader on defense

UCLA linebacker Kenny Young looks on during spring practice in 2015.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Kenny Young recalls when he was 7 going to Dominic Brown, his adoptive father, with a straightforward question:

“I said, ‘Dad, where can I make the most tackles?’” Young said.

Brown chuckles remembering the moment and said, “Yeah, that’s a linebacker.”

That’s what Young hopes UCLA opponents will be muttering to themselves next fall.

Young, 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, will be trying to fill big cleats as he replaces Eric Kendricks, who last season won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and the Lott IMPACT Trophy for defensive performance and character.

Yet, when that subject is broached, Young reacts in a way that gives his coaches and teammates confidence.


“E.K. had a certain way, but I’m not the next Eric Kendricks,” Young said. “I am the first Kenny Young and I want to leave my legacy. That’s going to be my approach the next couple years.”

Young has a history of acting with maturity beyond his age.

Triche Brown, his adoptive mother, said as a young boy growing up in Louisiana that Young “would get up and go cook breakfast. He’d wash clothes. He’d do chores without anyone asking.”

And once he located that spot where he could “make the most tackles,” that’s exactly what he did — 122 of them as a high school senior.

“I came out of middle school and was a running back on the junior varsity,” Young said. “We had a lot of running backs, so they felt I should be a linebacker. I just ran with it after that.”

The transition from high school star in the South to college in Los Angeles was more of a challenge.

“It’s tough when a kid is leaving to go that far way,” Dominic Brown said. “Homesickness set in. I told him to be a man and stick it out. Now he doesn’t even want to come home.”


Football made Young more comfortable, and he brought his own in-your-face style to the team’s training camp in San Bernardino last year.

When Ellis McCarthy, a mammoth defensive lineman, was griping about performing a drill Young, who was in his first days with the team, stepped up and memorably slapped him upside the helmet and told him to just go play.

“He has a level of maturity that is uncommon in a kid that age,” Coach Jim Mora said.

And the drive to match.

“We couldn’t break him in San Bernardino,” linebackers coach Scott White joked.

Playing next to Kendricks in the middle, Young started six games, finished with 34 tackles, and absorbed numerous lessons from his highly regarded teammate.

“He brought it every day,” Young said of Kendricks.

Kendricks had more than 100 tackles in each of the last three seasons and was the Bruins’ undisputed leader on the field and in the locker room. His departure leaves a huge hole in the UCLA defense.

Moving Myles Jack inside after two seasons on the perimeter should help, but a lot of responsibility has been heaped onto Young’s wide shoulders.

“When you are replacing such a good player, it’s important to be yourself,” Mora said. “Kenny has great leadership qualities. He just needs to let his teammates respect him for who he is, and how he acts, rather than trying to act like someone else.”


Said Young: “You lose everything if you’re not yourself.”

Young has already proved to be a force against the run, but his pass coverage was occasionally lacking last season. Improving that part of his game has been a focus this spring during practice.

“It’s like when you get your driver’s license,” said Tom Bradley, UCLA’s first-year defensive coordinator. “At first, your hands are tight on the steering wheel, you’re staring straight ahead. Then you start to loosen up. You can adjust the radio, roll down the window. You see everything.

“Kenny will develop that vision you need.”

Follow Chris Foster on Twitter @cfosterlatimes