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They’re Much More Than Fifth Wheels

The sophomore quarterback is the one with the movie ad-sized picture in the school paper, the junior class is the group the coach calls “the core of the team,” so where does that leave UCLA’s fifth-year seniors?

They arrived in 2002, in what turned out to be Bob Toledo’s last year as coach.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 03, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
UCLA football: J.A. Adande’s column in Sports on Thursday said UCLA had not won eight games in consecutive seasons since 1987 and ’88. In fact, the Bruins did so in 1997 and ’98.

It’s a group whose greatest accomplishment to date is just making it this far. They’re a mostly anonymous bunch and don’t even have a collective nickname.

“Uh, the Few?” center Robert Chai suggested. “I guess you could say that. There’s not many of us left.”

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There were 22 incoming freshmen listed in the 2002 UCLA media guide. Over the years some transferred because they wanted more playing time. Some quit football because they wanted more time to study. Some didn’t study enough, so they got the boot. Some violated team rules.

Five played the first year and finished their four years of eligibility last season: tight end Marcedes Lewis, linebacker Justin London, quarterback Drew Olson, safety Jarrad Page and linebacker Wesley Walker.

And now the only ones remaining are Chai, tight end J.J. Hair, safety Eric McNeal and kicker Justin Medlock. (Two walk-ons from 2002, long snapper Riley Jondle and defensive lineman Will Peddie, have stuck around as well.)

And for all their service, they don’t get much more than first crack at the chicken.

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“When it comes down to mealtime, the seniors get to go to the front of the line,” Hair said.

They don’t ask for much more. They’re happy just to be part of the group. If the strength of the Bruins is team unity, the fifth-year seniors have come to embody it.

“We just have that respect,” Chai said. “We’ve been through so much together. I’ll be there for them, they’ll be there for me.”

Coach Karl Dorrell’s approach was to put the team through the centrifuge, whisking away those that didn’t fit his vision of the program. Part of it was an arduous first training camp in 2003, before NCAA changes reduced the amount of padded contact per week.

Chai remembers competition at every station, with the losing team having to do 10 “up-downs” -- dropping face-first to the field and hopping back up. One time his team lost every contest, which meant 200 up-downs. Then there were the “fourth quarters,” when the team had to run 12 perfect 40-yard sprints. If anyone left early or didn’t run all the way through, they ran again.

“The first week, at least five or six people quit,” Chai said. “Just couldn’t take it. When we look back now, we know we did this. We did this together. That’s really important for a team.”

After doling out punishment, the next year Dorrell tried listening. He instituted “Football 101,” which encouraged open discussions among everyone in the program.

“There’s really no breakdown in communication between coaches and players and players and players,” Hair said. “Everything’s more open now.”

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Said Dorrell: “I think right now we have so much more of a team attitude compared to what it was my first year. We were pretty separated as a program my first year. There were high-profile guys that were treated differently. There was favoritism. It took some time to transform that attitude into buying into the team concept.”

Last year it all clicked in a 10-2 season filled with miraculous comebacks and topped off with a victory over Northwestern in the Sun Bowl. If the team can meet the challenging-but-possible target of eight victories this year it would mark the first consecutive eight-win seasons for the program since 1987 and 1988.

“They get a chance to end their careers the way they anticipated their careers would be when they first got here,” Dorrell said of the seniors.

By sheer numbers, they won’t have much say in the outcome. Juniors occupy 13 of the top spots on the depth chart and quarterback Ben Olson, the 23-year-old sophomore who transferred from Brigham Young after serving a Mormon mission, hasn’t thrown a pass in a competitive game in five years. Plus they need to overcome the loss of last year’s senior group and running back Maurice Drew’s early departure for the pros.

(USC lost an All-American team’s worth of talent, but the implication is that the Trojans are so rich they can afford to lose Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and LenDale White while the Bruins can’t spare anything. It’s like the Chris Rock joke about giving your ex-wife half your salary for alimony: “You got $20 million, your wife wants $10 million, you ain’t starving. But if you make $30,000, and your wife wants $15,000 ... ")

The one thing this team has is belief, which shouldn’t be underestimated.

“It’s just a sense of confidence that we have,” receiver Joe Cowan said. “I don’t know where it comes from, but we have it.”

Part of it comes from the oldest group of players that’s also the toughest. No one else had it so bad and is still around to talk about it.

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“At the time it was rough,” Chai said. “I was friends with a lot of people and a lot of people had to leave the program. Now I look back, I think it was the right thing to do. A lot of the players, Coach Dorrell did give them a lot of chances, but they kept on messing up. I look at it, I think it was right.

“Hopefully, people can look back and say we’ve been through thick and thin together and we’re still here. They tried to break us apart, and they couldn’t do it.”

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande go to latimes.com/adandeblog.


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