Successful dual-sport athletes can give a jolt to any university’s athletic department. Among them is UCLA’s JonJon Vaughns.
A junior, Vaughns plays defense for the Bruins’ football team and outfield for its baseball team. His athleticism shines in both sports.
Vaughns’ ability, speed and athleticism has helped him develop into a starting linebacker for UCLA football this season. A former safety, he is more of a hybrid than a true linebacker. He frequently drops into coverage and, during the course of a game, moves between positions.
His background in the secondary might have played a role in his first career interception during a Sept. 17 win against South Alabama. Before the snap, he instinctively took a cue from communication in the secondary.
“I heard Blay (safety Stephen Blaylock) in the background saying ‘Jump the screen, jump the screen,’ but he wasn’t talking to me,” Vaughns said. “He was talking to the corner, but I just overheard him and said, ‘OK. I’m just going to jump it.’”
Vaughns’ interception set up an eventual field goal in a game the Bruins won by just one point.
As gifted as he is on the gridiron, Vaughns is most at home on the diamond. It is not surprising considering his upbringing.
“Baseball is probably my passion,” Vaughns said. “Growing up, everybody played baseball. My dad played baseball. Everybody played all sports and baseball just grew on me.”
Vaughns bolsters the Bruins’ outfield with a blend of speed and power. In addition to using his athleticism to track down fly balls, he cranked eight home runs and had 31 RBIs in less than 175 at-bats during his first two years in Westwood.
Vaughns said he believes the physical nature of football has made him a better baseball player. He compares the impact of running into lineman to that of running into an outfield wall or running into a pitcher’s mistake.
“I take that hitting (in football) into me hitting a baseball as well,” he said. “All that syncs together.”
Focused earlier in his childhood on baseball, Vaughns did not begin playing football until he was a little older. And as with baseball, it was the example of family members that inspired him.
“I didn’t play football until I was 10,” he said. “Seeing my brothers ball out every Saturday made me want to play. It was exciting.”
A natural athlete, Vaughns tends to develop quickly as a player, regardless of the sport. As a college football player, he did not need to redshirt, saw meaningful playing time in his freshman and sophomore seasons, and has now become an integral part of the defense in his junior year. And he has done this despite focusing exclusively on baseball every year between January and July.
Despite being unable to work on football for half the year, Vaughns felt prepared for a starting role heading into the 2022 season. Once he was done with baseball, he spent time catching up in the film room and weight room.
“It took some time to get back and get into things,” he said. “It had been every week building up and I just got the starting job. I just have to keep working hard at it, keep building on it.”
Vaughns wants to continue building on his on-field accomplishments after his collegiate playing days are over. He hopes to be able to play either pro baseball or football. If he realizes that goal, he would not be the first member of his family to do so.
His older brother, Tyler, while looking for a new employer in the NFL, has spent the past two seasons in the Indianapolis Colts’ and Pittsburgh Steelers’ organizations. Despite an impressive training camp, the wide receiver just missed out on making the Steelers’ opening day roster as part of a deep receiving corps.
Before pursuing his NFL dream, Tyler played wide receiver at USC. Playing on opposite sides of a crosstown rivalry has created a little bit of sibling rivalry between the brothers, though it is not intense because they are very close with each other. Still, it did play a role in JonJon’s decision to come to UCLA.
JonJon was not recruited by USC, but found a way to play college ball even closer to home than his brother. He is from Pasadena and had an opportunity to play his home games in his hometown.
“I’m going to stay at home so my mom, my dad, and family could see me play,” Vaughns said of his thought process while he was deciding where to attend college. “And at UCLA I could play both (football and baseball). Also, I got to play against my brother, which was a big deal.”
JonJon and Tyler lined up on opposite sides of the field when UCLA and USC played each other in 2020. JonJon was a freshman and Tyler a senior.
JonJon is a political science major who envisions a career in real estate or in coaching baseball once his playing days are over. But before then, if his game keeps developing rapidly, he just might meet his brother on the playing field again.