University of Washington

Shaq and Jack a two-pronged attack

In a college football world lacking personality, Myles Jack’s enthusiasm qualifies as refreshing.

He’s excited about the possibility of sharing a field with Shaq Thompson. And he doesn’t try to hide it.

The UCLA sophomore does not dismiss or downplay questions about the unique matchup he faces Saturday when his Bruins visit the Washington Huskies.

Instead, Jack is enthusiastic about the chance to play against Thompson, a kindred football spirit who, like Jack, plays both linebacker and running back, and plays both exceptionally well.

“It’ll be fun. Hopefully he’ll be on defense and I’ll get to tackle him and he’ll get to tackle me, stuff like that,” Jack told reporters in Los Angeles on Monday. “I think that’s good for the game, and it’ll make the game interesting and everything.”

(Bruins coach Jim Mora, asked if he’s eager to see how Shaq vs. Jack might play out, cracked that “there’s no part of me that’s anxious to see Shaq running the ball.”)

Indeed, UW’s 4 p.m. game Saturday against No. 18 UCLA (7-2, 4-2 in Pac-12 Conference) pits two of college football’s most versatile athletes against each other. Jack, the former Bellevue High star, plays primarily linebacker but has carried the ball 22 times for 71 yards and two touchdowns this season.

That’s less work than he got on offense last year as a freshman, when he totaled 267 yards on 38 carries with seven touchdowns, including four in one game in a victory over the Huskies. Jack also finished the season with 76 tackles. He has 63 this season, five of them for loss.

UW (6-3, 2-3) counters with Thompson, whose two-way exploits could eventually earn him a Heisman Trophy vote or two. The junior from Sacramento has 54 tackles and four takeaways — three fumble recoveries and an interception — and has returned each of those for touchdowns.

But then top tailbacks Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman got hurt. And coach Chris Petersen got creative. And so it was that Thompson, at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, played tailback exclusively in each of the Huskies’ past two games, and is now clearly the team’s best option at that position.

His rushing totals this season, which also include brief appearances in the backfield earlier in the year: 45 carries, 356 yards, two touchdowns.

He has rushes of 57, 56, 39 and 24 yards, as well as a 41-yard reception.

Thompson is likely to start at tailback against UCLA, though he is also expected to play some linebacker.

Jack won’t play nearly as much offense as Thompson, partially because the Bruins are well-stocked at tailback — Paul Perkins has rushed for 1,074 yards in nine games — and also because Jack, like Thompson, simply prefers to play defense.

Thompson, who was not made available to speak with reporters this week, said after UW’s victory at Colorado — in which he totaled 215 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches — that he prefers defense because “you get to hit people instead of getting hit.”

But it’s hard not to wonder if running back might be his best position.

“I think the thing that makes him so gifted and so special at the position is his size,” said UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha. “He’s a big dude, I think he’s 220 pounds and he’s fairly fast and he’s very agile, decent hands, great vision. So when it comes to somebody of that stature who has those things — and he can actually go out there and be productive and know what he’s doing — he’s a natural.”

Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said he thinks Thompson’s enjoying his time on offense.

“I think he likes it,” Smith said. “I still think he has the mentality that he likes being on the defensive side, but he’s not complaining with the touches, and he’s playing well for us and being productive. But I think deep down, if he had to pick, I think he’d be on the defensive side.”

Ditto for Jack, who, at 6-1 and 232 pounds, said his heart is at linebacker.

“I wouldn’t be in it for the right reasons if I did it for running back,” he said. “It would be more for glam and glitz and talking to you guys, and being in the newspaper and stuff.”

The two players know each other. Jack said Thompson hosted him on his official visit to Washington when he was being recruited, and the two occasionally exchange text messages, though not during the season.

Jack admires his two-way counterpart, if only because he knows how difficult it is to manage.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete. Kudos to him,” Jack said. “I guess it’s just me and him who are doing it right now. He knows how it feels just to go back and forth and learn two different playbooks and get twice as many plays and over 100 snaps. I think that’s cool.”

Which makes it that much cooler if they collide on Saturday.