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Experience Could Be Key for the Defense

Times Staff Writer

UCLA’s Larry Kerr has been coaching defenses since the late 1970s and he has never had a season quite like the Bruins had last year when they gave up 432.9 yards and 25.8 points per game.

It did not help that UCLA had 26 defensive players either make their first career start or participate in their first game.

“There’s no doubt that it’s helped us be a better football team at this point this year than we were at this time a year ago, just because they got that experience,” said Kerr, who enters his third season as coordinator. “They had to play early and often, and I think that’s given them a boost.”

On Saturday, UCLA will probably start five defensive players who opened last season in the starting lineup against Oklahoma State. They are strong safety Jarrad Page, cornerback Marcus Cassel, end Justin Hickman, and linebackers Spencer Havner and Bruce Davis, who started at end last year.

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UCLA will also have other defenders with starting experience in linebacker Justin London, who sat out last year’s opener because of an ankle injury; cornerback Trey Brown, who started the last five games last season; and tackle Brigham Harwell, who started four games.

The new defensive starters will be end Nikola Dragovic, tackle Nathaniel Skaggs and free safety Dennis Keyes, none of whom started a game last season.

“We are doing a few more things now because of our understanding of the defense and the athleticism of some guys,” Kerr said. “As long as we can continue to play the same guys, we’ll continue to grow and expand on things.

“But first, I want us to be fundamentally sound and solid in what we do, not so much in out-scheming people but making sure we know what we’re doing so we can play fast and hard.”

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Skaggs, a redshirt freshman from San Diego, on playing against the Aztecs, whom his father, Craig, played for from 1983 to 1987. “Playing and starting in my first game in front of friends and family is going to be a really cool thing,” he said. “I mean, this is the same stadium that my dad played in.”

Skaggs will start in place of Kevin Brown, sidelined because of an ankle injury for at least the next month.

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Redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Olson, who bruised his left throwing hand a week ago, participated in some drills Monday but was unable to throw any deep passes or with any velocity.

“Really short passes, he really didn’t do anything over five yards,” Dorrell said about Ben Olson, who mainly threw screen passes in team drills. “That’s a first step for him. He took a snap and he threw five-yard passes. Tomorrow, we’ll see if he can go a little bit further.... We’ll keep bringing him along as much as he can take.

“He will have to be close to full speed by Thursday before we could feel good about his opportunities and what he can do offensively [for Saturday’s game]. We’re not going to wait until game time. That’s how the NFL does it.”

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UCLA will practice at 7 tonight and Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s late start at Qualcomm Stadium.... Dorrell will be the guest speaker at a Westwood Bruin Touchdown Club breakfast Friday at the Westwood Doubletree Hotel. For information, call 310-348-UCLA.... Dorrell has awarded scholarships to former walk-ons, linebacker Christian Taylor, safety Charlie Schuh, receiver Andrew Baumgartner and quarterback Brian Callahan.


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