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Bruins’ Wills Willing to Fill Several Roles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask any running back about his most memorable play and you will get a detailed description of some 80-yard run in which he miraculously escaped the clutches of defensive players.

Therefore, it was somewhat of a surprise when UCLA’s Shawn Wills volunteered another aspect of the game. Would you believe a block?

Wills beamed when he told of blocking a linebacker during last season’s game against Washington in Seattle.

It wasn’t an ordinary block. It enabled Brian Brown to run 88 yards to a touchdown in the first quarter, stunning the favored Huskies. The Bruins went on to win, 25-22.

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“It was a draw play, and they were blitzing,” Wills said. “The linebacker was rushing inside, and I kicked him outside. Everyone else was man-to-man, and there was a wide gap in the middle. The linebacker was the only one who could make the play.”

The term team player is a cliche, but Wills seems to fit that description.

A senior now, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound tailback could be bitter.

As a freshman in 1988, he made an auspicious debut. In the second game against Nebraska, he had a tackle-breaking, 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. UCLA won, 41-28.

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For the season, he had a rushing average of 6.6 yards with five touchdowns.

In the Cotton Bowl game against Arkansas, Wills came off the bench to rush for 120 yards as the Bruins won, 17-3.

Surely, UCLA had a worthy successor to talented Gaston Green.

Since 1988, though, Wills has been a utility player in the offensive scheme, not the established No. 1 tailback.

“My sophomore year was disappointing,” Wills said. “I sprained my ankle early and I was told it would heal if I sat out four weeks, or I could play on it until it hurt and then come out.

“I didn’t want to miss four games. That’s half the season. So I played until the ankle hurt. I’d say my sophomore season was wishy-washy.”

Last year, Brown emerged as the starting tailback, and Wills concedes that the designation was earned.

So Wills was a spot player, lining up occasionally at fullback in the shotgun formation. He had only 27 carries, gaining 105 yards.

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However, he was used in other ways, as a receiver, catching 18 passes for 163 yards, and in returning kickoffs, running back 14 for a 22.1-yard average.

“I’m a person who wants to be doing something,” Wills said. “I want to help the team any way I can. I just wanted to be in games, make something happen. So I had to take on different roles.”

Wills’ role this season apparently has been expanded. He will alternate with Ricky Davis at tailback and play some at fullback, as well as catch passes and return kickoffs with wide receiver Paul Richardson.

Wills missed part of spring practice while playing center field on the baseball team. He batted .329 with two home runs and was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 12th round of the draft in June.

Wills will play baseball for the Bruins next season and, if he doesn’t sign with the Expos, re-enter the baseball draft next June.

He is undecided whether he will pursue a professional football or baseball career.

“I don’t know what I’ll end up doing, but whatever it is, I’ll give it 100%,” Wills said.

He added that he doesn’t intend to emulate Bo Jackson, with careers in both sports.

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Wills grew up in Hanford, Calif., where he was a star at Hanford High in both football and baseball. He is still the all-time leading ground gainer in the CIF Central Section with 4,648 yards.

And he has a career rushing average of close to five yards at UCLA.

Wills is a slithering type of runner with the best moves among the Bruin backs. So why has he been in the background the past two seasons?

UCLA coaches, while admiring his work ethic, say he isn’t fast enough.

Wills said he has heard the same rap.

“I feel I can get the job done,” said Wills, who reportedly has a best 40-yard dash time of 4.52 seconds. “Get me in the open field and I feel I can score without somebody catching me.

“When you have someone on your back, you’ll run a little faster. Also, how many times do you run straight for 100 yards? It’s a cut here and a cut there.”

In any event, Wills said: “I’ve never regretted coming here, even though things haven’t always gone the way I wanted. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”


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