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SPORTS WEEKEND

Harris Is Making Most of a Break

UCLA: Freshman tailback, who was supposed to be at Colorado, fills in nicely after Foster's injury.

October 13, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who wants to be a millionaire? Rick Neuheisel raised his hand, and Washington made him a winner.

Neuheisel's move paid off for his alma mater too. When the former UCLA Rose Bowl hero left Colorado to coach at Washington last year, he left behind a trail of recruits. Some followed Neuheisel to Seattle. Some stuck with Colorado.

Akil Harris did neither. He simply stayed home.

The Bruins are thankful. With DeShaun Foster expected to be out at least two more weeks because of a broken hand, Harris and Jermaine Lewis will share the workload at tailback. Lewis will start, but Harris will play extensively when UCLA faces California on Saturday in Berkeley.

Local kid makes good? Sure, since Harris grew up in Duarte, just down the road from the Rose Bowl. But Harris, a redshirt freshman from Monrovia High, was that local kid who never wanted to make good locally.

"I really wasn't that interested in UCLA at first," Harris said. "I was always thinking about leaving home."

Said Harris' mother, Diane, "You know how it is. When you're out here, you take the school out here for granted."

Colorado? When Harris returned from a recruiting visit and said snow wasn't such a bad thing, Mom knew Colorado was a serious option. Harris liked Neuheisel, he liked the run-oriented offenses of the Big 12 Conference, and he really liked that Colorado's tailback was a senior.

Harris promised Neuheisel he would sign with Colorado, but before he could, Neuheisel left for Washington.

Harris' mother said she reminded her son there was no shame in changing his mind, since Neuheisel had changed his. So Harris called Kelly Skipper, the UCLA running back coach who had been recruiting him for three years, and took the Bruins up on their offer.

"I really liked him as a running back coach and as a person," Harris said. "After the Colorado thing crumbled, that was what I felt comfortable with, and I stayed home."

Said his mother, "That's what I wanted all along."

And that was the last all but the most ardent of UCLA fans heard about Harris until the Bruins' last game, a 38-31 victory over Arizona State on Sept. 30. After redshirting last season and carrying once in the first four games this season, he had one yard to show for his Bruin career. But after Foster was hurt in the second quarter against Arizona State, Harris ran 13 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

"He practices hard every day. He deserves a chance to play," Skipper said. "We were just waiting for the opportunity to put him in. When the opportunity came, boom, he was ready."

His teammates call Harris "Cadillac," because, according to Lewis, "He's smooth. He runs smooth. He's a smooth brother."

But a smooth nickname alone can't untangle the Bruins' traffic jam at tailback. If Harris fails to play well in these next few weeks, he might never get a second chance to impress. Foster is expected to return for his senior season next year, and the coaches rave about freshman Manuel White, who is redshirting this year.

"One day I'll be the man," Harris said. "One day, Manuel will be the man. It just keeps on going down. There's no animosity among any of the backs. We're all family."

Lewis envisions great things, and soon, for Harris.

"He's going to make his mark this year," said Lewis, a senior. "I'm hoping to see him down the road as a Heisman candidate."

Harris' mother envisions her next Rose Bowl tailgate party-- 8:30 a.m., don't be late--and thanks Neuheisel.

"I look back in retrospect, and I'm really glad Coach Neuheisel made the move when he did," she said. "He could have done it after Akil had committed there.

"I'm not mad at him at all."

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