When Kenny Young was a teenager in the New Orleans suburbs, he would pop in his earbuds, cue up a speech from his favorite NFL player, Ray Lewis, and run along the levees for hours at a time.
Little did the young linebacker know he was galloping toward the same city where Lewis forged his Hall of Fame career.
“It was his mindset,” Young said. “The way he approached everything on the field and in his life, I wanted to attack it the exact same way. I wanted to be remembered, in my special way, the way he’s remembered.”
Now Young is a Raven, like Lewis. And the echoes don’t stop there. On the field, he uses his superior speed to make tackles from sideline to sideline. Off it, he’s deeply interested in issues beyond the game, devouring sociology books in his time away from the daily toil required of an NFL rookie.
Of all the players in the Ravens’ 2018 draft class, the 23-year-old Young has one of the best opportunities to earn immediate snaps, partly because he’s adapted quickly but also because the team is thin at inside linebacker.
Patrick Onwuasor won the starting weak-side job over Kamalei Correa in a mild upset last season and played well enough. But it’s not clear the team views Onwuasor as a long-term solution next to C.J. Mosley, and Albert McClellan is the only other established player in the mix.
Coaches have said the job is up for grabs between Onwuasor and Young, even if Onwuasor remains the favorite to start in Week 1.
“It’s still ongoing,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said of the preseason battle. “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’ (Onwuasor). It’s going to be a great competition that’s good for our defense.”
Young downplayed the faceoff with Onwuasor, whom he likes a great deal. In fact, he said he cherishes the inside linebacker room, where he’s also learned from Mosley and McClellan.
“Honestly, it’s one of the most phenomenal groups I’ve ever been in,” he said. “Not to say college doesn’t matter or high school doesn’t matter, but at this stage, where your life depends on football and your ego or jealousy could get in the way, I don’t feel that at all. It’s fun. You want to come to work every day. You want to joke with the guys and you want to get better with them.”
For his part, Onwuasor said he appreciates the push from Young. He noted the linebackers recently gathered away from practice to socialize at a “stretch party.”
“We’re both competing, we’re both playing fast,” Onwuasor said. “He’s coming in as a new guy, so he still has a lot to learn. I’m just going on my third year. … He’s pushing me. I’m pushing him.”
When the Ravens picked Young in the fourth round of April’s draft, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock praised his mobility (he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) in covering running backs on pass routes out of the backfield.
Scouts questioned his power when he took blockers head on, but perhaps it’s fitting he’s more of a side-to-side playmaker, given he modeled himself after Lewis.
Young looked slightly skeptical at that characterization of his game. “That’s the way y’all call it,” he said. “I just call it playing ball and using your effort. That’s all it is.”
But it’s telling that Ravens coaches go right to his speed whenever they’re asked about Young.
“The biggest thing about Kenny Young is he plays fast,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He closes. He covers ground really well, which is also Patrick’s strength, so we have some real speed at linebacker. It’ll be a fun battle to watch unplay. Patrick is still ahead, because Patrick is playing pretty well also. That probably speaks to how Kenny is playing that it’s even mentioned as a fight right now.”
Young was born in Boutte, La., a small town about 25 miles from downtown New Orleans and across the Mississippi River from St. Rose, where former Ravens safety Ed Reed came up.
“Just a boy from the South who’s chasing his dreams,” Young said. “I’m from woods, rivers, alligators all around.”
He grew up with two families, his biological parents and the parents of his childhood best friend, Amonte Brown, who took him in when he was 11.
He has credited his second father, Dominic Brown, for steering him toward linebacker after a 7-year-old Young asked which position would allow him to hit the most people.
Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans when Young was 10, and though his family did not suffer as much devastation as some others, the storm left its mark.
“We had to pretty much start from nothing once Katrina hit,” he said. “Everything was destroyed. You couldn’t go to the grocery store. It was bad. I don’t come from much money, so we never evacuated. It’s part of what made me who I am today. It was a tough couple of weeks, and I battled through that with my family.”
Katrina thrust his home state into the political spotlight, but Young said his fascination with social issues was in him even before then.
“I just think that’s how I’m wired,” he said. “I like to study why things happen — environment, people, the way the mind thinks, the way everything has evolved.”
He gave a philosophical answer, based around the word “sovereignty,” when asked what it’s like to enter the NFL at a time of political unrest, with President Donald Trump routinely picking fights against the league’s most outspoken players.
“I’m in it, but I’m not of it,” he said of the divisive climate. “Everybody, at the end of the day, has a right to voice their own opinion. You study the word ‘sovereignty’ and it’s about being free from external influences. That’s something the opposing people don’t understand. You can’t threaten peoples’ sovereignty. They get to say what they want, whether we like it or not. ”
Most great players from Louisiana stay in the South, but Young, a consensus four-star recruit out of John Curtis Christian High School, wanted to broaden his horizons, so he went to UCLA.
“I think I saw something bigger than football,” he said. “I just tried to put my eggs in more than one basket. The things I would have gotten out of staying in Louisiana, I don’t think I would have done half the things I did in California.”
Though he felt homesick the first year, Los Angeles struck him as a place where he could literally do anything. He swam in the Pacific Ocean to unwind from games and joined the school’s debate team.
Not to mention, the football at UCLA was nothing to sneeze at.
Young joined a linebacker corps that included 2014 Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks and future second-round pick Myles Jack. With his candid nature and immediate productivity, he fit right in and became an All-Pac 12 Conference linebacker.
Now that he’s walking the same halls and fields Lewis walked, Young is convinced fate has again steered him correctly.
“I think — no, I know — that I could be in no greater place than with the Ravens,” he said.