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Hard work has paid off for UCLA senior receiver Christian Pabico

UCLA receiver Christian Pabico stretches out after making a catch in front of USC defensive back Iman Marshall.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Christian Pabico received a pleasant surprise when he checked in with his academic counselor about setting up his schedule for his final quarters at UCLA.

He wouldn’t have to pay for any of those classes.

The longtime walk-on was put on scholarship a few months ago in a move that Bruins coach Chip Kelly said was designed to make sure that the senior receiver came back for his fifth year of eligibility. It turns out Pabico wasn’t going anywhere, scholarship or not.

“I had planned to be here for five years anyway,” Pabico said Monday, “so it all just kind of worked out perfectly.”

The scholarship was a reward for years of toiling in obscurity before Pabico worked his way into the rotation last season, playing in every game and making one start. He starred during the Bruins’ victory over Oregon with four catches for a career-high 99 yards and a touchdown, and finished the season with 18 catches for 280 yards.

Pabico’s impact transcended his modest stats. He has been a regular on the athletic director’s academic honor roll and a galvanizing presence among teammates because of his leadership and nonstop effort in practices and games.

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“I’ve been working my butt off,” Pabico said. “I think finally earning that recognition means the most to me.”

Pabico is one of the few constants among a receiving corps in the midst of heavy turnover. Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews are gone, while freshmen Chase Cota, Kyle Philips, Delon Hurt and Michael Ezeike are trying to show they can make an impact at the college level.

Newcomers and returners alike are navigating a new offense, the fourth Pabico has had to learn in as many years. He said Kelly’s version is faster than the ones run by predecessors Noel Mazzone and Jedd Fisch.

It’s so fast, in fact, that coaches save most of their teaching for the film room. Practices are about getting in as many plays as possible.

“When we’re on the field, it’s a lot of self-coaching,” Pabico said. “So you’ve really got to pay attention to what you’re doing and you’ve got to listen to other players, too. I try to do as much as I can to help the younger guys out. And I tell them, if they see me doing something that’s not right, correct me on that.”

Efficiency experts

The Bruins’ zippy tempo has carried over to their special teams, the thump-thump-thump of kicks filling the morning air Monday.

Moments after kicker J.J. Molson launched a 27-yard field goal, Andrew Strauch booted one from 42 yards. The kickers were part of field-goal formations lined up 15 yards apart from each other on the same side of the field, one kicker sprinting from hash mark to hash mark to prepare for his next attempt while the other kicker sent the ball soaring into the air.

Kelly stood nearby, watching each player’s move intently. Later, the coach provided individual instruction to players in punt coverage drills, showing them how to properly use their upper bodies to gain leverage.

Kelly may have not been kidding a few days ago when he said coaches evaluate everything the players do, including “how they walk up and down stairs.”

Players received daily reports in the weeks leading up to fall camp outlining their efforts in strength and conditioning. No detail was too small.

“We would get a report seeing if guys were motivated that day, if they gave relentless effort, if they were being a motivator of the team, if they brought energy,” tight end Caleb Wilson said.

Each player’s marks were provided to the entire team.

“It’s just something that holds us accountable as a team because there’s no hiding anymore,” Wilson said. “So no one can say, ‘Oh, I had a good day.’ Well, you just check the report and you actually see if you had a good day and the coaches aren’t going to sugarcoat it, they’re going to be honest.”

Etc.

Freshman Chris Murray tweeted a picture of himself snapping the ball, denoting that he had switched to center. He played guard at Santa Ana Mater Dei High before commencing the transition during off-season workouts with private offensive line coaches. … The Bruins are scheduled to take Tuesday off before resuming practice Wednesday morning.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch


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