Safety Anthony Jefferson rises with UCLA

After coming back from nearly two years of injury, UCLA's Anthony Jefferson is a leader on defense

The rise of safety Anthony Jefferson and of the UCLA football program are on parallel tracks.

Jefferson came to UCLA in 2010 and spent nearly two years in the training room, first with a broken foot and then with a back injury. He worried at times that his career was beyond repair.

The Bruins football team was equally damaged. It was all but irrelevant and annually took a beating from rival USC.

Everything has changed in the last three years.

Jefferson, a senior, has become a productive player again, regaining the skills that had allowed him to cover receivers the caliber of Robert Woods, Paul Richardson and Marqise Lee in high school games. Those players are now in the NFL, where Jefferson could be by next summer.

UCLA is now the prominent college football team in Los Angeles, and the Bruins can win the Pac-12 Conference South Division with a victory over Stanford on Friday. There are opportunities beyond that too — a conference championship and possibly a spot in the four-team playoff that will determine the national champion.

"I've seen maturity in Anthony," Demetrice Martin, UCLA's secondary coach, said of Jefferson. "He has learned how to go through the ups and downs of being injured, how to handle off-the-field situations and not take them on the field. Once he got that stuff in order he took off like a skyrocket."

Like player, like program?

"When you put it like that, definitely," Martin said. "That's a good analogy."

Jefferson was known at Los Angeles Cathedral High as the defensive back who could handle the cadre of receivers Gardena Serra High threw at opponents — Woods, Richardson and Lee.

After recruiting visits to Oregon, Arizona State, Arizona and California, Jefferson chose UCLA. But his career took a turn for the worse after that.

Jefferson played in three games as a freshman, but he sustained a broken foot against California. It healed, then his back gave out. At that point, no one was sure if he would play again.

"I can't say I was completely, 100% positive throughout the whole situation," Jefferson said. "There were times I had doubts."

Jefferson leaned on his friends and family. Johnathan Franklin, his roommate, and Jerry Johnson, another former Bruin, were constantly in his ear offering encouragement.

"I had a good support group," Jefferson said.

When Mora took over as UCLA's head coach in 2011, Jefferson had not played in a game for more than a year.

"He was about was low as you can probably get," Mora said. "He couldn't run. His confidence was lost. I don't think he loved football. He wasn't going to class. Now, through the course of the last few years, he's a guy who is a leader."

This season, Jefferson is tied for third on the team with 55 tackles. He has one interception. Any questions about whether he has regained his speed were answered when he went stride for stride with Nelson Agholor, USC's star receiver, and batted away a pass last Saturday.

And his contributions go beyond his ability to make plays. When safety Randall Goforth suffered a shoulder injury and was lost for the season, the Bruins' secondary leaned even more on Jefferson.

"On the field, he's a coach," Martin said. "He's helping get guys lined up. He's clued into me on the sidelines, so he can hear my voice and my little whistles, and relays adjustments."

Getting healthy was the key.

Jefferson said he finally felt right before spring practice in 2012. He won a starting job during training camp a year later.

"He is one of our real success stories, seeing the way he has come back," Mora said. "He is a completely different kid."

Who plays in a completely different program.

The Bruins had an 82-81 record from 1998 to 2011 and had not won a Pac-12 football championship since 1998. They had lost 12 of 13 games to USC before Mora arrived and Jefferson made his comeback.

"It's been a complete 180," Jefferson said. "Everything has changed — coaches, players, school environment."

Jefferson recalls the team's first meeting with Mora.

"I liked his energy," Jefferson said. "He was the leader that we needed in a head coach. Guys were going to buy into what he was telling us."

UCLA has a 28-10 record and has not lost to USC during Mora's three seasons. A victory over Stanford Friday would send the Bruins to the Pac-12 title game for the second time in three seasons.

"The level of intensity shot up," Jefferson said. "That first season, he hadn't recruited any of us. But the discipline got better. The level of commitment got better. There was focus."

That focus is such that Mora appeared uncomfortable when asked to discuss the overall health of the program this week. Stanford was on his mind.

"We look better. We've gotten bigger, faster, stronger," he acknowledged. "We're three years into our system, so we understand what we're doing better."

Said Jefferson: "Gradually, this program has gotten better and better. Just like me."

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times