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UCLA AT NO. 1 OKLAHOMA

His New Role Is Left Side Story

Switch from right guard to left tackle is not as simple as it sounds for UCLA junior Vieira.

September 18, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Moving from right guard to left tackle might not seem like a radical transition to the typical football fan -- how much different could run-blocking and pass protection be from one side of the offensive line to the other, right?

Try telling that to UCLA junior Steve Vieira, who played right guard and tackle through high school and college until being shifted to left tackle this season, a move the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder found akin to a right-handed quarterback trying to throw the ball left-handed.

"It's been one big learning curve," Vieira said of the switch, which was made during spring practice. "I'm doing stuff before practice, after practice, on my lunch break ... I'm doing pass sets in my living room. It's been awkward.

"You go your whole life being in a right-handed stance, and now I'm in a left-handed stance. This is not natural, so trying to make it feel natural has been the hardest part."

For an added degree of difficulty, throw in the fact that defenses usually put their most ferocious rushing ends on the right side --and that the left tackle has the important responsibility of protecting the quarterback's blind side -- and it's no wonder Vieira approached this season with a twinge of trepidation.

"You hear people say that left tackle is the most important position on the line, and teams always come at you with their best defensive ends, but I try not to think about that," Vieira said.

"But you know what? Our defense isn't chump change. We went against them all camp, guys like [Bruin defensive ends] Mat and Dave Ball and [tackle] Rodney Leisle. ... Those aren't scout-team players. Dave is an All-American candidate, a great football player, and going against him gives me more confidence in my game."

Vieira and his linemates will need all the confidence they can muster this weekend: Saturday's opponent is top-ranked Oklahoma, which has one of the nation's top defenses.

The Bruins' young offensive line was a question entering the season, and through two games -- a loss to Colorado, a victory over Illinois -- it hasn't provided many answers.

The line did a solid job protecting the quarterbacks in the opener at Colorado, but the Bruins netted only 38 yards rushing. The line helped clear the way for Manuel White's 102-yard rushing game against Illinois on Saturday, but the Illini also sacked quarterback Drew Olson five times.

"I just think we're young up front," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. "We don't have any senior starters, and some of them are first-year starters. They're kind of getting their lumps right now in terms of getting that experience and getting beat up and understanding how they all have to work together on all those different things. I just think it's a growing process we're going through right now."

With hard work, good health and continued growth, Vieira, a former Carlsbad High standout, hopes lining up against such high-caliber teammates and opponents will help him reach his ultimate goal: the NFL.

Vieira is not considered a top pro prospect right now, but he started all 13 games as a sophomore, he'll probably start every game this season as long as he doesn't get hurt, and he has his senior season ahead of him. Three years as a varsity starter at UCLA could enhance his prospects.

"I'm hoping some scout, when they come to practice to watch the Ball brothers or Rodney, they'll see what we're doing against them and make a note here and there, something to get my name out there," Vieira said. "I hope my chances are good."

Vieira does not have an NFL-or-bust mentality, though. Unlike so many college athletes who are convinced they'll play professional ball and ignore the development of contingency plans in college, Vieira is a realist when it comes to his future.

"I've seen guys come here, start for four years and not get a chance to go to the NFL, and then there are walk-ons like [former UCLA receiver] Drew Bennett who get a couple of snaps here and there, and now he's the No. 3 receiver for the Tennessee Titans," Vieira said.

"One thing I've learned is you can't take for granted that just because you're a three- or four-year starter in college, that it's an automatic ticket to the NFL. That's why I've tried to sharpen up my academics the last few years. I'm gonna bust my butt here, do whatever I can to give myself a chance, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to go chasing any dreams."

If Vieira, a history major with a 2.75 grade-point average, isn't drafted, he'll probably go to graduate school -- unless some pro hockey team comes calling.

What, you couldn't envision a 6-6, 300-pounder in skates? Vieira could.

Vieira was a pretty good defenseman with a hard slap shot, playing for several San Diego-based youth traveling hockey teams from age 8 to about 16.

If not for the demands of high school football and the cost of buying custom-made skates for his size-17 feet -- about $800 -- along with the equipment, traveling and ice-rental costs associated with hockey, Vieira might have played until college.

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