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Patient Bruins Get Ready to Cash In

Pro football: Returning for senior seasons instead of joining NFL helped raise draft stock of Foster, Thomas, Coleman and Anderson.

April 20, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, several UCLA players made business decisions that carried an emotional element regarding investments in a volatile futures market known as the NFL, where predictions are difficult and risks are many.

They returned for their senior seasons, rather than making themselves available for the draft.

Results were mixed.

They didn't go out the way they wanted; the team was 7-4 after a late-season tailspin and did not play in a bowl game.

But it appears that the draft stock of most of the players went up because they stayed in school and honed their skills.

Even tailback DeShaun Foster improved his value, despite having been suspended the last four games because of an NCAA extra-benefits violation. NFL scouts apparently are more concerned with his propensity to fumble than with his character, and he is projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick.

Linebacker Robert Thomas, defensive end Kenyon Coleman and safety Marques Anderson also are projected to go higher than they would have a year ago.

"Coming back as a senior is rolling the dice because a player is one injury away from it backfiring," said Bruce Lemmerman, a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. "It's an interesting decision-making process. Some guys want one last year of the overall college experience, others are convinced they can improve their draft status, and others believe they need one more year of physical development or consistent play."

Getting drafted higher means a more lucrative signing bonus and contract, so in a sense the four Bruins are already professionals, having played their senior seasons for the difference between their value a year ago and today.

The amounts could be substantial. An average first-round pick the last three years received a bonus of more than $4 million, whereas a fourth-rounder got $290,000.

Among UCLA and USC players, however, only Foster and Thomas are projected as possible first-round picks, and both could slip to the second round.

Foster's elusiveness and 6-foot, 222-pound frame have long made him an NFL prospect, and 2001 was his first injury-free season. But he missed games after the NCAA suspended him for driving a Ford Expedition that belonged to Hollywood director Eric Laneuville.

In seven games, he rushed for 1,109 yards, averaging 5.1 yards against defenses stacked to stop him. However, he fumbled four times against Ohio State and his habit of carrying the ball away from his body troubles scouts.

"The thing that impressed me about DeShaun is his feet," said an NFL scout who did not want to be identified. "They look a lot quicker than last year. He has the ability to cut and accelerate out of his breaks and make a gear change."

T.J. Duckett of Michigan State and William Green of Boston College are more highly regarded than Foster, and only the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles are expected to take running backs in the first round.

As a service, the NFL informs any player contemplating leaving school early of his approximate draft potential. Foster was told last year he would have gone in the second or third round.

Thomas, who was told third through fifth, dramatically improved his status by becoming an All-American a year after being burdened by a stress fracture in his foot and 15 extra pounds. There are few top linebackers available and he is expected to be one of the first taken.

"He is so explosive and plays with such passion," a scout said. "Some teams absolutely love him."

At 6-0, 230, Thomas is a bit undersized and some scouts predict he will move from middle to weakside linebacker, meaning he must improve on pass coverage. Others believe his quickness makes up for any size deficiency in the middle.

Coleman rebounded from a serious knee injury that caused him to miss most of the 2000 season, impressing scouts with improved mobility and sustained effort. Even though he may get lost in a long list of desirable defensive ends, he could be picked in the third or fourth round by a team convinced his injuries are behind him.

Ronnie Lott predicted years ago that Anderson would become an NFL safety. And after outgrowing a reckless style that resulted in big plays and big mistakes in about equal numbers, he is projected as a fourth- through sixth-round pick.

The top USC prospects also are defensive backs, although none are projected to go before the third round.

Chris Cash was the Trojans' steadiest cornerback and is the best prospect, but a late-season knee injury raised concerns. Kris Richard impressed coaches at the NFL combine in Indianapolis and Antuan Simmons recently had a private workout with the San Francisco 49ers.

Other USC players who might be drafted are tight end Kori Dickerson, linebacker Frank Strong, fullback Charlie Landrigan and defensive linemen Lonnie Ford and Ryan Nielsen.

UCLA, despite its disappointing finish, has more prospects because there were 23 seniors on the roster.

Receiver Brian Poli-Dixon, tight end Bryan Fletcher, fullback Ed Ieremia-Stansbury, long snapper Jeff Grau and defensive linemen Ken Kocher and Anthony Fletcher could be drafted.

Poli-Dixon is one player who might not have benefited from staying for his senior year. A shoulder injury and Bruin passing woes limited him to 24 catches.

All seniors who might have gone out as juniors stayed for two disparate reasons--making a championship run would be fun and improving their draft status would be sound business.

The title never materialized for the Bruins, but after today, business could be booming.

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