JonJon Vaughns: Double Duty
The following article appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of UCLA's Athletic Department magazine Bruin Blue.
By Jon Gold
To hear UCLA baseball coach John Savage describe JonJon Vaughns, the Bruins' talented two-sport sophomore, you'd think it's completely natural that Vaughns plays both center field and linebacker at the Pac-12 level. As if it's almost easy.
"There's make-up ground; there's reads — some guys have it, some don't — pre-pitch, pre-snap," says Savage. "There are instincts, there are jumps; the ball is snapped, the pitch is thrown, how do you get that good first step? Where's the ball going? Where's the running back going? There are similarities, even though it's two different games."
Savage almost sounds giddy describing his golden nugget, who arrives in his outfield come January. From July through December, Vaughns is under Chip Kelly's purview, picking up 19 tackles in 10 games last fall for the Bruins.
Now he settles back into the batter's box, ready for Round 2 of his yearly routine.
And Savage couldn't be happier.
Two coaches with as much on the line as Chip Kelly and John Savage could be expected to be a bit selfish.
A two-sport prospect like Vaughns comes along, and it's a surprise one of the UCLA honchos didn't call dibs like they were battling the first slice of pie. Instead, it was a team effort, for the Bruin football and baseball coaches pairing to pull Vaughns out of St. John Bosco High School.
"A lot of our guys were two-sport guys in high school; we have football players on our team, basketball players, but 99 percent don't play both in college," Savage said. "Coach Kelly and his staff have been so understanding and they're looking out for those types of student-athletes. It's great to have a football coach who gets it."
Vaughns said he does not have an on/off switch — it's not like he is one person on the football field and one person on the baseball field. If anything, he carries that linebacker mindset onto the diamond, even if baseball was his first true love.
"Baseball came more natural to me," he said. "I'd be playing Friday nights for football and flying out at 1:00 a.m. to go play baseball for the weekend and come back for football practice on Monday."
During his senior year with the Braves, Vaughns started playing baseball on Wednesdays for a scout team with the Milwaukee Brewers.
This level of commitment is familiar to him, and he acknowledges, "It's on me. I chose two sports."
Surprisingly, the UCLA coaches haven't made him choose one at the college level. That'd be like asking a father his favorite child. Instead, Savage and Kelly are more than willing to split their luck.
"My coaches are never like 'you weren't here so I'm gonna sit you down,'" Vaughns said. "No, they're like 'we gotta help catch you up'. Even the players, they help me get to where I need to be. They're not selfish. Everyone has one goal, to win a championship. Either sport. We're working for the same goal and we're all in."
Added Savage: "It feels like you're adding to the roster. You don't want half your team, but you're going to get guys who can really boost your team in January. I would want more. One, the athleticism. The second thing, a strong football mentality coming here in January is always nice to have."
When Vaughns settles into his defensive stance as a top-flight center fielder for the UCLA baseball team, for a second, you'd almost swear you could picture him roaming the backfield like a stalking linebacker.
Vaughns is that rare diamond-meets-gridiron college student-athlete, following in the footsteps of Bruin greats like Jarrad Page and Jackie Robinson. His schedule is unceasing, no time off for the weary. Luckily for Vaughns, having flexible coaches means he's not running across the campus trying to pull his shoulder pads over his baseball jersey.
But where most UCLA student-athletes have some down time — an opportunity to recharge the batteries, if only — Vaughns is go, go, go. The first half of the calendar year is committed to baseball, the second half to football.
"This guy has probably been on campus more than any student-athlete the last two years," Savage said.
Vaughns knows that he'll be promised nothing as the UCLA baseball season opens, that he'll have to battle it out with a talented crop of freshman for the everyday center fielder role. Savage expects a re-acclimation period and is willing to be patient with Vaughns, even if Vaughns is not patient with himself.
"I just try to do my job," he said. "If I'm getting there late for baseball, I just feel like I have to compete for my job. My job's not just there. I have to work just as hard of the other guys, maybe even more because I'm playing catch-up."
Savage is willing to wait, because he knows what he's getting in Vaughns.
"You look at a Bo Jackson, a Kyler Murray, the guys who played both in college — with Bo being the poster child — and you're talking about some premier athletes. They bring a different level of competitiveness. They bring a different level of toughness. They don't back down. It's really just about getting the rust off. Timing and hand-eye, and really the training and prep."
The question is, where does Vaughns go from here?
He dreams of a future in two professional sports leagues, but hasn't let himself go there mentally.
"I haven't had that discussion in my head," he said. "I'm here to have fun and play and enjoy my time here. If I get to the pros, if it's there, I'm gonna take it. Either sport. But I'm here to get my degree and enjoy my time. You only live once."
Savage, for one, believes he has a future in baseball.
"People see the arm," he said. "He's got big power, left-handed power. Very good instincts, good instincts on the bases. He was a borderline Gold Glove outfielder last year. The natural instinct, the routes he takes, the drop steps, coming in on balls, going back on balls."
But what if neither profession pans out? Then what?
"I started making my own barbeque sauce, too," said Vaughns, a triple-threat if you include his cooking skills. "Pour some seasoning on it, marinate, put some sauce on, toss it in the oven, take it out. Top it off for 30 minutes, let it sit, perfect."