Most of the time, Eric Turner scores the way a boxer does--through swift, direct blows. Nicknamed E-rock by teammates, the UCLA safety rocks ballcarriers with concussive hits in the finest Bruin tradition of Ken Easley and Don Rogers.
Yet it was by avoiding contact that Turner scored his first collegiate touchdown. The redshirt freshman intercepted a pass and romped 54 yards down the sideline for a touchdown three weeks ago against Stanford.
Even E-rock is finding that it is sometimes better to roll past people than make like some sort of helmet-seeking missile. The touchdown left Stanford between E-rock and a hard place, giving the Bruins a 16-0 second-quarter lead in a game they eventually won, 49-0.
"The quarterback was throwing a slant and the ball was tipped," he said. "I caught it on the downfall and just took off running. It really got the team going."
Turner had returned an interception for a touchdown the week before against Arizona, but the play was nullified by a penalty. While running with the ball against Stanford, thoughts of his good fortune flashed through his mind.
"I never ran an interception back for a touchdown in high school," said Turner, who graduated from Ventura High in 1986. "I was thinking, 'What luck.' "
That's what UCLA said when Turner (6-1, 195) accepted a scholarship after leading Ventura High to three consecutive Channel League titles. Because he moves his solid frame at a 4.56 clip in the 40, Turner is ideally suited for safety. All-Star Sports rated him the No. 7 defensive back prospect in the nation his senior year and The Sporting News listed him among the top 100 prospects in the country at any position.
"Eric looks the way a man is supposed to look at the safety position," said Tom Hayes, who coaches UCLA's defensive backs. "And he has the intensity to knock people around. When he hits you, you're hit."
Turner already has gained a reputation as one bruisin' Bruin. Except for the touchdown, his most memorable moments all center on major collisions.
Like his crash course in college contact.
"The first time I've ever been run over was in spring ball last year," Turner said. "Mel Farr Jr., who weighs about 230, ran off tackle and it was just me and him. I was thinking of my assignment and didn't react. Instead of taking him low, he hit me and got the best of it. The coach rewound that play on film about seven times. Coach said, 'Welcome to the Pac 10.' "
Or like the day he became a hit with his teammates.
"During a preseason scrimmage, Brian Brown, who's my roommate, ran a sweep and the cornerback forced him inside. There was a lane and nothing but him and me," he said. "I knocked him out. It was my first knockout ever. The defense ran on the field and gave me high fives. What a hit."
Brown had 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns in relief of injured Gaston Green during UCLA's 31-23 win at Arizona State last Saturday, so he has recovered nicely.
And Turner, a history major, is concentrating on making opposing ballcarriers history. UCLA Coach Terry Donahue recalls headhunters like Easley and Rogers, former All-American safeties at UCLA, when watching Turner.
"If Eric continues to improve and make good progress," Donahue said, "he very well might become the next outstanding safety in UCLA football."
Added Hayes, who is coaching in his eighth season at UCLA: "It's uncanny. Eric looks like Rogers, walks the same way around the practice field. When he decides he wants to be a dominant player, like Easley and Rogers did, Eric will improve to their level."
Turner, 19, has time on his side. Although he doesn't start, he plays more than half the time, spelling strong safety Alan Dial and free safety James Washington, both seniors. Turner leads Bruin safeties with 30 tackles and two interceptions.
Playing on a team many believe is headed for the Rose Bowl has accelerated Turner's progress. The defense is a strong point for UCLA, which has a 7-1 record and is 5-0 in the Pacific 10 with three games to play. The Bruins have intercepted 17 passes while having thrown only two interceptions, and opponents have completed only 50.7% of their passes for an average of 6.04 yards.
"I'm being relied upon and feel a certain amount of responsibility," Turner said. "I put in a lot of film work. I take the preparation seriously because I know it helps."
Having to learn both safety positions has been Turner's biggest challenge. But he doesn't have a preference. "At strong safety there is more of the physical part of game because somebody is assigned to block you," he said. "Free safety is a highlight position. You get open shots."
Turner also was assigned to nearly all of the special teams, which he did not prefer. He begged off all but the kickoff squad. And his enthusiasm has waned for that duty as well.