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Can Bruins Get It, Together?

Times Staff Writer

UCLA’s senior football class prides itself on its togetherness.

Which only goes to prove, adversity can be a unifying force.

“We’ve definitely had it tough,” fifth-year senior linebacker Spencer Havner said with a slight snarl. “Considering when we first came in, this is not what we envisioned. ... UCLA used to be highly rated and beating teams like Alabama and Michigan.”

And now? The Bruins are fighting for respect, playing in the shadow of city neighbor and two-time defending national champion USC.

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“In a way we want to forget the past but in a big way we don’t,” Havner said about the Bruins, who are coming off consecutive non-winning seasons under Coach Karl Dorrell. “We want the past imprinted in our memories because that’s what we want to change.”

Havner is part of a 14-man class that includes 12 players recruited by former coach Bob Toledo. This senior class has endured more than its share of off-the-field setbacks, such as player suspensions and Toledo’s firing, along with disappointing defeats on the field.

It is a group of players who came in dreaming of playing for national titles but closed the last two seasons with losses in the Silicon Valley Classic and Las Vegas Bowl.

No wonder the UCLA seniors wish they could play their season opener at San Diego State this weekend instead of waiting until Sept. 3.

“This is a pivotal season for the program,” senior wide receiver Junior Taylor said about the Bruins, who have not been ranked in the top 25 for consecutive weeks since November 2001.

“Although this class was not recruited by Coach Dorrell, we’ve been able to play two seasons under him and establish his offense and

After last season ended with an embarrassing loss to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl, Dorrell made team togetherness a high priority for the off-season. He created “Football 101", a weekly chat time between coaches and players to help promote trust. It turned out to be a huge hit with his team.

The open-forum format, which encouraged players to talk freely about any subject, such as punishment policies or the lack of upperclassmen living on campus, has helped make the team closer, according to Bruin seniors.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of unity,” fifth-year senior center Mike McCloskey said. “We have guys talking to each other on both sides of the ball. That didn’t always happen before. Cliques are always going to exist on a team, but they are not the concrete type now.”

Said Taylor: “We’ve been able to bond. We’ve been able to get to know each other outside the lines of football. The older guys have really made an effort to reach down to the younger guys. That’s going to help us focus together as a team.”

McCloskey said “not always being on the same page” should not be an issue this season.

“This program has matured a lot,” he said. “Before, there was a lot of gray area. Some guys wouldn’t show up for workouts and try and do their own things. It just seemed like some of the team was getting lost and there was nothing we could do about it. That’s not a problem now. You are either on board or you’re not. It’s very clear.”

That’s evident by the number of players who’ve left the UCLA program since Dorrell took over. Three of the latest were defensive end Kevin Harbour Jr., who will not return because of academic reasons, and defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu and cornerback Mil’Von James, who transferred to Portland State and Nevada Las Vegas, respectively.

Some apparently think Dorrell has the program heading in a positive direction. Several national preseason rankings pick the Bruins to finish third in the Pacific 10 Conference and one has UCLA as the league’s No. 2 team.

With 16 starters returning from last season, including tight end Marcedes Lewis, running back Maurice Drew, kicker Justin Medlock and Havner, the Bruins believe the optimism surrounding the program is justified.

“There’s no doubt that we have the talent to win,” said Lewis, who decided to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft. “We just haven’t always played together like we should have. We’re ready to do that this season.”

Said Havner: “I was talking with [fifth-year senior offensive tackle] Bob Cleary and we agreed that the key to this season is going out with respect. ... Nationally, Pac-10, whatever, so be it. We know that it comes down to winning games. That’s all there is to it.”


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