LOS ANGELES — UCLA linebacker Myles Jack is on pace to set new career highs in tackles and tackles for loss. He has rushed for two touchdowns, and was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in college football.
Yet it’s tough to shake the feeling that Jack’s second season with the No. 25 Bruins (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is a disappointment because he has yet to live up to the enormous expectations that followed winning both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year awards.
And that makes Jack the living embodiment of the Bruins’ season so far, where the results on the field have not matched the hype off of it.
While a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff is all but out of the question, UCLA can put itself back into the thick of the Pac-12 South race with a win against No. 14 Arizona (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday night.
“There have been tight games, but we have pulled through in a lot of them, and [we] understand that we still have the opportunity to do what we need to do and to get to where we want to go, which is the Pac-12 championship,” quarterback Brett Hundley said. “We can still do it.”
Despite needing double overtime to beat Colorado in a game in which UCLA squandered three different 17-point leads, receiver Jordan Payton insisted that the outcome “labeled us as a resilient and tough team.”
“From the outside, it looks like, ‘Oh, they are struggling,” Payton added. ” ‘They are barely winning these games.’ But guys are fighting over here.”
UCLA has spent nearly all season fighting criticism, having put together only one complete game. Hundley and his offensive line took most of the blame for UCLA’s initial struggles, but Jack and the defensive front have struggled to stop the run lately.
The Buffaloes rushed for 233 yards, becoming the third opponent with at least 200 yards on the ground in the Bruins’ last four games.
Jack blamed too many attempts at trying to deliver a big hit instead of sure form tackling for much of the yardage the Buffaloes were able to accumulate, noting that those kinds of errors in the open field are what make the Wildcats’ spread offense so dangerous.
“We can’t have a lapse against them, or it is going to be a high-scoring game and we’re going to be very embarrassed at the end,” Jack said. “We are going to have to come out guns blazing and maintain that throughout the whole game.”
Arizona has actually leaned much more heavily on the pass this season than during Rich Rodriguez’s first two seasons, throwing the ball 53 percent of the time. That should play to Jack’s strengths, having established himself as one of the best linebackers in coverage in the nation with 17 career pass breakups and two interceptions.
But Jack showed a new dimension against Colorado when he was called on to blitz. Jack nearly had two sacks, which would have doubled his career total, but was unable to bring down quarterback Sefo Liufau.
Jack acknowledged he is very raw as a pass rusher and spends extra time before and after practice to develop those skills.
“It’s just something that I never really worked on or never really focused on in high school or even getting here,” Jack said. “It’s not really a natural thing that I do and that’s something that I have to work on. I’ll get better at it.”
Whether UCLA as a whole can show the necessary improvement to save its season is still unclear. For his part, Jack has no doubt the Bruins will hit their stride “when it really matters,” pointing back to the dominant win at Arizona State.
“The defense was on point, the offense was on point, and you didn’t see those big plays against us,” Jack said. “I think we got to put together another one of those games.”