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STRONG STAND : There Is Nothing in Between About UCLA’s Wahler--He’s Focusing on USC

Times Staff Writer

Jim Wahler, UCLA’s outspoken nose guard, is the Bruins’ strongest player, which is good because he carries a chip on his shoulder.

His major gripe is that, although UCLA is ranked ahead of USC in the national polls, it is still perceived by many in Los Angeles to be the second-best college football team in town.

“And that’s (not right),” Wahler said this week. “That’s got to end. And if that means taking USC out and blowing them out of the Rose Bowl, so be it. Let’s do it.”

UCLA’s game against USC is still more than 6 weeks away, but Wahler said he often has a tendency to overlook the Bruins’ lesser opponents, so it’s not unusual for him to be looking so far ahead.

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“I have a problem playing against the quote-unquote lower teams,” said Wahler, who will line up Saturday against Oregon State at the Rose Bowl. “I play more to my opponent than to my capabilities, which is something I have to work on.”

Problem is, Wahler has little respect for his opponents.

“I’ll never give a guy credit,” he said. “To me, they’re all (no good).”

Despite this unnerving habit, the 6-foot 4-inch, 263-pound Wahler is a 3-year starter. And for the third straight season, he is the leading tackler among UCLA’s defensive linemen.

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Not surprisingly, considering his propensity for pointing to big games, Wahler was at his best in UCLA’s 41-28 victory over Nebraska, making 12 tackles and earning a game ball as defensive player of the game.

“As the level of competition goes up, I go up,” he said. “If I go out and I feel good and I’ve got a spring in my step, there’s nobody who can block me.”

Wahler made his way to UCLA from Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, where he had 20 sacks in 12 games as a senior and was widely regarded as the top defensive line prospect on the West Coast.

His arrival in Los Angeles signaled the start of a rocky relationship. Wahler hates L.A. “I think the people here are screwed up in the head,” he said. “I think they’re selfish. I think they’re self-centered. They don’t (care) about anybody but themselves.”

For a time, Wahler was only slightly more enamored of the UCLA coaching staff, which moved him from nose guard to tackle after his freshman season.

The move so upset him that he considered transferring until Terry Tumey, his best friend and the man who beat him out of the nose guard position, talked him into staying.

Wahler and Tumey played alongside one another for 2 seasons before Tumey graduated last year and Wahler was moved back to nose guard in the spring.

Wahler resented being moved again, although he said he would rather play nose guard.

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“I was rated as one of the best tackles in the country, and I wondered why they wanted to mess with me right before my senior year,” he said. “Anybody who says they change positions for the good of the team is full of . . .

“Deep inside you wonder, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’ ”

Wahler describes tackle as a “read-and-react” position, whilenose guard is “all reaction.”

Why does he prefer nose guard?

“I like being in the middle of the play all the time,” he said. “You always have a chance to make a play, and I like that. I like to hit.

“And I like that feeling when I can beat two or three guys. I mean, who can say they beat three guys on a play? You watch the films, and I do it time and time again.”

Wahler is UCLA’s strongest player, having bench-pressed a team-record 452 pounds.

He also has strong opinions.

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He doesn’t use steroids, he said.

“They don’t belong in sports, period,” he said. “It’s cheating. It’s a crock . . . if anybody says anything different.”

Wahler, however, is not a crusader against steroid use. In fact, he said he once considered using the strength-enhancing drugs. Why didn’t he try them?

“I couldn’t honestly tell you,” he said. “I think there was a part of me that was scared. I wasn’t so much afraid of the cancer, or any of (the other potential side effects).

“I was more afraid of how it would change my body because I’m big now, naturally. If I (used steroids), I’d look like some kind of freak. There was a part of me that said, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

Another part of Wahler told him last week that UCLA was letting a potential national championship slip away as it trailed Washington, 17-10, in the fourth quarter.

Wahler, admittedly overconfident, had played what he called the worst game of his career.

“It’s our job to put pressure on the quarterback and we failed,” he said. “I took it personally. I want to dominate everybody I play, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t.”

Not usually a vocal leader, Wahler chose last week to chastise his teammates in a huddle.

“I screamed, ‘I’m not going to lose a national championship to these guys,’ ” he said. “ ‘I’m not going to let you guys screw it up.’

“It’s easy when you’re in the heat of the battle to forget the repercussions of what’s going to happen if you win or lose. I think the guys, for a minute, forgot what was on the line.”

UCLA won, 24-17.

Looking ahead to the USC game, he said: “I just hope we’re both undefeated going into (the Nov. 19 game at) the Rose Bowl because there would be no better place to beat the . . . out of them. That’s the way I want to go out.”

To Wahler, all games until then are little more than preliminaries.


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