By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
Jeff Ulbrich’s approach to coaching is the same philosophy he had as a player: stay focused, be passionate and work hard. These characteristics served him well as a standout linebacker at the University of Hawaii, and they will fuel his success at his new gig as the defensive coordinator of the NFL’s New York Jets.
Ulbrich had one of the greatest seasons by a linebacker in Hawaii history. The San Jose, California native signed to play at San Jose State out of Live Oak High School, but left the school after one year. Ulbrich worked at a sheet metal company until friends convinced him to give football another try. He enrolled at Gavilan College in Northern California, where he was discovered by then-UH offensive coordinator Guy Benjamin.
The six-foot, 240-lb. linebacker joined the Hawaii program in late 1997 and became a starter the next season. In 1999aaaaaaaaa, as a senior, Ulbrich was elected a team captain. In the season opener against nationally ranked USC – the very first game of Hawaii’s June Jones era – Ulbrich recorded a game-high 17 tackles.
His performance did not go unnoticed. “You just know that man is playing [in the NFL],” marveled Trojans RB Chad Morton after the game. “I just hope he’s on my team next time.”
Said UH associate head coach George Lumpkin: “I’ve coached a lot of linebackers in my time here. And he’s as good as any I’ve been around. He is the perfect middle linebacker. He can run, he can hit, and he plays with such intensity, you can’t help but be caught up with what he does.”
Ulbrich finished the season with a school record 169 total tackles, a mark that still stands. His numbers included 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for losses. More importantly, he helped the Rainbow Warriors go 9-4 that season, including a win over Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl. That was a stunning turnaround from the previous year’s 0-12 record under Fred von Appen. For his efforts, Ulbrich was named First-Team All-WAC.
Next stop: Play for pay. The San Francisco 49ers selected Ulbrich in the third round (86th pick overall) of the 2000 NFL Draft. Wearing #53, he would play 10 seasons with the Niners, playing 120 games (75 as a starter) and recording 488 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. In 2004 and 2007, he won the Matt Hazeltine Award, which is bestowed to the team’s “most courageous and inspirational defensive player.”
Concussions forced a Ulbrich to call it quits. He announced his retirement December 2009.
Then-49ers head coach Mike Singletary encouraged Ulbrich. “I do remember telling him that God was not through with him and that all things happen for a reason,” Singletary told an ESPN reporter. “The fact that happened and that door closed means God opens a window somewhere. You just have to see it.”
Ulbrich turned to coaching. He landed a position with the Seattle Seahawks as a special teams assistant in January 2010. Still, the transition was not easy, and the former player found himself battling depression.
“I found so much of who I am through this game as a player,” Ulbrich told ESPN. “I found self-confidence. I found identity. I found purpose. I found great friendships. And I found an opportunity to prove to myself how strong I could be. And when the game left, I said to myself, ‘Next phase, next thing.’ But I never really sat back at that point and thought about how I was losing a part of myself, probably one of the favorite parts of myself. I tried to numb all the feelings. I numbed it through anger. I numbed it through overworking and just burying myself in my job. And I numbed it, sometimes, by drinking too much. But I never dealt with what was really going on.”
Ulbrich sought help and went through a year of counseling. He came out of it a renewed and determined man.
”He did struggle, he struggled at times,” said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. “Things got to him and were bothering him, and he wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing. But he was just the easiest guy to encourage because he was so gifted to be able to coach. Now he’s gone to [another level] with it.”
In 2012, Ulbrich joined the UCLA coaching staff as a linebackers and special teams coach. Under Ulbrich’s tutelage, the Bruins had one of the top kickoff return and kickoff coverage teams in the nation. The Bruins also blocked 12 punts and field goal attempts from 2012 to 2013, tops in the country. Ulbrich also had a hand in developing future NFL linebackers Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Myles Jack.
Ulbrich returned to the NFL in 2015 as the Atlanta Falcons’ linebackers coach. He was promoted to assistant head coach prior to the start of the 2020 season. Then, midway through the season, the slumping Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn and named Raheem Morris the team’s interim head coach. In a corresponding move, Ulbrich was elevated to defensive coordinator.
On January 21 of this year, Ulbrich, age 43, was named the new defensive coordinator for the Jets. He will serve under new head coach Robert Saleh.
Morris, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, is a big fan of Ulbrich.
“You talk about the ultimate juice in your football team. You talk about authentic energy; you’re talking about a guy that can absolutely light up a room when he comes in it,” Morris told an Atlanta reporter last December. “He is a former player that knows what it’s like to be in the trenches, so he’s sensitive to his guys in that way. He can also give them a type of compassion and a type of learning and a type of development that you can’t get unless you play this game.”
Prediction: Ulbrich will make an immediate impact with the Jets, who in 2020 ranked 26th in the league in scoring defense (surrendering 28.6 points per game) and 24th in yards allowed (387.6 avg.).
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