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On Field, Atkins Is Loud and Clear

College football: Bashful defensive back has emerged as one of the Bruins' most visible players.

September 16, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An interception at Washington State, smelled out from field-goal formation.

Nothing to it.

An interception against Tennessee, returned 91 yards to the Volunteer five, the runback marked down to 65 yards because of a clipping penalty.

Piece of cake.

An interception at Texas, returned 38 yards to the Longhorn one, and another, returned 23 yards to the UCLA 43.

A day at Lone Star Beach.

Now comes the hard part: talking about it.

Larry Atkins does so reluctantly, and when he speaks at all, he looks you in the eye for the question and you strain to hear the answer.

It's the price of budding fame, and it's a higher price than the sprints run on the practice field or dealing with the moves of Tennessee's Marcus Nash or Texas' Wane McGarity.

"I've never been outgoing," says Atkins, UCLA's strong but silent safety. "In high school [at Venice High], I'd just hang out by myself. I've always been like that. At lunch time, everybody would be eating and I would be off by myself, listening to music. It's shyness, I know, but I can't help it.

"All my family is outgoing, but when I'm at home, they eat in the living room and I eat in my room."

The classroom can be a nightmare.

"A couple of times I've had to do oral reports and . . . I go up there and all I see is a bunch of eyes, and I'll say, 'Oh no,' " Atkins says. "They're all looking at me and waiting for me to say something."

But four interceptions in three games, and a team-leading 15 tackles have prompted corrective measures. He speaks softly, but his big stick of Texas quarterback Richard Walton for a nine-yard sack started a defensive avalanche Saturday in a 66-3 Bruin victory, so UCLA's sports information office has given him a guide for dealing with the media. Do look at the questioner, don't look at the camera.

Do this, don't do that.

It's easier just playing football. Much easier.

"He's the nicest, most easy-going, soft-spoken guy, but when he puts on his helmet and goes across the white stripe, he changes," Coach Bob Toledo says. "He's very intense in his own way and becomes as violent as he can be."

He's also playing two positions, his and that of Shaun Williams, the free safety who sat out the last two games because of an ankle injury.

Williams has been the leader in the defensive secondary for two seasons, taking charge of the pass coverage, sending teammates here and there on assignments.

When he wasn't available, the job fell to Atkins.

"I was concerned about it because he is shy," Toledo says. "He's not going to say a lot. He doesn't like the limelight, but if you watched him out there, there were some guys that maybe weren't lined up correctly, and he's yelling at them, 'Get over there, get over here, do this, do that.' So he's taken over a leadership role in that sense and doing a good job of it."

Defensive coordinator Rocky Long goes Toledo one better.

"Larry Atkins has been playing great," he says. "We've asked him to do a lot and he's responded."

Reluctantly, at first. But better as time has worn on.

"At first, it was pretty hard because I had to learn his position, and sometimes I would get confused," he says. "Now I'm getting kind of used to it and can guide others, tell everyone else where to go . . .

"Playing strong safety, I was listening to Shaun, 'Go here. You got him. I'm going free.' I've been working on that. I guess I'm doing pretty well, because I've been guiding some of the youngsters out there. They need to be guided. I know a couple of plays where I had to tell someone where to go, and now it's becoming an instinct. It's getting easier now."

In a sense, it has helped him play better defense because it has given him a cosmic view of Long's scheme, which is one of college football's more complicated. And the roles of the free and strong safeties and the roverback are the most complicated of all.

The complexity was a problem in the season's first six quarters, in which the defense gave up yards and points in carload lots. In the last six quarters, UCLA has given up nine points on three field goals.

"The coaches knew how it was supposed to work, but we didn't know how it was supposed to work," Atkins says. "Now we all know how it's supposed to work and we're playing better because we know how it all connects. Everything is connected. . . . It's all one piece."

Sometimes, though, even the big plays are mistakes.

When Atkins intercepted a Peyton Manning pass against Tennessee, he was in the wrong place at the right time.

"I wasn't supposed to be there," Atkins says. "It was all confusion. They were calling the play in a hurry and didn't know where they were supposed to be, and we had people running on and off the field and were confused, so I just went to an open spot."

So did the ball.

"I don't consider myself a star," says Atkins, who is second in the NCAA in interceptions with his average of 1.33 a game.

"You want to become one of the best, or a good player or the best you can be. I have four interceptions. I guess that's pretty good, but sometimes people will say, 'You had a great game,' and I'll feel like, 'No I didn't.' Especially when I look at the film, and there's like a lot of mistakes on there."

The mistakes are becoming fewer and farther between, and the passes just keep coming and then going the other way after they are intercepted. That's the easy part for Atkins.

The hard part comes later, when he has to talk about it.

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