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Mique Juarez embraces trend of UCLA football’s early enrollees

Mique Juarez announces his commitment to UCLA during national signing day on Feb. 3.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A strong breeze blew across the Westwood campus as players whipped into place. It was the last regular practice before UCLA’s annual spring showcase Saturday, but linebacker Mique Juarez’s head was spinning.

“I was in the wrong position,” Juarez said.

Juarez looked to veteran linebackers Jayon Brown and Kenny Young for guidance. The learning process, still early, continued.

“I need more reps,” Juarez said.

Getting more repetitions is the reason Juarez is at UCLA this spring instead of back at North Torrance High, completing his senior year. He is part of the growing trend of early enrollees showing up in college to get a head start on their football and academic careers.

Juarez is one of eight early enrollees at UCLA this year, easily a school record. The last two years, the Bruins had four each spring. USC had seven early enrollees this spring; it had never had more than two until 2011.

But deeper numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds eschewing their final half-year of high school life to begin their college careers has become growingly common.

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In college football, you keep up with the times or get left behind.

“I think you have to embrace change,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “I’m a fan of it in that it gives them a chance to get a head start academically and in terms of their football career.

“I just always want to make sure they’re not racing through life. That they’re enjoying their time on Earth here and the process of getting where they want to go.”

UCLA will have an opportunity to gauge how well their 2016 early enrollees have benefited from the additional practice Saturday at 11:30 a.m. when it is scheduled to hold its annual “spring showcase” on campus at Drake Field.

Arriving to college a semester early has not been a guarantee of having an immediate impact. Last year, only one of UCLA’s early enrollees earned major playing time in the fall.

“A pretty important one, but one,” Mora said.

It was freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who started all 13 games and was named the Sporting News freshman of the year.

Juarez is UCLA’s most acclaimed freshman this season. He’s an outside linebacker who was ranked No. 1 in the nation at his position by several publications. Although he is expected to see immediate playing time, UCLA returns all four of its starting linebackers. Juarez is currently backing up senior Cameron Judge.

Along with Lokeni Toailoa and Breland Brandt, Juarez is among three linebackers to enroll early this year. Mora said all three could see playing time as freshmen. Juarez, The Times’ player of the year for football last season, said he has no doubt he made the proper decision.

“Ever since I was a freshman, my coaches taught me to be ahead of everything and be responsible,” Juarez said. “It’s a big opportunity and it’s going to help in the end. I wouldn’t have had enough time to learn the playbooks if I’d come in June.”

Some players arrive early and never have a major role in the program. Some arrive in the summer for the first time and have an instant impact. Myles Jack, both the freshman offensive and defensive player of the year in the Pac-12 Conference in 2013, was not an early enrollee.

“These guys who come in early, you typically have a feeling they have a chance to help you that first year,” Mora said. “Just getting these 15 practices in is a big deal. And getting in our strength and conditioning program through the end of spring is a big deal.”

Since UCLA lost four of its top five pass catchers last year, the freshman who might have the best opportunity to earn early playing time is receiver Theo Howard, from Westlake High.

“He’s a special one,” Mora said. “He has some special gifts.”

Howard said he planned to enroll early last summer, months before he had even decided to attend UCLA. His reasons were typical — to jumpstart his college playing career, gain an early edge and create relationships with the coaches and players. He said it has worked out exactly as planned.

“Definitely, I think it’s a huge advantage,” Howard said.

He has another advantage in being from an area high school. He plans to attend both his prom and graduating ceremony.

If the early enrollee is not some panacea to college greatness, it’s still a trend that shows no signs of abating.

“I just think when a lot of guys see other guys doing it, they realize it’s a smart idea and want to do it for themselves,” Howard said.

Coaches can either embrace it or potentially lose recruits. It’s quickly become part of the college landscape almost exclusive to football.

“I don’t remember it being the case four years ago,” Mora said.

Follow Steve Dilbeck on Twitter @SteveDilbeck


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