UCLA's Carnell Lake Now Plays in the Other Team's Backfield

Times Staff Writer

Carnell Lake, single-handedly, is on the verge of destroying UCLA Coach Terry Donahue's reputation for avoiding superlatives in critiquing his players.

Donahue can hardly contain himself when it comes to praising his junior outside linebacker. After UCLA's game last Saturday against Fresno State, in which Lake had seven primary tackles, an assist, two sacks and a tackle for loss on a Fresno State receiver, Donahue said: "We don't have a better player on the team than Carnell Lake. He's marvelous."

Asked how Lake always seems to be in the other team's backfield, Donahue said with a grin: "Speed kills."

Lake runs a 4.37-second 40 and is not the least bit slow out of the blocks.

Interesting concept, putting that kind of speed at linebacker.

Lake, who is just over 6 feet and weighs 204 pounds, doesn't look big enough to be an outside linebacker but he's doing the job.

He doesn't look or sound very tough either, but he is.

And it wouldn't seem that he would be real happy making tackles when he came in hoping to break them, but he is. He even told the coaches thanks, but no thanks, when they asked him last spring if he wanted to go back to being a running back.

Obviously, all is not as it seems with Carnell Lake.

How about that mean-looking scar on his forearm? Somebody took a bite of him while he was buried in a pile-up, right? No, that's just the result of a skiing accident.

And you'd never guess it, of course, but his middle name is Augustino, after one of his Italian ancestors. Moreover, Lake is majoring in political science because, he says, he wants to go to law school, and is living at home this season because he can study better there.

All in all, an interesting package. But let's stick to the basics.

Lake ranks second in Bruin defensive statistics with 28 total tackles, right behind Ken Norton Jr., who has 34. But Norton is supposed to do that. He, too, was switched from running back, but Norton is bigger and built to look the part. He also is being touted for all the postseason honors.

Lake's standout game Saturday against Fresno State, however, was just another in a series. He had a solid game at Nebraska in addition to his big start against San Diego State, when he made an interception on the first play from scrimmage.

His 28 tackles include 5 sacks and 2 other tackles for losses of yardage, and he also has recovered a fumble, made that season-opening interception and been credited with breaking up a pass.

"Carnell Lake is one of the top athletes on our football team," Donahue said. "He has tremendous speed, good instincts, competitiveness.

"I thought he could be a fine offensive running back. And still do. We talked to him about it in the spring and let him know the option was available.

"He chose to stay on defense."

See? There's no figuring this guy.

But happy as he is on defense, he's determined to keep his ball-carrying skills sharp and to that end has volunteered to return kicks. Fresno State kicked off only once Saturday, and Lake returned it 11 yards. He returned it 22 yards on the first try, but the play was wiped out by an offside penalty and he had to do it again.

Lake was given the opportunity last spring to go back to being the kind of star he was at Culver City High School, where he gained more than 1,000 yards as a junior and ran for 956 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior in just 4 1/2 games before dislocating his elbow.

So why didn't he jump at the chance to become a running back?

"Coach Donahue was saying fullback then," Lake said with a mischievous smile. "I'm holding out for tailback."

Actually, his defensive act is growing on him. He's good at it and he's enjoying it. Going back to running back would have meant sitting out a season as a red-shirt, and when a guy is playing--and playing well--he doesn't want to sit down.

He was quoted a couple of weeks ago as saying: "It would be fun to carry the ball once or twice. But the more I play defense, the more the offensive side of me has disappeared. . . . I'd rather play against a Gaston Green than try to be like him."

Besides, the Bruins' defensive scheme is a little different this season, which allows Lake to play more to the outside, where he can use his speed.

He's getting his name announced over the public address system at the Rose Bowl a lot more this way, which has to please his parents.

After the game Saturday, his mother and father were outside the locker room to congratulate him and to seek out the defensive coaches. Judging by their smiles, they were not there to complain about anything.

His father admitted that he was a little surprised a couple of years ago when Carnell was moved to defense. But he wasn't surprised that Carnell turned it to advantage.

As his mother said: "He never ceases to amaze us."

Bruin Notes Despite UCLA's 17-0 victory over Fresno State, Coach Terry Donahue has had plenty on his mind. "I'm very cognizant of the fact if we don't make some real drastic improvement very soon, we won't have an opportunity to win many more games," he said. What's got Donahue so down? His offense, mainly, especially the line. Quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Brendan McCracken were sacked 10 times by Fresno State for a total of 19 in three games. UCLA quarterbacks were sacked only 28 times all last season, so Donahue's displeasure with his offensive line was pronounced. In fact, he called it "as poor a performance as any in my 12 years at UCLA."

Donahue also said the offensive linemen have been exposed as being too slow, which he first considered as a potential problem during two-a-days. "I thought we might have a problem there," he said. "I didn't think it would show up against Fresno State." UCLA was a 36-point favorite over Fresno State. The sacks are caused by three factors, Donahue said: "Poor protection, poor route running and the quarterback holding the ball too long. In that order." The Bruins may get a break in that department Saturday afternoon against Arizona in the Pacific 10 opener. Why? The Wildcats don't have much of a pass rush. Consider that New Mexico State, a 20-9 loser to Arizona last Saturday, attempted 59 passes and gave up only two sacks.

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