For Bruins’ defensive lineman Jacob Sykes, transferring to UCLA this past offseason was as logical as math.
The redshirt senior was named First Team All-Ivy League last year at Harvard after recording 27 tackles and eight sacks for the Crimson. Due to a lost season in 2020 when all Ivy League games were canceled, he had a year of eligibility left at Harvard. But a discussion with members of the team’s coaching staff after the 2021 season led him to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal.
Sykes learned about the intricacies of college football’s transfer rules. He also discovered that he was eligible for “a unique possibility to both get a Harvard degree and be able to play at a higher level somewhere else.”
Sykes has had an eventful year. He not only graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, but also received several offers soon after entering the portal. He wanted to attend a school which combined outstanding academics and an opportunity to play football at a high level. And after a visit to Westwood, the choice became obvious.
“I was able to choose the best option which in my eyes was UCLA and the rest is history,” Sykes said.
Sykes adapted quickly to the higher level of competition on the field and soon became a stalwart on the Bruins’ defensive line. His role on the defense as a three-technique lineman is similar to the one he played at Harvard.
“At the end of the day, football is football,” he said. “Coming here, there is an adjustment obviously. Power Five level is a little faster, a little stronger. Once you get adjusted to that, it’s the same old game. It’s a good breeding ground to hone my skills and get better.”
Although there were some adjustments Sykes needed to make in moving from one school to another and one coast to another, his four years in Boston had prepared him for the change.
“Fortunately, at an institution like Harvard you learn how to budget your time pretty well having a rigorous athletic schedule in addition to a rigorous course schedule,” he said. “It was a smooth transition.”
The likelihood of a seamless transition in the classroom can be traced back well before Sykes was named an FCS Academic All-Star in 2021. As a freshman at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, he became a member of the school’s math team. While starring in track, basketball, and football during his prep years, he also qualified for two state math competitions in multiple categories.
“The competition was a unique experience,” he said. “I was able to learn new skills, new traits, and how to compete in a different area.”
He also learned in time how to ingeniously employ his knowledge of math to improve his on-field performance.
“In football it can help with taking proper angles,” he said. “Angles are all about math. When I’m at my maximum velocity, I can estimate the velocity and take the proper angle.”
On the gridiron, Sykes has worked hard to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and running backs. But his drive off the field is to one day improve the lives not just of individuals, but of society as a whole.
Having already earned his bachelor’s at Harvard, Sykes is now pursuing a master’s degree in coaching and transformative learning at UCLA. He enjoys his new field of study because it allows him to take courses in other disciplines and “it allows me to keep learning and growing in all areas,” he said.
The coaching in his new field entails more than just sports coaching. It applies more generally to passing on knowledge to other people, something Sykes loves to do.
Having grown up with the example of a mother who works with inner-city children in after-school programs, Sykes understands the impact an individual can make in the lives of others.
“I see rebuilding communities as a positive thing,” he said. “I think investing in minority communities and poor communities is beneficial. I want to help them out and see their dreams come true just like mine.”
One personal dream Sykes has yet to realize is playing in the NFL. He has worked toward that goal since high school. And at this point, if he were to write a scouting report on himself it would be succinct: “He doesn’t quit, no matter what.”
As daunting as that level of determination is to opposing offenses today, it is equally encouraging to communities in need tomorrow.
UCLA vs. Stanford
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29
WHERE: Rose Bowl Stadium, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena
COST: Tickets start at $51