Jordan Zumwalt says playing linebacker for UCLA is a lot of fun.
He just has an unusual definition of what fun is.
Fun, he said, is “making the guy across from you feel like he doesn’t want to be hit anymore. It’s making the other guy feel inferior. Whenever you stop a team, that’s fun. Whenever you hear the crowd cheer for you, that’s fun. Whenever you look around and see nothing but bodies, that’s fun.”
Zumwalt is part of a four-man unit that goes, from right to left, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Zumwalt and Myles Jack.
On the UCLA defense, this is where organized chaos percolates. Each has an impressive resume.
Barr was on everyone’s preseason All-American list. Kendricks led the Pac-12 Conference in tackles last season. Jack is considered one of the top freshmen in the nation. And Zumwalt, well….
“Jordan brings a wildness to the unit,” UCLA linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “Every great linebacker group has that wild man. He’s our guy.”
As quartets go, UCLA’s linebackers seem as in tune as John, Paul, George and Ringo.
“I would be hard-pressed to find a better group in the country,” Ulbrich said.
Barr as ‘John’
Barr blossomed in 2012. His 13.5 sacks were second in the nation last season.
But it was what he did the first two games this season that impressed Ulbrich. The Bruins faced Nevada and Nebraska, teams with elusive quarterbacks.
“We told him, ‘Don’t pass-rush, don’t do what you worked the entire off-season to do, don’t do that thing the entire country said made you an elite player,’” Ulbrich said. “We wanted him to hold the edge and not let the quarterback out. He did. It was a huge indicator of an unselfish player.”
The New Mexico State game followed and, Ulbrich said, “It was time to go.”
Barr has three sacks in the last two games. He had two in a 34-27 victory over Utah on Thursday. Also in that game, he twice chased down running backs from behind.
“He’s going to be a first-round NFL pick,” Zumwalt said. “That’s enough said right there.”
Jack as ‘Paul’
“He’s our X-factor,” Ulbrich said of Jack. “You see glimpses of things I wish I could take credit for, but I can’t.”
A few of those glimpses from the Utah game: Jack deflected a pass that was intercepted. He also ran step for step with wide receiver Sean Fitzgerald, reaching back to intercept a pass with 16 seconds left. Jack returned the ball 43 yards, failing to get a touchdown only because he threw himself onto the turf so the Bruins could run out the clock.
“To move as quickly and compactly as he does, and then put his foot in the ground to change direction with that kind of power, is pretty rare,” Coach Jim Mora said.
Said Zumwalt: “Everyone knows he’s a supreme athlete, but I wouldn’t say he’s raw talent because he understands football.”
Kendricks as ‘George’
Kendricks, a junior, almost goes unnoticed, though he should demand attention from offensive coordinators. He had 150 tackles last season. Only two players in the nation had more.
Those were the most tackles by a UCLA player since Jerry Robinson’s school-record 161 in 1978.
What Kendricks means to the Bruins goes beyond statistics. “E.K. is our voice,” Barr said. “We count on him to make the calls.”
Kendricks is a prototypical middle linebacker, but with a twist, Ulbrich said.
“He is physical and tough, and the icing on the cake is he has the range and speed to cover receivers,” Ulbrich said.
Kendricks intercepted a pass against Utah and also had 13 tackles. This was nothing new. It was the 10th time in the last 13 games that he has had 10 or more tackles.
Of Kendricks, who was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season, Zumwalt said, “He should have been first-team.”
Zumwalt as ‘Ringo’
Ulbrich was asked how he would describe Zumwalt.
“He might be crazy,” the coach joked.
“I think so,” Barr said.
Jack had an example: “Taking on offensive linemen at full speed. Jordan likes to do that.”
There is a method to Zumwalt’s madness. He disrupts offenses. Stanford got a taste of that in 2011, when Zumwalt tossed aside two Cardinal linemen and dropped running back Stepfan Taylor for a two-yard loss on a first-and-goal play.
Against Utah, Zumwalt ranged the field and deflected a pass that was intercepted.
“I’m a little more physical,” Zumwalt said. “I like to do that kind of stuff.”
Said Ulbrich: “I love his spirit, but I keep reminding him that there are rules to playing linebacker.”
Rules? To playing linebacker?
Said Zumwalt: “It’s not just being a robot, it’s going out there and having some fun.”
Fun. There’s that word again.