These days, football is moving more and more away from defense. Between pass interference penalties and requirements to only hit the quarterback within a certain area, it’s the offense’s game. Big hits? Those are more a thing of the past than anything else. Just don’t tell Jordan Zumwalt that.
Playing at UCLA, the 6-4, 235-pound linebacker made a name for himself with big hits and big game performances. In this year’s Sun Bowl, which would be his final collegiate game, Zumwalt refused to be stopped. Not only did he knock Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas out of the game, but he also returned an interception 43 yards on his way to claiming the co-MVP award. With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, we caught up with Zumwalt to talk about his time in college and road to the big time.
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TDdaily: Not many kids grow up really wanting to play defense anymore. Was playing linebacker something you always knew you wanted to do, or did it just happen at some point along the way?
Jordan Zumwalt: Well my father played linebacker for Arizona State and then he played in the league for about two years, so I always wanted to play linebacker. I just chose football because I kind of grew up with it and it was what I wanted to do, so when I got to high school, I chose football because of my father. He wanted me to play quarterback really badly actually, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to play defense—I wasn’t really good at quarterback. So I ended up playing defense. I played defensive end, and, believe it or not, in my freshman year of high school I played corner, safety and D-line. Basically, I just wanted to play defense. Linebacker just turned out to be my spot.
TD: Coming back to this season, how huge was it for you to win the Sun Bowl this year as a senior and go out on top in that way?
JZ: Oh that was awesome, man. It was a really, really cool experience to be able to do that because my first three years here were kind of a wash. My sophomore and junior years we made it to the Pac-12 Championship and lost both games—after that we just kind of blew our wad and lost motivation. This past year, everyone bought in and was really excited for it. All the coaches changed their mentality for the bowl game, too.
TD: How did they change for the Sun Bowl?
JZ: I think it was their first year of college experience; our whole coaching staff came from the NFL, so that in their first bowl game they had in San Diego [the Bruins lost the 2012 Holiday Bowl to Baylor—Ed.], they weren’t used to how bowl games worked. So when we went back and did it over again, everything was a lot more strict and things were a lot more on schedule. We were always doing something, always going somewhere, and we were always together. There wasn’t as much free time and things like that. There was just more focus and emphasis on the game than there was on being on vacation.
TD: Speaking of your coaches, I’m pretty sure that Coach Mora said that the Sun Bowl was the best game he’d seen you play at UCLA. Is there one moment from the game that stands out to you, whether it was hit on Thomas, the interception, being named co-MVP? Anything you can pick out from it?
JZ: Let’s see man, I don’t know. For some reason, I wouldn’t agree with Coach Mora that it was the best game I’d played. I was in the zone that game and played pretty well. I finally got a chance to play Mike— middle linebacker— finally; I wasn’t able to play there much during the season. And, you know, during the game when Logan Thomas went out, I really noticed the difference and how much slower the game and their offense went because we repped all their stuff so many times during the week. But it just felt so much slower, so the part that stood out to me was after Thomas went out and the other quarterback came in. They ran three consecutive run plays with a zone read and a speed option and I just tracked it down so quick. It just felt so easy, but I mean that in a modest way.
TD: It was just a moment when you were like, Ok, we’ve got them now?
JZ: Yeah, exactly. So we were just rolling. the defense was playing really well, the offense took off and we got a three and out right there [on the first series after Thomas went out.] We got our offense the ball and they just drove it down the field and scored.
TD: Still on the topic of Coach Mora: Obviously he’s a defensive guy coming from the NFL. How much of an impact did he have on you as a linebacker?
JZ: Oh, Coach Mora, he’s awesome and had a huge impact on me personally. As a linebacker, he’s a defensive-minded guy, but the way he came in and treated us was the biggest change out of everything. You know he came in from the NFL, so he came in and just treated us like players and people. He treated us professionally. He didn’t look down on us as kids, even though he knew we were kids and had to take care of us in such a manner. He really just let us be our own selves. It was really cool how he treated us like grown men. He didn’t step into our business, just our football business.
TD: So I was looking out your NFL.com draft profile and for your strengths, it says things like very competitive, fiery on-field temperament, and explosive hitter. Where does that fire in your belly, so to speak, come from?
JZ: What it comes from, I guess, is just me being in a zone. Standing in the middle of 100,000 people is quite a way to channel your energy, if you know what I mean. So when you’re on the field, you go out there and kind of flip a switch to change your mindset. It’s a switch you can’t really flip when you’re not on the field, because it’s not going to get you anywhere in society. You just let your emotions take over, you don’t think, just react. It just becomes emotional and I let my passion show. I just relax and do whatever I feel like doing at that moment.
TD: And right under that, they have your weaknesses which are things like does not play strong, mechanical mover, gets outflanked verses speed. Now when you hear things like that, do you think those are things to work on or is it just bulletin board material for you?
JZ: Yeah, that’s what it is because I know I’m fast. When they say outflanked by speed, that’s not true.
TD: So now going into your Draft workouts, pro days, whatever, will your attitude be like, They say I don’t have speed, I’ll show them?
JZ: Yeah, like I came out and ran a 4.61 and everyone was expecting me to be around a 4.8.
TD: Now let’s say it’s after the Draft and the fans of whatever team you end up with are checking out the roster. They see that they’ve drafted Jordan Zumwalt, but don’t really know who you are. If you could explain yourself to those fans, what would you tell them?
JZ: How long do I have? Like a sentence?
TD: You’ve got them one on one, tell them however much you want.
JZ: I never really thought of this. I guess I’d say something like I look at football as a way to just express myself and a way to be free of your daily struggles. It’s a way to escape when everything else is going on in life and I appreciate that. I just like to get out and do it. I’m very spontaneous. I’m high energy, kind of talk a lot, and I’m very out going.
Joe Kozlowski is an Editorial Assistant for TDdaily. Follow him on Twitter @JoeKozlowski.