UCLA's Ishmael Adams has a chip that gives him an edge

UCLA's Ishmael Adams has a chip that gives him an edge
UCLA's Ishmael Adams celebrates after scoring on an interception return during the Bruins' 28-20 win over Virginia on Saturday. (Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks shook his head when the subject turned to Ishmael Adams.

"He's always dancing," Kendricks said. "Any time there is music playing, he's dancing. It doesn't matter if he's the only one."


Receiver Jordan Payton smirked when asked about Adams, a junior cornerback.

"He knows how to push your buttons," Payton said. "He'll get you out of your game."

Coach Jim Mora chuckled when Adams was mentioned.

"He has a knack for making plays," Mora said. "When he gets the ball in his hands, there is no way he is going to go down easy."

No one ever hems and haws when talking about Adams. He is a 5-foot-8 ball of energy who can sway to the beat, get under someone's skin and cause cold sweats.

"I just love to compete," he said.

And dance.

"If music is playing before a meeting, yeah, I'm going to dance," Adams said.

There is little doubt Adams moves to his own orchestra. He has purpose and wants to impose it on a 24/7 basis.

Virginia got a taste Saturday in a 28-20 loss to UCLA. Adams careened through Cavaliers on an 85-yard punt return for a would-be touchdown in the first quarter. It was called back because teammate Priest Willis lost his helmet, put it back on and continued to play, which is officially a personal foul penalty.

No matter. In the second quarter, Adams snagged a deflected pass and raced 20 yards to the end zone. This time all the players retained their helmets, though some headsets might have been tossed on the Virginia sideline.

"He has speed, but when he has the ball in his hands, there is something different," UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley said. "I don't know what it is, but I love to watch it."

It comes in a package that is far from imposing. Adams joked about how "I was the perfect size in park league football, then everyone grew."

So Adams grew in other ways.

"He plays with that chip on his shoulder ... in practice, in games," Mora said. "He's a fighter, a scrapper."

That is hard to imagine in conversation. Adams is pleasant and polite. Yet occasionally he will flash that if-only-you-knew smile. You can go to Hundley and he knows.

"I don't think a day goes by where Ish doesn't try to start a fight in practice," Hundley said. "He goes after receivers, even ours. That's good for us."

Payton saw that five years ago, when Adams arrived in California as a high schooler from Atlanta after his mother was transferred west for work.

"We were doing one-on-one drills at a camp and he was being a pest," Payton said. "He's really good at it."

There is some trash talk, though Payton said that Adams "won't say anything first. But if you say something, he'll come back at you." There is some physical play that falls in a gray area, though that is hardly uncommon.

So what makes Adams such a pain?

"He just always there … aggressively," Payton said.

Payton approved of that when the two became teammates at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High. Adams played running back, gaining 1,713 yards in two seasons. He scored 30 touchdowns, 20 rushing, eight receiving and two on returns.

But it was clear his future was on the other side of the ball.

"He wants to mix it up every play," said Bill Redell, Oaks Christian's former coach. "You want a guy like that in the secondary."

Redell talked at length about the "extremely nice kid." He also gave a quick explanation about the less-than-nice cornerback.

"He is going to kick your [rear] and [tick] you off," Redell said.

Adams missed most of his freshman season at UCLA after shoulder surgery. He won a starting spot at cornerback last season and had four interceptions to lead the team.

He approaches the job with a vengeance. Asked whether receivers were the enemy, he said, "It has to be like that. On the field, you have no friends except for the guys [on defense] you have to communicate with."

There is no mercy.

"If it has to get a little dirty, it's going to have to go there," Adams said, smiling.

Friend and foe alike.

Adams sparred with Bruins receiver Shaquelle Evans throughout training camp a year ago, one time literally. During camp this year, Mora had to hold a post-practice peace summit between Adams and Payton at midfield.

Payton laughed and said, "It wasn't a big deal. You want to get a receiver frustrated. It's one of the best things a cornerback can do."

That's something Payton admires in Adams more during games.

"We'll pass each other when he's coming off the field and I'm going on and he'll give me that look like, 'I'm doing my thing right now,'" Payton said.

Of course, Adams doesn't know what the fuss is about. This is business, and business is good when he sees he has the upper hand.

"You'll see receivers start to give up on routes, or won't be running as hard," he said. "Their demeanor changes."

That just makes Adams want to dance with joy.