Marcus Cassel, a former standout UCLA cornerback, died early Friday after a single-car accident in Santa Monica.
Cassel, 23, driving a sport utility vehicle, was reported to be alone and traveling at high speeds westbound on Santa Monica Boulevard about 5:15 a.m, according to the Santa Monica police accident report.
Police said his car crossed Ocean Avenue into Palisades Park, striking a tree and rolling over before coming to rest on a concrete light standard. Firefighters used extrication tools to free Cassel, then took him to UCLA Medical Center, where he died shortly after 9:30 a.m. with his parents at his side.
Cassel, who started all 12 games as a senior, was good enough to sign a free-agent contract with the Carolina Panthers after his college career.
He suffered a hamstring injury during the Panthers' summer training camp, however, and was released before the regular season.
UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell called Cassel's death "a tragic loss" and said "no words can express the sorrow we feel."
"He had a great smile and a wonderful personality," Dorrell said in a statement. "And he combined those with a determination to be the best. As a senior last year, his leadership and performance were key factors in our success on the field."
Cassel, who was a starter in his junior and senior seasons at UCLA, grew up in Los Angeles and attended St. John Bosco in Bellflower. He also ran track in high school.
As a Bruin last season, Cassell tied for the team lead in pass breakups and forced fumbles and was fourth in tackles. He played particularly well in a 66-19 loss to USC, collecting a personal-best 16 tackles.
Carolina safety Mike Minter said Cassel was friendly, respectful and hopeful he could overcome his injury and make the team. But when the Panthers put the rookie on injured reserve, it meant his season was over. The club later reached an injury settlement with him and released him.
"He was a good kid and it looked like he had a good head on his shoulders," Minter said. "I talked to him and wanted to encourage him. I told him it was important for him to get back on the field as soon as possible ... and that's what he wanted to do."
Former UCLA teammate Justin London visited the scene of the accident Friday. "We lost a great young man who represented life," London said. "He was always undersized, but he proved how you can overcome, especially the last couple of years. He grew up so much, and he helped me so much. He helped me see things in a different way."
Santa Monica police spokesman Alex Padilla said the investigation is in its preliminary stages, but there is no indication alcohol was involved.
Services are pending.
Times staff writer Lonnie White contributed to this report.