Tennessee seems to be the gift that keeps on giving to the UCLA football program.
A year ago, the Volunteers came to the Rose Bowl and decided to stop running, even though they were averaging five yards per carry. They also decided not to press Bruins receivers, even though their defense was being picked apart.
The result was a 27-24 UCLA victory.
But the parting gift came after the season, when Tennessee’s new coaching staff decided to back off from recruiting tailback Damien Thigpen, allowing an opening for UCLA.
The payback could be immediate, because Thigpen appears to be sprinting right into the Bruins’ plans for this season.
“He has too much lighting in his bottle not to use him,” Coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Thigpen’s performance in Saturday’s scrimmage put him on the fast track for playing time. He returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and had a kickoff return of 61 yards. He also had 31 yards in seven carries.
“We have to have a plan for him,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow said.
And to think he might be practicing in Knoxville, Tenn., right now. But, “Their plans seemed to be going a different way, so I decided to look around,” Thigpen said.
Eldridge Armstrong, the uncle of UCLA linebacker Isaiah Bowens, called Neuheisel and asked whether the Bruins were interested. Armstrong and Doug Thigpen, Damien’s father, are Secret Service agents.
Neuheisel was interested, and now he has a freshman running back who lately has taken turns with the first-team offense.
“I feel OK when I get the ball in my hands, but I’m still learning the assignments,” said Thigpen, who is 5 feet 8 and 170 pounds.
As for the possibility of playing for UCLA in the Bruins’ Sept. 12 game against Tennessee, Thigpen said, “It will definitely be . . . uh . . . I’ll definitely be looking forward to it, how about that?”
The UCLA tailback position seems to have a lot of names and more than a few questions. The one constant has been a slimmer, quicker Derrick Coleman.
“I’m kind of the one who knows how the tempo goes in games,” Coleman said. “Practice and games are two different speeds. We’ve got to get them to the same level.”
Coleman, a 6-foot, 235-pound sophomore, is the one tailback on the team who has game experience. He was the Bruins’ No. 2 tailback a year ago, finishing with 284 yards rushing. More impressive was that he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The Bruins averaged 2.6 yards per carry.
The Bruins probably will employ a group of tailbacks.
“It’s just a hard position to go out there and play every snap,” Neuheisel said. “We have a lot of guys who are capable of going in there and doing good things. It’s like putting another pitcher in there; it’s a change-up.”
Starting left guard Stanley Hasiak sat out drills because of a sore shoulder. He is expected to return to practice today. Jeff Baca, the starting left tackle alternated with Brandon Bennett at right guard with the first team. Mike Harris played Baca’s tackle spot. . . . Wide receiver Gavin Ketchum re-injured a hamstring during practice and was held out of drills. . . . Fullback Chane Moline sat out practice because of an injured hip flexor. . . . Freshman Jayson Allmond and former walk-on Trevor Theriot, a redshirt senior, filled Moline’s spot when the Bruins used a fullback.