Kenny Young was the first person in his family to graduate high school. He will soon become the first to graduate college.
A New Orleans native, Young has been breaking the mold throughout his life. Now he has a chance to stand out among Ravens defensive rookies.
Young could become an immediate starter in the Ravens defense, as he’s locked in a tight battle with incumbent Patrick Onwuasor at inside linebacker. It would be a rare feat to say the least.
“It’s exciting, but I have to trust that I can do the right things on my end so the coaches can trust me in there to play and make stops for this defense,” Young said.
Only one Ravens defensive rookie in the past decade has won a starting job by Week 1 of the regular season and it’s the guy lining up next to Young: C.J. Mosley.
No Day 3 draft pick has started immediately since safety Dawan Landry, a fifth-round pick, did so in 2006. Cornerback Tavon Young, a fourth-round selection, started 11 games in 2016, but that was after injuries to the group created an opening in Week 6.
Last week, Head Coach John Harbaugh said Onwuasor, who started 13 games and made 90 tackles last season, is still ahead in the competition. Onwuasor is practicing well, including a red-zone interception and one tipped pass that led to another pick.
“That probably speaks to how Kenny is playing that it’s even mentioned as a [add] fight right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be a fun battle to watch unfold.”
“It’s still ongoing,” Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale added. “They’ll both make strides, then they’ll both fall back. One guy will play better one day, and Kenny Young will fall back, and it’s vice versa with ‘Peanut.’ It’s going to be a great competition that’s good for our defense.”
After pining to play at LSU growing up, Young (a top-10 linebacker recruit in the country) ultimately chose UCLA because they recruited him harder. The Bruins also had a pedigree of churning out linebackers, including Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack and Anthony Barr.
Despite the competition, Young still started six games as a true freshman. He broke out in his junior year when he made 90 tackles, 8.5 for loss, with five sacks, three passes defensed and three fumble recoveries and followed it up with a strong senior campaign.
Young gets the job done with his speed. His highlights are filled with sideline-to-sideline tackles and flashes of him tracking down running backs in the backfield. His athleticism also gives him a chance to be strong in pass coverage.
“The biggest thing about Kenny Young is he plays fast. He closes,” Harbaugh said. “He covers ground really well, which is also Patrick’s strength, so we have some real speed at linebacker.”
“The fastest guy on the field, I’m trying to catch him,” Young said. “That’s my mindset; I’m a hunter.”
But there’s obviously still a long way to go and a lot for Young to learn. Martindale said there isn’t one specific issue that he or Onwuasor need to improve on. It’s just becoming a well-rounded linebacker, executing the defense.
Onwuasor, an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016, converted from playing safety in college at Portland State to inside linebacker. So both players are still learning the position. With that said, Onwuasor has a leg up because he already did it for a year with the Ravens.
“When I first got here and saw the playbook, it was like trying to read the Bible in a week,” Young said. “It was impossible. But you break it up into sections, you take time and let your brain respond to what it receives. You let it come to you.”
Young gets frustrated when he doesn’t know a play or doesn’t get his assignment right. But he’s improving. His ability is unquestionably high. During Saturday’s practice, he ran step-for-step with first-round tight end Hayden Hurst on a seam route and leapt to break up the pass.
Young has a great mentor next to him in Mosley, who Young said doesn’t say much, but shows him from his actions how to approach every day. A 2014 first-round pick, Mosley was a 16-game starter and Pro Bowler in his rookie season.
“I take every day as another challenge to get better,” Young said. “I don’t think it’s any pressure. It’s just playing ball. I try to keep it as simple as possible.”