Coaches rarely let players miss spring football practice, but graduate transfer linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath was absent May 21 with coach Chip Kelly’s blessing.
Genmark Heath took a brief break to attend his University of Notre Dame graduation ceremony, closing his chapter with the Fighting Irish.
He became the first in his family to graduate from college, so celebrating his academic achievements was important to him.
“I was extremely blessed Coach Kelly allowed me to take the Friday off,” Genmark Heath said. “… It’s been an awesome experience, something super cool.”
Genmark Heath and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet, a running back, are among the newcomers locked in on helping the Bruins finally live up to championship expectations that followed Kelly’s hire in November 2017.
During the last few seasons, UCLA’s defense has been criticized for lack of production, but Genmark Heath is confident in the group moving forward.
“There were a lot of young players some two, three years ago, and now they’re all juniors and seniors. They’re tired of losing,” Genmark Heath said.
“I think that we kind of changed our mindset to being the hammer and not the nail. So as soon as we keep on going out there, I’m confident with the new additions that we’ve added … I think we’re definitely gonna go out there and shock the Pac-12 this year.”
Charbonnet, like the rest of the Bruins, arrived in Westwood with something to prove.
He set the freshman touchdown record for Michigan in 2019. After getting fewer touches his sophomore year, he is looking to make an immediate impact for the Bruins.
“No matter where I am, I’m always going to have that chip on my shoulder and work hard and try to outwork everyone,” Charbonnet said.
“I’m confident with the new additions that we’ve added … I think we’re definitely gonna go out there and shock the PAC-12 this year.”
UCLA linebacker Genmark Heath
While Kelly said he needed to watch tape before assessing the team’s progress as spring workouts came to a close Thursday, Charbonnet’s contributions were memorable.
“Zach is a guy that obviously, he moves really well for a big kid. You almost forget how big he is and what he can do in small spaces. He’s a guy for us who can do a lot of things,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound tailback.
“He’s really smart. He’s a really good student. He’s a real student of the game. He’s been a lot of fun to coach. … I love coaching him on the field. He’s been a real bright for us this spring.”
Genmark Heath also been devoted to studying the game after taking a non-traditional path to the sport.
He was born and raised in Sweden, where he began learning English in the second grade. He said there were roughly 600 people playing American football in Sweden while he was growing up.
“We would go to our Pop Warner games with maybe 12, 13 people — me and my stepdad, who really got me into football,” Genmark Heath said.
He moved to the United States when he was 14 and settled in San Diego before moving to Indiana to play for Notre Dame.
“It’s been a blessing,” Genmark Heath said. “I didn’t really know a lot about college football. My big dream was to play high school football.”
Genmark Heath originally went to Notre Dame as a safety, but the Irish needed help at linebacker and he switched positions.
Ironically, Genmark Heath was recruited by UCLA out of high school as a linebacker, but he said he was a “safety at heart” and declined the offer. Eventually, he was drawn back to UCLA.
So was the position change or switching college teams more difficult?
“Honestly, probably linebacker because like I said, it’s a completely different world — everything’s in your face,” said Genmark Heath, who went from 200 to 230 pounds to aid his position switch at Notre Dame. “Especially when I was 200 pounds playing in the box. … I’d say that was probably the hardest transition. I definitely got frustrated at some times, but I’m happy I went through it.”
Although there were struggles along the way, Genmark Heath couldn’t be happier playing linebacker.
“I love it. This is definitely the position I belong in. I think that I’ve always been a downhill, gritty player, so it was just more natural for me to get to that position,” Genmark Heath said.
“I love contact, which sounds a bit aggressive, but I love to hit people.”
Along with pursuing his master’s degree, Genmark Heath said he’s focused on winning a Pac-12 championship. He said he’s confident the coaches and his new teammates can help him accomplish his goal.
“I feel like this is the year that it’s going to turn around,” Genmark Heath said. “We’re gonna get back to that glory of UCLA football.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.