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UCLA Win Could Be a Recruiting Tool

Bruins face Washington, a conference rival that also strongly competes for Southland talent.

September 18, 2004|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The UCLA versus Washington rivalry has a lot more bite than first meets the eye.

A UCLA victory today and second-year Coach Karl Dorrell's program takes another step forward and gains a little more respect within the Pacific 10 Conference.

A Washington win and second-year Coach Keith Gilbertson's rebuilding project receives a big boost for ending a three-game losing streak to UCLA.

But maybe most important is the edge the winning team probably will get in the eyes of high school recruits.

"When you get into a recruiting battle with a conference team, you like to have a winning record over that team," said Don Johnson, UCLA's recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach.

"Every year is different and every Pac-10 game is a rivalry game. Sooner or later, you are going to run into a conference opponent at the house of some young man that you both want. It could be in Los Angeles or their neighborhood."

Thanks to the success former coach Don James had recruiting in the area, Washington has attracted Southern California athletes for years. This season's team has 19 players from the greater Los Angeles area, including starting cornerbacks Sam Cunningham from Los Angeles and Derrick Johnson from Riverside.

When the Huskies are winning, there's usually a solid core of players from Southern California on the roster. That was the case in 1991 when Washington won a share of the national championship with the help of Los Angeles Dorsey High product Beno Bryant.

For UCLA, the best way to keep an upper hand in recruiting is not only to beat Washington on the field but to do so with young players.

Last season, Dorrell played only five true freshmen, but after two games this year, the Bruins have already played 11 true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen.

"It shows recruits that you can be a young player and play here," Johnson said about UCLA's youth-dominated team. "It also shows that we're going to play the best 11 guys, regardless of their grade level."

Recruits notice programs that are winning and playing a lot of young players. To them, it's always better to play early for a program on the rise than to sign with a school that is rebuilding and headed for a coaching change.

That's what happened with defensive tackle Kenneth Lombard, who was a standout player for Bellflower St. John Bosco a year ago.

"I just looked at the situation at my position and liked what I saw," said Lombard, who had his first UCLA start last week at Illinois. "Based on sheer numbers, I knew that there was a chance for me to play. They had lost all of these seniors from the defensive line the year before and did not have any starters coming back. I figured if I could beat out one or two guys, I would be in the rotation, and that's exactly what has happened."

Lombard last week became the first true freshman to start a game on the defensive line at UCLA since Ken Kocher and Anthony Fletcher in the 1999 Rose Bowl.

But Lombard is not alone when it comes to holding down key roles for UCLA as a freshman. Redshirt freshmen Bruce Davis, Aaron Whittington and Michael Pitre each have started a game already, and true freshmen Brian Abraham, Shannon Tevaga and Chris Joseph and redshirt freshman Chris Horton are one injury away from being starters.

"We know we're a young group and that we're the future," Lombard said. "We know that we're going to make mistakes, but we're not using our inexperience as an excuse."

When UCLA faced Washington last season at the Rose Bowl, the Huskies were a ranked team with big plans. But after jumping out to a 13-0 lead, Washington was outscored, 39-0, in the second half in a 46-16 UCLA victory.

The Huskies never recovered from the defeat, finishing 3-4 in their last games. But the Bruins failed to capitalize by losing their last five games to finish the season 6-7.

"This is going to be a great challenge for us," said Dorrell, who spent the 1999 season as Washington's offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. " ... We like where we are as a program and this will be another test."

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