On a Saturday in September, JonJon Vaughns made seven tackles and hauled in an interception in UCLA’s 32-31 victory over South Alabama. The next day, he was at Jackie Robinson Stadium, saying hello to some baseball teammates.
Vaughns, a junior, is one of three dual-sport athletes in the Pac-12 that plays football and baseball. And he does it well, much to the liking of football coach Chip Kelly and baseball coach John Savage.
“You see so much specialization in all the sports, it’s refreshing to see a guy that wants to do two sports,” Savage said. “And I think it’s refreshing for Chip and certainly myself knowing that UCLA can bring an athlete like that into our programs and have them effectively perform at their highest ability level.”
When UCLA was recruiting Vaughns out of St. John Bosco High, they recruited him as a football and baseball player. He had been playing both sports in high school and showed no indication of changing that pattern.
St. John Bosco’s JonJon Vaughns announced he’ll be attending UCLA to continue his football career, during a ceremony in Bellflower on Wednesday, February 5, 2020. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
Savage and Kelly saw his potential in both sports at the college level and respected his decision to pursue both.
“I’m not going to make that decision for him or tell him he has to make that decision as a 17-, 18-year-old kid coming out of high school,” Kelly said.
In the fall, Vaughns is a full-time football student-athlete. In the spring, his schedule switches to baseball. He misses spring football, but Kelly says there’s no apparent drop-off in his football skills or knowledge.
That’s evidenced by Vaughns’ 26 total tackles this season, which ranks him second on the team, and two interceptions.
Perhaps the most noticeable change is when Vaughns transitions from season to season. He’s a linebacker on the football team and plays multiple positions in the outfield for baseball, and Savage might have him pitch a little this season, too. It all requires two different body types.
In the fall, it’s protein shakes. In the spring, it’s cutting out junk food.
“It’s a big difference,” Vaughns said. “I went over there heavy and it wasn’t working, so I had to lose some weight. Over here, I had to gain weight because I’m a linebacker messing with big linemen all the time.”
While an outfielder’s body doesn’t necessarily transfer well to the gridiron, there are some conducive mental advantages.
Savage said Vaughns has great decision-making and pitch recognition. There are also finer nuances of batting like heart rate, fighting pitches off and knowing what a pitcher is trying to do to get an out. In baseball, like football, players have to make reads.
For example, see Vaughns’ interception Friday night in the victory over Washington:
“They had a couple blocking tight ends and I knew (No. 20) was a blocking tight end,” Vaughns said. “I was like, ‘Oh, something is up.’ And then (Stephan Blaylock) was saying, ‘Jump to the screen, jump to the screen.’
“But he wasn’t talking to me. He was talking to the corner and I just overheard him and so I’m like, ‘OK, I’m just going to go.’”
Kelly sees additional mental advantages that baseball players have in terms of letting small failures or difficult situations – like transitioning from one sport to another – roll of them.
“Success in baseball is being 3 for 10,” the coach said. “You’re hitting .300 and that’s a good day. If you’re 3 for 10 in football, then you’re probably not going to be on the field. But I think his ability to move on to the next play is a really important thing.”
There’s been mutual support for Vaughns between the football and baseball programs well beyond his recruitment period. Savage even watches Vaughns’ media availability sessions after football practice.
Kelly has said he welcomes dual-sport athletes of any combination. There’s been enough of them to come through UCLA at this point that somewhat of a script can be followed.
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“Chip has been really, really good on being open-minded on two-sport athletes,” Savage said. “It’s always a part of our program that I’ve had over 18 years. We’ve probably had three or four (dual-sport) athletes and certainly we’re always constantly looking for that dual-sport athlete in high school.”
In 42 games as a sophomore, Vaughns hit .192 with a .408 on-base percentage, with 84 putouts for a .988 fielding percentage. With the track he’s on, Savage thinks he could turn professional after this year.
But just like when he was first recruited at UCLA, the decision to pursue baseball, football or both at the next level will be his own.