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BILL PLASCHKE

UCLA linebacker/tailback Myles Jack dazzles, but it's two-way street

Myles Jack stars both ways again in 41-31 win over Washington. But in long run it'll be best for him, and Bruins, if he sticks to offense.

November 15, 2013|Bill Plaschke

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He is fast, filling, and impossible to grab without making a mess.

He is UCLA's Jumbo Jack.

The kid did it again Friday night, filling up the wide-eyed Bruins fans at dinner time with an onslaught of bruising runs, battering tackles and even big cheers led from the sidelines.

Honestly, swear, there were a couple of moments when he actually was on the sidelines.

On a black-clad night promoted as the Bruin Eclipse, it was freshman linebacker/running back Myles Jack who blocked everything out, from Washington's hopes to UCLA's fears, his overwhelming presence a thing of natural beauty.

For a second consecutive game, UCLA was carried by the two-way kid who burns like a three-way bulb, this time in a 41-31 victory over Washington.

He scored four touchdowns, including one with three Huskies on his back and another with two Huskies knocking off his helmet. He was in the backfield for a touchdown pass that was thrown to — surprise! — another Bruins defender. On defense he had five tackles and one pass defended.

And, oh, about those cheers: He ran in front of the UCLA student section and threw up his hands and attempted to rouse the students after he helped stop the Huskies on one three-play drive late in the first quarter.

"He's pretty good at toting that thing around back there isn't he?" offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said afterward, shaking his head at the wonder of it all.

The main narrative here is that UCLA is now 8-2 with two winnable games remaining in its quest to return to a Pac-12 Conference championship game that could land it in the Rose Bowl game.

But their late-season subplot is becoming even spicier, as they have been carried in their last two games by an 18-year-old kid who has suddenly starting running the ball as well as chasing it.

Last week against Arizona, Jack, for the first time in his college career, left his defensive position long enough to lead UCLA's offense in a 31-26 win. On plays that were not in the playbook, after running those plays on a patch of grass outside the team hotel, he had a stunning six carries for 120 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown run.

Afterward the UCLA coaches and players chuckled as if Jack, a running back in high school, was this cute offensive trinket that would occasionally be trotted out. But on Friday, he became part of the offensive furniture.

Myles Jack playing both ways is no longer an experiment, it's an only-in-Hollywood reality.

"He's a weapon," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. "But you just can't go crazy with it."

Too late for that. Judging by the Rose Bowl crowd's giant gasp when Jack was led off the field after being crunched in a defensive scrum late in the game, the growing sentiment is that Jack should strictly play offense. The Bruins could end this season with a quarterback, Brett Hundley, as their leading rusher for the first time since Larry Zeno in 1964, and that's not great.

So why not use Jack, who gained 60 yards in 13 carries Friday, as a full-time running back? Mora said it's because Jack has yet to learn how to block like a running back.

"Protection, it's undervalued," Mora said. "All you see is a guy carrying the ball. You have to know how to block."

He scored on the Bruins' first series. He scored on their third series. He scored on their most important series, in the third quarter when an early 20-point lead had been whittled to three. The Bruins needed a dominating push, and Jack helped them make one. He carried the ball on four of the last seven plays of a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ended in his two-yard touchdown run that gave UCLA a 34-24 lead.

And then he ran back out and survived a 10-play Huskies drive that ended in a blocked field goal

"It's quite a burden . . . it's tough," Mora said. "He's 18, he recovers quick, and he had a big heart."

Meeting with the media late Friday night, Jack didn't sound like the first player to score four touchdowns for the Bruins since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2004. He sounded, still, like a guy plucked out of a crowded locker room and handed the ball and given a push.

"We had some injuries to our running backs, they asked me, 'Do you want to do it?' and I'm like, 'Sure,'" he said. "They just threw me back there and now I'm playing."

Perhaps the most impressive stat of a startling night was that five of his 13 carries were on third down, and he converted each one, including two for touchdowns. In essence, he is being asked to keep his defensive teammates — himself included — off the field for a few more minutes. Talk about extra incentive.

"I'm loving it," Jack said. "It's third and one, I either go back on defense or go to the sideline to get a shot of water for a few more plays. That's an easy decision. I get the first down and go off."

You know what else is an easy decision? UCLA using this summer to make Jack a full-time running back. He would rather be a linebacker, but he's slowly giving the coaches no choice.

There's a reason few players can handle two-way work these days. There's too much risk of injury or fatigue that can lead to injury.

"I'm definitely tired tonight," Jack said. "But I'll be fine."

With two games left in a must-win season, the entire Bruins team seemed tired Friday night, but they now have eight days to prepare for Arizona State, and Myles to go before they sleep.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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