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If Bruins Have Star, It Must Be Schager : College football: UCLA punter is having a fine season, but he can't enjoy it while team loses.

October 18, 1994|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happened again in the second quarter Saturday night. Darren Schager had punted 39 yards to the Oregon State one-yard line, and teammates let him know his status right away.

"They are telling me, 'Most valuable player,' " he said. "I'm telling them, 'A punter isn't supposed to be the most valuable player.' "

The assessment is an indictment of UCLA's 2-5 season.

On a team that has had defensive defections to the NFL; whose best player, wide receiver J.J. Stokes, has missed five games because of injury; that has lost its best defensive back, Carl Greenwood, to injury; that has suffered communication problems rendering its offense sporadically impotent and mistake-prone; that has frittered away opportunity after scoring opportunity, Schager has stood out like a beacon in the harbor. He has been the lone constant on an inconsistent team.

A punter is supposed to affect a game when he can, and Schager has. But control is ceded to UCLA teammates, who have lost it during a five-game losing streak.

It is perhaps most telling that after Schager's punt, Oregon State needed only three plays--one of them a 72-yard run by Don Shanklin--to score en route to a 23-14 victory.

Six weeks earlier, when Schager punted out of bounds on the one against Tennessee in the game's closing minutes, the Bruins got the ball back on Donnie Edwards' interception six plays later and saved a 25-23 victory.

In between, he has punted well enough to rank second in the Pacific 10 Conference, with a 42.3-yard average on 36 kicks, and the 17 punts that have been run back have been returned only 54 yards. He has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 15 times.

Oregon State started offensive series inside its 20 five times. So did Washington State, three weeks before.

Too frequently, however, teams that have started close to their goal lines have not stayed there.

Still, it has been a good senior season for a punter whose freshman year included his biggest collegiate embarrassment.

He had made the team as a "pooch" punter, his duty being to punt high and short in close quarters, making the other team start an offensive series deep in its territory.

Courtney Keyler was the regular punter, and through two games no pooches were needed.

Then came Michigan.

"I went in for my first punt, and there were 105,000 people and it was on national television," Schager said. "I looked over the line and there were about 10 Michigan helmets coming at me. Me, just a few months out of Western Christian High, kicking with all of this, and I rushed it and kicked the ball straight up."

The mission of a punter is to kick a wind-cheating spiral that turns over, like a pass. Schager's punt went end over end, 20 yards, then bounced back. "A 12-yard kick," he said. "My first college kick went 12 yards."

He wondered if it would be his last. He developed tendinitis in his right leg and was redshirted.

Schager had come to the Bruins as a walk-on from Western Christian in Rosemead, where the school's enrollment could fit in some of UCLA's lecture halls.

He had been a football player, not just a punter, one season playing quarterback, though he admits he kicked more spirals than he threw.

Summers were spent at Ben Agajanian's camp, a pipeline for UCLA kickers and punters. Bruin Coach Terry Donahue asked Schager to walk on in Westwood.

"They told me they could get me into school," said Schager, whose 950 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test ordinarily would have put his fate in the hands of an admissions office.

"It's like the Michigan game," Schager said. "I thought about it and decided that I had punted for UCLA, on television, in front of 105,000 people. I wasn't discouraged, because I had done something I never thought I would do.

"And if it hadn't been for football, I wouldn't have been able to go to UCLA."

Schager looked for the good in a bad situation, and the next season, after a give-and-take period of five games in competition with Keyler, he found himself the Bruin punter for good.

He has never looked back.

Schager is 28 punts from a school record for opportunities, which is 232, although, he said, he suspects that the record won't be his because he hasn't kicked as often this season as in the past.

One reason has been a mistake-prone offense that has turned the ball over 14 times.

Five consecutive Saturdays have ended in a collision of feelings. It's difficult for a punter to feel a part of a team. He practices alone, until it's time to trot onto the field, swing his leg, then trot off again, leaving the business of football to the offense and defense.

He doesn't block, tackles only as a last resort--Schager has made two tackles, both last season--and at game's end his contribution is reduced to statistics.

"But it hits me when we lose," he said. "I don't want to take the attitude that I did a good job, but the team lost. I am a part of it. I feel bad when we lose. It's frustrating, even when you play really well."

What comes next? With expansion, there will be 30 NFL punting jobs available next season, and nowhere in pro football are positions less secure. Even the best punters are frequently vagabonds, bouncing from one team to the next until they find a niche or, more frequently, run out of teams or patience.

Only seven punters have been drafted by NFL teams in the last three years.

"He's having a great season," said Donahue, who is reluctant to call him UCLA's most valuable player, citing efforts by tackle Jonathan Ogden, center Mike Flanagan and running back Sharmon Shah.

Others are not so reluctant, and Schager hears about it on Saturdays after he has put another Bruin opponent deep in its own territory.

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