Kenny Young lays out the truth as easily as he does quarterbacks, freely dispensing the lowdown on himself and his team no matter how painful it might be.
The UCLA linebacker tells it like it is about the Bruins’ most one-sided rivalry (“It’s time we beat Stanford,” he said before the season), falling short of his own standards (“If I have a terrible practice, I have a terrible game”) and what it felt like to be .500 after the season’s first month (“I’m just tired of losing at this point”).
Honesty serves as Southern self-comfort for the native of a New Orleans suburb who lived with adoptive parents for much of his childhood after his mother was evicted from her apartment.
“You have to be real,” Young said this week. “I’d be wasting your time if I didn’t keep it real with you.”
The reality is that Young, a junior, is back to being among the Bruins’ best defenders. He is tied for the team lead in sacks (three) and fumble recoveries (one) while ranking second in tackles (39) after enduring a season he’d rather forget.
There was a widely unknown back story to his sophomore struggles. His grandmother died, and his biological father was diagnosed with stomach cancer, though he is now in remission.
The stress came at a time when Young was fighting to retain his job as a starter and shifting to multiple linebacker spots because of injuries to teammates, which led to a noticeable dip in his performance. He felt overwhelmed, unable to help his usually cheerful father who was suffering halfway across the country.
“That hit home for a little bit,” Young said, “so it just knocked my focus off.”
Living with distractions has become something of a lifelong routine for Young. He moved in with the parents of his boyhood best friend, Amonte Brown, to lessen the burden on his biological mother after her eviction.
“We basically tell you how it is and don’t sugarcoat it,” Triche Brown said.
Young literally stood firm when Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005. Reports that the storm might only skirt the area where the family lived prompted them to stay put. Despite widespread devastation, they were largely spared from Katrina’s wrath.
The biggest threat was an alligator that crept up from a canal.
“I was like, ‘Hey, Mom, look at the alligator’ because I’m used to catching alligators and fishing in the morning, stuff like that,” Young said. “That’s because I’m a country boy.”
Young wasn’t kidding about the alligators. Triche Brown said her husband and Young caught one in a trap and fried it.
“It tastes like chicken,” Dominic Brown said.
Young decided to sample big-city life after UCLA Coach Jim Mora and his assistants descended on his Louisiana home, out-recruiting closer Southeastern Conference schools. Young said he was drawn to the Bruins by the chance to play as a freshman and attend an academic powerhouse while trying to become the first member of his biological family to graduate from college.
Young persevered through a bout of homesickness that lasted almost his entire freshman year and has tackled the more recent family strife. He benefited from sessions with mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad, devising strategies to calm his mind and compartmentalize tasks for game-day preparation.
Now he feels like he can just go out and play.
“It’s like putting a little kid in a ballpark and letting him just run around with a bunch of toys,” Young said. “You know, you’re just having fun.”
Said Mora: “You’ve seen a guy that really understands now how to play his position in this defense, and when you do that, you play with certainty. When you play with certainty, you can play fast, and that’s what I see.”
Young has sparked the resurgence of the Bruins’ defense from his middle linebacker spot by shadowing quarterbacks and occasionally, it seems, reading their minds. He intercepted a pass from Stanford’s Ryan Burns and returned it 40 yards, prompting his adoptive mother to scream in delight from her Rose Bowl seat.
But after the Bruins lost the game, the Browns knew how Young would react: He trudged directly to the locker room instead of going to see his family.
“I hate losing more than I like winning,” Young said.
That mentality could provide extra incentive Saturday when UCLA (3-2 overall, 1-1 in Pac-12 Conference play) faces Arizona State (4-1, 1-1) at Sun Devil Stadium. Young acknowledged how the Sun Devils handed the Bruins their first loss in 2015, a prelude to further disappointment during what felt like a lost season.
“Man, wow, we lost to these guys,” Young said, “and I felt like we shouldn’t have.”
Anyone who wants an accurate read on where the Bruins stand after the game Saturday should check with Young. He is likely to share his thoughts.