The first carry took everyone by surprise, including the man holding the football. The first carry came on a third-and-one in the second quarter of an early November game against Arizona, with a defensive lineman set up as a blocking back and a linebacker at running back. The one thing Myles Jack knew to do once he had the ball in his hands for the first time since bowling over undersized high school linebackers in Bellevue, Wash., was to run straight ahead.
So, he sprinted forward until he came into contact with a solid object, and then he bounced away, and seeing daylight to his left, he cut toward the sideline and picked up 29 yards before tumbling out of bounds. The whole thing was a brainstorm born of desperation, given the multiple injuries that had decimated UCLA's tailback depth chart; when Jack's teammates picked him up off the sideline after that first rush, you could actually see them laughing out loud. (Up in ESPN's broadcast booth, I think Matt Millen may have actually shed tears of joy.) According to Jack, the closest he'd come to an actual college rushing attempt before that moment was during a walkthrough in a hotel ballroom the night before. Witnessing all of this, at least one of Jack's teammates wondered, a little hyperbolically, if perhaps he might be lining up alongside the greatest football player of all time.
Jack finished that day with 120 yards on six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown, in the Bruins' 31-26 victory over Arizona. The next week, against Washington, he carried the football 13 times for 60 yards and four touchdowns and the week after that, in a loss to Arizona State, he would run 16 times for 86 yards and a touchdown. It was one of the most joyful stories of the 2013 college football season precisely because it was one of the most surprising. Myles Jack was also a freshman linebacker for the Bruins (and an extremely good one), and the notion of a true two-way player is one of those things that invokes reflexive nostalgia even in the majority of us whose memory of two-way players is filtered through the uphill-both-ways grousings of Chuck Bednarik.
Then, as quickly as the Myles Jack story escalated, it faded away. In UCLA's final two games, Jack carried three times for two yards; he insisted he was a linebacker at heart, and so did his coach, Jim Mora Jr. During spring practice Jack worked out exclusively at linebacker. It's possible Jack won't carry the football a single time for UCLA this season, and it's possible the idea of a true two-way player winning a Heisman Trophy is something we'll never see again. But it's also possible the Myles Jack Experiment will inspire a new way of thinking; it's possible the Myles Jack Experiment becomes the moment that, at least in some small way, defies the age of specialization everyone acknowledges is upon us but no one seems happy to be living through.
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Two-platoon football was forged out of necessity during World War II by Michigan coach Fritz Crisler, and after it was outlawed in 1953, it was embraced again in 1964, when the unlimited substitution rule was adopted. I do not wish to be unrealistic or overtly sentimental here: A few weeks ago, I attended a quarterback camp that reinforced the idea that the age of specialization is big business, and so I do not imagine college football will ever fully embrace two-platoon football again, unless A.) It's somehow (paradoxically) proven safer than one-platoon football, or B.) Football scholarships diminish to the point there is no other way for teams to get by.
At this moment, given the uncertain future of amateurism, the latter seems more likely; during that UCLA-Arizona game, Mora used four defensive players in offensive positions, mostly because he was out of other options. Jack was so good in his brief tenure at running back that I presume the notion of him as a short-yardage back will linger in the minds of UCLA's coaching staff all year; I'm hoping it may be impossible to resist. The same thing is happening now at the University of Washington, where new coach Chris Petersen has hinted star linebacker Shaq Thompson may get a look at running back. And all this comes a few years after Stanford plugged fullback Owen Marecic in at middle linebacker and made him, ever so briefly, an evening news fascination. (That all these schools play in the Pac-12 is probably not a coincidence, since the Pac-12 -- while not the best conference in the country, or arguably even the second best -- is now the most innovative conference in the country.)
I realize I may be jumping the gun here. Given the uncertainty surrounding both Jack and Thompson's offensive future, I don't know if this can even be called a "trend" (even if it is, given the history forged by Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and others like them, it's not a new one). But I wonder if maybe it represents the first stirring of a backlash against the age of specialization. Nobody really wants a kid to focus year-round on playing football in the fifth grade, but society has evolved in that direction in part because of the abolition of substitution rules 50 years ago. What if, say, Myles Jack does play running back and linebacker and winds up dominating at both positions? What if all those young football players who are being told to focus more tightly on one skill might ask whether they should be forced to choose at all?
As tantalizing as the Myles Jack Experiment might be, he is not the highest-profile example of rebellion against the age of specialization. This spring, pitching in relief for Florida State's baseball team, Jameis Winston had a 1.08 earned-run average and seven saves. At some point between Deion Sanders and today, the idea of the multi-skilled athlete receded into a nostalgic pipe dream, but Winston says he wants to play both football and baseball, and he may be good enough to do it. The athletes who can make it happen are rare, but every so often they come along, and when they do, they make us question the parameters of the system itself. Maybe it's nothing, but if it's not, then perhaps a little hyperbole isn't entirely unwarranted.