If there had been a hole big enough on the Colorado sideline to hold his stocky 5-foot-8, 200-pound body, Maurice Drew surely would have crawled in.
That’s how low the UCLA freshman tailback felt on Sept. 6 in Boulder, Colo. Here he was, in the first quarter of his first college game after a celebrated career at Concord De La Salle High, and on his very first Division I carry Drew ... fumbles.
As if losing the ball weren’t bad enough, he also got an earful from Eric Bieniemy, the Bruins’ fiery running backs coach, who screamed at Drew as he came off the field. Then the second and third quarters went by with Drew on the sideline, tethered to the bench like a toddler in a child harness.
“I was wondering if they would let me back in,” Drew said. “I asked Coach Bieniemy, and he said, ‘Your chance will come.’ Then it came on the kickoff return ... and I messed that one up too.”
That would be Drew’s fourth-quarter gaffe, with about two minutes left and UCLA trailing, 16-14. He dropped a kickoff a few yards deep in the end zone and hesitated before running the ball out. He was smothered at the 10-yard line, hardly the kind of field position conducive to mounting a game-winning drive.
Four incomplete passes later, the Bruins lost their season opener, and Drew was left to ponder a debut that was about as smashing as the XFL or New Coke.
“I was depressed about it,” Drew said. “They told me after the game that it was a hostile environment, and they didn’t want me to go back in because it might hurt my confidence. After getting yelled at in films -- and I got yelled at pretty bad -- it seemed like I was fine.”
Fast-forward to this week’s film session, a two-thumbs-up screening compared with the box-office flop from Colorado.
Instead of Bieniemy, it was Drew who provided the outburst, bolting through the line and racing 83 yards down the left sideline to score the winning touchdown in the third quarter of UCLA’s 20-13 victory over Arizona State last Saturday night.
He rushed for 176 yards in 18 carries, all in the second half in place of the injured Manuel White, the second-best rushing performance by a true freshman in school history, behind Kevin Nelson’s 186-yard effort against Arizona State in 1980.
And with White out for the season because of a broken right shoulder blade, Drew -- yes, the same tailback who looked timid two months ago, who seemed years away from earning the trust of UCLA coaches -- probably will be the Bruins’ featured back at Stanford on Saturday.
“He got thrown to the wolves at Colorado, it was his first game in a very hostile environment,” Bieniemy said. “But we slowly worked him into a groove, and he’s finally getting the feel of things. He’s matured over the last two months and stepping up his game.”
Stepping up? Saturday night was a quantum leap. Drew had 25 carries -- total -- in UCLA’s first six games, rushing for 89 yards, and the only play that gave even a hint of his true potential was his 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a blowout loss to top-ranked Oklahoma on Sept. 20.
But Drew, who will share time with starter Tyler Ebell against Stanford, found some rhythm and gained some confidence when he rushed for 55 yards in 12 carries in a 23-20 overtime victory over California on Oct. 18, and he had a breakout performance against the Sun Devils.
“My sister was having a pumpkin-carving party, I watched the first half, and when Maurice didn’t even get a carry, I thought [shoot], he’s not gonna play,” said Bob Ladoceur, Drew’s high school coach.
“I went back outside to carve my pumpkin, and on the way home, Terry Eidson, our athletic director, calls me and says, ‘Did you see Maurice’s touchdown run? It was 83 yards.’ Then I heard he rushed for 176 yards. I missed the whole thing.”
Not to worry. Ladoceur will probably have numerous chances to watch Drew carve up opposing defenses. Though at first glance Drew looks like a compact, he combines the power of a two-ton pickup with the speed of a Ferrari.
A high school track star who ran a 10.82-second 100 meters, Drew has breakaway speed, as he showed against Oklahoma and Arizona State. But he also has thick, strong legs -- he can squat 550 pounds -- a lean, muscular upper body that enables him to run over defenders, and the quickness to elude them.
“For a guy who may have been overlooked because of his size, he was unbelievable [against Arizona State],” UCLA quarterback Matt Moore said. “I don’t want to say it was a surprise because we had all the confidence in the world in him, but he just shocked everyone. On that 83-yard run, they had two angles on him and he ran right past everyone. He’ll spin, hit you, run you over.”
Drew might remind some Southern California fans of a short, stocky, explosive running back who starred at Bishop Amat High, was an All-American at Colorado and played nine years in the NFL. Guy by the name of Eric Bieniemy.
“Everyone keeps asking me about that,” Bieniemy said. “These kids are more athletically gifted than we were. I mean, you have kids coming out of high school benching 350 pounds, squatting 550 pounds, running 4.4-second 40-yard dashes.
“Yes, we were athletically gifted, but these guys are the total package. If he keeps working and striving to be the best he can be, he’s gonna have a great career ahead of him.”
Drew has a great career behind him. His teams never lost a game at De La Salle -- the school has an astonishing 12-year, 145-game winning streak -- and as a senior last season, Drew rushed for 1,457 yards and 26 touchdowns.
A two-way starter, Drew rushed for 736 yards in 59 carries as a junior in 2001 but was being recruited more as a defensive back, because he led his team in tackles and interceptions.
Then he had his most memorable high school game, when he scored four touchdowns -- on runs of 17 and 22 yards and receptions of 25 and 29 yards -- to lead De La Salle to a 29-15 victory over Long Beach Poly on Oct. 6, 2001, in a showdown between the nation’s two top-ranked teams.
“Everyone was keying on Alijah Bradley because he rushed for 250 yards against Mater Dei two weeks earlier,” Drew said, referring to the former De La Salle star who is now at Michigan. “Coach game-planned them, and I came out of nowhere. No one was looking at me for offense then, just defense. But after that, a lot of schools started recruiting me as a running back.”
Drew’s performance also left an indelible mark on Long Beach Poly players.
“He made for one of my worst high school experiences,” said UCLA freshman lineman Kevin Brown, a former Poly two-way star.
“They just crushed us my junior and senior years, and [Drew] went crazy on us. I barely got a chance to hit him.”
Drew was set to sign with Colorado until Bieniemy, then the Buffaloes’ running backs coach, left Colorado to join first-year Coach Karl Dorrell’s staff at UCLA. Drew wanted to follow Bieniemy but took a trip to UCLA before deciding.
“They sealed it when they took me to breakfast on the Santa Monica Pier,” Drew said. “I’m more of a beach guy. I like to chill at the beach.”
Drew will never chill in the water -- he can’t swim -- but Ladoceur, De La Salle’s coach, has no doubt Drew will thrill on land for years to come.
“He has that rare combination of breakaway speed, power, and good vision,” Ladoceur said. “As soon as he gets comfortable with the speed of the game at that level, makes smarter cuts, and learns when to take a hit and when not to take a hit, he’s gonna be awesome.”