Times Staff writer

Frank Cornish, UCLA's big sophomore center, played for a coach at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Frank Lenti, who didn't think his seniors should be thinking about where they were going to college until after they had finished their business with him.

So, Lenti held all letters from college recruiters, letting them build up in a big box that the players watched as if it were Santa's bag.

After the last game, he called the seniors together and passed out a couple of letters to this guy, a couple of letters to that guy, and never called out Cornish's name. Cornish was starting to wonder when, less than halfway through the box, Lenti said, "Frank, the rest of these are for you."

Cornish said: "It took me a couple of days to go through all those letters and narrow it down to the schools I wanted to visit."

And he doesn't think he got all those letters because of his name. His father, also Frank Cornish, was a defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears and the Miami Dolphins.

Maybe his dad had something to do with Frank's being a 6-foot 4 1/2-inch, 265-pound guy. But he says, "No matter who my dad was, I don't think anyone would want to sign me if I couldn't play."

He figures it was a greater advantage to play for a high school that was competitive. As a senior, he was captain of the team that won the Chicago city title. Some of his teammates brought in the scouts, too. As a junior he played in a line that included Mike Husar, now at Michigan, and Mark Antonetti, now at Nebraska.

No doubt, those guys are dropping Frank's name, too.

Cornish was a red-shirt his first year at UCLA, then became a starter last year as a red-shirt freshman. He started the last four games of the year after Jim Alexander broke his hand.

This season, he came in as a starter and has done a fine job, start to finish. And if you've never heard his name, he's not surprised.

"Offensive linemen don't get mentioned, by name, unless they're injured, or unless the coaches decide they have to make a change," Cornish said. "When everything's going good, we're just 'the offensive line.' "

Offensive linemen do get mentioned by name, though, when they win big awards or are named All-Americans. And that could be in Cornish's future, with two more years to play after this one.

Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman, for one, thinks Cornish is a future All-American. And the Bruins' offensive line coach, Don Riley, puts no limit on his potential.

"I certainly could see him as a pro," Riley said. "He's only a sophomore, but I would think he has the size and the intensity the pros look for. If he continues to improve the way he has, I could see it. . . . Frank aspires to be really good."

Riley lists Cornish's strengths as intensity, intelligence and the ability to make the calls and checks for the linemen. "He has always had an understanding of what we were trying to do, a grasp of the offensive theories."

Coach Terry Donahue was praising the strong leadership on this team when, after naming the team captains, the quarterback and the obvious standouts, he thought of his sophomore center. "Frank Cornish has been a strong leader, as well as a solidifying factor on the offensive line," Donahue said.

When it comes to his positive, confident attitude, his gregarious personality, his ability and eagerness to learn, Cornish gives credit to his mother, Gloria.

His mother and father are both from Louisiana. But since their divorce, his father has remarried and gone back to Louisiana. His mother stayed in Chicago, teaching at Metropolitan High School and making a home for her only son.

"My mom is my best friend," Cornish said. "I'm an only child, so it's been her and me. She's been like a mother and a sister and a brother. We're buddies. I can talk to her about anything. You should see my phone bill!

"I thought she might want me to choose one of the Big Ten schools, so that she could drive to some of the games and tailgate and do all that, but she was real supportive of me when I said I wanted to go to UCLA. She's not the kind to put a ball and chain on my leg.

"She drove to Nebraska, and she always comes out for the SC game. Hey, is this going to be in the paper Friday? That's when she's coming in. She could buy a paper at the airport and see it right away. That would be great."

The way offensive linemen get overlooked, mothers don't have much to clip. Not even statistics.

Cornish played both ways in high school, so at least he could say how many tackles he made on defense.

"Actually, offensive linemen do have stats," Cornish said. "We can be measured by the yards that the running backs get and the completions of the quarterbacks. So, this year, we have pretty good stats."

Like so many offensive linemen, Cornish had always thought that when he specialized after high school, it would be on defense.

"I was recruited here as a defensive player, and that's what I really wanted to be," Cornish said. "But I didn't even make it through the first practice, and they moved me. My 40(-yard dash) time wasn't the best in the world, I guess.

"But if they wanted me to play offense, I was going to play offense. I didn't come 2,000 miles to sit on the bench.

"At first, I just tried to make the best of it. But lately, I've been improving my strength and working on the finesse moves and trying to get better at the strategies. I'm trying to do this job the best I can.

"I've got to admit it's not the most glorious job on the field. You know what kind of a job it is? It's an important job, but the kind of job that you say, 'Somebody's got to do it.' "

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