UCLA Must Do Without Edwards : College football: Linebacker Donahue calls 'best defensive player' will be sidelined a month because of injury.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he lay on the grass at the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon after running head-first into 6-2, 240-pound Oregon fullback A.J. Jelks, UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards knew something was wrong. Very wrong.

"I know my body pretty well," he said. "I thought I was paralyzed. It was one of the scariest moments of my life."

It was bad all right, but not that bad. Edwards learned Monday from the results of an MRI test that he has a compression fracture of the vertebrae and will be out at least a month.

The loss is critical to the Bruins, who use the versatile, aggressive Edwards as the centerpiece of their defense, moving him around to keep him in the center of the action. He was the solid anchor at middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense and a swift attacker at defensive end in pass coverage.

"He's our best defensive player," Coach Terry Donahue said, "certainly in the front part of our defense."

Nothing illustrates that better than two plays in the first quarter of Saturday's 38-31 loss to Oregon.

On the first one, Edwards was hurt when he came up to meet Jelks after the Duck fullback had crossed the line of scrimmage. When Jelks leaped to avoid the tackle, Edwards buried his helmet in the midsection of the Oregon runner, only to have Jelks come crashing down on him. Jelks had been stopped after a three-yard gain.

On the next play, with Edwards on the sidelines, Jelks ran 18 yards for a touchdown.

And with Edwards on the sidelines for the rest of the afternoon, Oregon ran off 31 more points. With Edwards on the field, UCLA had given up a total of only 17 points in its first two games.

Donahue says the Bruins will stick to the 4-3 defense, despite Edwards' absence. Brian Willmer will replace him with Jeff Ruckman serving as backup. Willmer, at 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds, is a physical player, the type normally identified with the position of middle linebacker. But losing Edwards means losing valuable speed, the element that has become the trademark of this UCLA defense.

"Guys who are first string are first string for a reason," Donahue said. "That's not in any way to demean or belittle guys who aren't first string. . . . In this case, Donnie Edwards is going to be gone and lost to the team, and that's a blow. But, on the other side of the coin, I think Willmer and Ruckman can go in and play solid football for us. . . . They will add a physical element to the middle linebacker position that will help us."

For Edwards, the road to recovery will be slow and painful, both physically and mentally. He can't sit. He can't sleep. He can't even turn his neck without difficulty.

"It's my senior year," he said, "and not making a contribution is kind of tough."

It was tough Saturday. Although he was sitting on the sidelines in pain after he got hurt, Edwards was focused on the game, and the fact that the Ducks were racing into the Bruin end zone time after time.

"I told myself, 'I should be in there right now.' It was hard," Edwards said. "Oregon was driving down the field and I couldn't do anything about it. I was no factor in the result of the game. That was the hardest thing. You are helpless."

Edwards may feel helpless for some time to come. Because of the nature of the injury, he cannot jog or lift weights. His only way to stay in shape for a while may be to work in a swimming pool.

Although still in intense pain, Edwards was out at practice Monday evening, watching his teammates prepare for Washington State on Saturday.

After that comes Fresno State, then a bye week, then Arizona.

Edwards has circled the Wildcat game on his calender.

"I'm looking at [coming back for] Arizona," he said. "I'm looking optimistically."

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