Jayon Brown goes from Myles Jack's replacement to UCLA's defensive leader

It’s one thing to interview the teammate of a player for a feature story. Sure, they’ll give you all the requisite clich├ęs about being a leader, how he is the heart of the team and how everyone respects him. First one in, last one out, etc. etc.

But finding an opponent -- a big, nasty offensive lineman who makes his living flattening other players -- getting compliments out of those guys can be a challenge.

So when Utah offensive tackle J.J. Dielman was asked about UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown, he immediately, if not begrudgingly, gave respect where respect was due.

“He was a fast dude,” Dielman said. “When we watched him on film, we knew he was going to be fast. But then when you get on the field, it’s like holy hell, this guy is a blur, man. When you get to that second level and try to find him, he’s gone. That made our job tough and that was half the reason things didn’t end up the way we wanted to in that game. He’s a good player.”

The game Dielman is referring to is last year’s UCLA-Utah showdown, a game the Bruins won 17-9 as the Utes offense was kept out of the end zone. Ultimately, that late-season loss also cost the Utes a spot in the Pac-12 title game. Brown led UCLA with 10 tackles while also getting in on a sack, a tackle for a loss and recovering a fumble. It was one of several games last year when Brown led the Bruins in tackles. For the season, he led UCLA with 93.

Before the 2015 season, Brown had primarily been a special-teams player. He had appeared in 25 games and had even earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week in 2013 and was all-conference honorable mention for his special-teams play. But with Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks ahead of him on the depth chart, finding the field outside of the kicking game proved difficult.

It wasn’t until Jack got hurt before the fourth game last season that Brown got his opportunity to start. He went on to start nine games and was the Bruins' most productive defensive player.

Now he’s been voted a team captain for 2016 and his seemingly meteoric rise from reserve to role player to potential all-conference is complete.

“I was patiently waiting for my opportunity and when it came, I made the most of it,” Brown said. “I believe in my abilities. When [Jack] went down, my role increased. I had to be ready and I accepted it.”

Now he leads a defense that should be among the best in the conference. That’s one of the main reasons the media picked the Bruins to win the South Division this season. After suffering slew of injuries to key defensive players in 2015, the Bruins were forced to call younger or less experienced players into action.

On the front end, the result was as expected. The learning curve resulted in a disappointing 8-5 season. And yet the defense still ranked fifth in the conference and the passing defense was tops in the league.

Now those injured veterans, such as defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau, are back from injury. And the guys who replaced them are a year stronger and wiser.

“I feel like with this defense, we can be tops in the country,” Brown said. “We have a good mix of experience and veterans. Fabian and Eddie are 100 percent. They are looking stronger and faster than ever. When we have everything right, nobody can mess with us. We can only beat ourselves.”

That defense will be put to the test early when the Bruins open with a Pac-12-SEC showdown at Texas A&M. Plus, they’ll be facing former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who left the Bruins after last season.

And in case you were wondering, the rematch with Utah is at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 22. Dielman hasn’t forgotten.

“Hopefully I can grab him this time,” the Utah lineman said. “I know a little more what I’m doing when it comes to him. He’s extremely fast for a linebacker and a damn good player.”