UCLA’s Damien Thigpen is a big weapon in a small package

Arizona State safety Alden Darby got a good look at Damien Thigpen — for a second. Then Thigpen swung out to the left and rocketed upfield.

Darby took a step forward and spent the next few seconds in a futile chase.

The 65-yard touchdown pass, on UCLA’s first play of the second half Saturday, was another reminder not to blink when Thigpen is on the field. Especially if you’re covering him.

“A linebacker will come out on him, and I start thinking, ‘Man, you are not going to win that one,’ ” UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. “He’s an incredible weapon.”

Thigpen was a secret weapon to start this season, after spending much of the last two years injured. But word is spreading.

The trouble with Thigpen for a defense is finding where he is and then where he’s headed.

He is a running back, receiver and kick returner, though that’s all crammed under one job description: “My role is to make plays,” said Thigpen, whose height is generously listed as 5 feet 8.

UCLA has gained 20 or more yards on 66 plays this season, a team-high 17 by Thigpen. Besides scorching Arizona State on the 65-yard touchdown reception, he had a 20-yard scoring catch. And he has been stopped by the last defender on kick returns three times this season.

A year from now, Thigpen may have a more traditional role. Johnathan Franklin, who is 21 yards shy of breaking Gaston Green’s UCLA career rushing of 3,731 yards, is a senior. Thigpen, a junior, is his understudy.

“I want him in the game, but then I have to take Franklin out,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “So you have to figure out how to get both of them in the game at the same time.”

Mazzone follows a simple rule. “I learned a long time ago not to have your best players standing next to you on the sideline,” Mazzone said.

So Thigpen is shuttled in at various spots.

“He’s a matchup problem,” Coach Jim Mora said. “You have to decide if you’re going to play him with a defensive back or linebacker. If it’s a linebacker, you get an ideal situation for a pass play. If it’s a defensive back, you run the ball at him and that can be tough.”

Tough at 178 pounds?

“He looks like a little gnat, then he’ll come up and whack you,” Zumwalt said. “He’s a real ball of muscle. You’ve got to bring your big-boy pads when you come up to hit him.”

The Bruins were unable to fully tap Thigpen’s abilities until this season. He had only 103 yards rushing and eight receptions for 50 yards in his first two seasons, then was a redshirt last year after a string of injuries.

He missed the last four games in 2010 because of a broken collarbone. The next spring, he was slowed by a pulled left hamstring, which became torn a few months later in training camp. When he came back to action last spring, he suffered a pulled right hamstring.

“It has been frustrating,” Thigpen said. “I used my support system, my family, my friends, to keep my head up.”

Thigpen’s father, Douglas, played football at Southern Mississippi. He is now a Secret Service agent who is part of the West Coast team when President Obama visits California.

Damien Thigpen beams when talking about getting to meet Obama two years ago.

Gene Lang, Thigpen’s uncle, played at Louisiana State and spent seven seasons in the NFL with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.

Thigpen was raised on work ethic. He returned last summer better equipped physically, and it has paid off. He has 225 yards rushing and has caught 15 passes for 209 yards. He averages 26.9 yards on kickoff returns.

“It feels good to have a role and not just be on the sidelines,” he said.

Thigpen fit perfectly into Mazzone’s scheme, which involves getting playmakers into space. And Thigpen doesn’t need too much room to maneuver. He was a two-time state champion in the 300 meters while at Gainesville (Va.) Jackson High.

“He’s got speed like nobody’s business,” Zumwalt said.

The Bruins finally were able to use it this season, and Thigpen was eager to get on the field.

Two big, early-season plays produced penalties but “got me going,” he said.

The first was a 49-yard touchdown reception called back in the season opener against Rice. “I knew if I could make one big play in the opener, it would relax me,” Thigpen said. “That one counted to me.”

A week later, covering a punt, he leveled Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and was called for a personal foul. “That got the guys all hyped up,” Thigpen said.

The big plays have been coming — legally — ever since.

Said Mazzone: “We’re always looking for ways to get the ball in his hands.”

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