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Tackle’s tough choice has paid off for Bruins

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Times Staff Writer

UCLA junior defensive tackle Brigham Harwell almost signed with Arizona State out of high school instead of the Bruins.

“I was really close,” said Harwell, a former standout at Hacienda Heights Los Altos. “It came down to the night before I signed.”

He said he talked to his brother about how much he liked Arizona State’s coaching staff, including Coach Dirk Koetter and assistant head coach Tom Osborne.

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“They were really close to me,” Harwell said. “They really recruited me hard.”

But in the end, Harwell chose UCLA because the school was closer to his family.

“It was a really, really difficult. It was like telling family no,” Harwell said about informing Arizona State that he was going to sign with the Bruins.

“I’ll never forget the morning of signing day. But I wanted to be close to my brothers. I felt like I owed it to them to have home games close to them.”

Almost three years later, Harwell is now a key defender for the Bruins, who need a victory over the Sun Devils tonight to become eligible for a bowl game. It’s a role Harwell said he’s happy to have.

“I’ve had some bumps and my ups and downs since I’ve been here, but overall, I’m loving it,” said Harwell, who had a career-high six tackles in UCLA’s 25-7 victory over Oregon State last week.

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During the practice week, UCLA third-year sophomore wide receiver Ryan Graves is a scout team regular, rarely wearing his No. 82 jersey. But since the Bruins’ loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 21, Graves has been the No. 1 punt returner.

“It’s been a blessing to finally get a chance to show what I can do,” said Graves, who has returned three punts for 29 yards. “The main thing is to catch the ball first. Everything comes natural after that.”

Graves, a former standout at Pasadena Muir High who did not play his first two years at UCLA, took over the job after freshman Terrence Austin suffered a hamstring injury at Oregon on Oct. 14.

“I’m not really thinking about making a big play,” said Graves, whose longest return is 15 yards. “I’m just trying to secure the ball first. I’ve been training for this for two years. I know what Coach [Karl] Dorrell wants me to do in every situation. That’s why he has me out there because he can trust me.”

Although Austin returned last week against Oregon State -- and caught his first two passes with the Bruins -- Graves will be UCLA’s punt returner tonight against Arizona State.

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Arizona State’s defense is allowing an average of 8.5 points in the second half of games this season.... Junior college transfer Ryan Torain has emerged as the Sun Devils’ top running back, fourth in the Pac-10 in rushing yards at 85.3 yards a game.... Genell McGee, the mother of freshman kick returner and wide receiver Jeremy McGee, died Friday morning from a heart attack. McGee returned home to New Orleans to be with his family and will not play tonight.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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KEYS TO THE GAME

1 Christian Taylor: Arizona State needs to be able to run the ball to open up its passing game and Taylor is the key to UCLA’s run defense. Taylor, the Bruins’ starting middle linebacker, has been hampered by an ankle injury and will be challenged to stop the Sun Devils’ Ryan Torain and Keegan Herring.

2 Get to Carpenter: UCLA has the Pacific 10 Conference’s best pass-rushing ends in Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, and Arizona State has given up 28 sacks this season, tied for eighth-worst in the league. Sun Devils quarterback Rudy Carpenter could be in for a long night.

3 Red Zone scoring: UCLA is third in the Pac-10 at 86.1% in scoring once it gets inside an opponent’s red zone, and Arizona State is at 80%. But the Sun Devils have scored 21 touchdowns in 35 trips to the red zone, compared with the Bruins’ 15 in 36 trips.

-- Lonnie White


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