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Craft settles into his spot

He went from third string to starting quarterback at UCLA, and after a tough transition, he's finally feeling comfortable.

August 31, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Kevin Craft went from a New Kid On The Block to Vanilla Ice in a matter of months.

Recruited to be the Bruins' third-string quarterback, Craft is now in charge after injuries thrust him into the starting job.

His stature in the locker room has similarly risen.

"We tease him a little bit, call him Vanilla Ice sometimes," senior wide receiver Marcus Everett said. "He will start to groove a little bit when the music comes on."

Said kicker Jimmy Rotstein: "His salsa is great. The guy can move."

He might have to.

Operating behind a makeshift line, Craft may need some ice, ice, baby after guiding UCLA against Tennessee in Monday's season opener.

Craft's spotlight dance comes after injuries to Patrick Cowan (knee) and Ben Olson (foot). Being the starter certainly wasn't on the radar when Craft transferred from Mt. San Antonio College, enrolling at UCLA on the same day spring football practice began.

Within weeks, Cowan had torn up his knee, ending his season, and then Olson re-broke a bone in his foot during August training camp.

That left Craft with the keys to the UCLA offense, though it's doubtful Coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow will let him take it on the freeway.

Neuheisel said he has told Craft, "You need to manage the game. It is not incumbent on you going out there and trying to win it. Late in the game, yeah, you might have to. That's OK, you're ready to do that."

The coach added, "Kids grow up dreaming about these opportunities. I hope he enjoys it."

Craft is soaking up the moments. After a practice last week, he hung around to give high-fives to student trainers as they came off the field.

It's a leadership thing.

"After workouts one morning, he said, 'Let's go get a breakfast burrito,' " punter Aaron Perez said. "I didn't want to go all the way to Jose B's. He said, 'No, there is a place on campus, Northern Lights. They're great. Trust me.'

"He was right. Hey, I trust him."

Food for thought is that transfer quarterbacks have had limited success in the Pacific 10 Conference. The last transfer to lead a team to the conference title was Brad Otton (Weber State) with USC in 1995. The last community college transfer to win the title was Tim Green (El Camino College) with USC in 1984.

Craft has major-college experience. He played in nine games, starting five, in 2006 at San Diego State, where his father, Tom, had been head coach until 2005.

After that 2006 season, Kevin transferred to Mt. SAC, where his father is the offensive coordinator.

Those seasons left him "a little more experienced as far as what we want to get accomplished and a little more knowledgeable about what I'm going against," Kevin said.

"It's definitely been a journey to where I am now. It's been an unexpected ride."

A bumpy one as well.

"I didn't even recognize Kevin at all when I first came out to spring practice, he looked so tense," Tom Craft said.

Chow said that Craft rushed his decisions during spring, a trait that carried over to training camp.

Craft had three of his passes intercepted in the Bruins' scrimmage, though one bounced off Everett's hands.

But there also have been times when Craft has operated efficiently, such as when he completed three consecutive passes -- one for a touchdown -- in driving the Bruins 65 yards during the same scrimmage.

"He's very excitable," San Diego State Coach Chuck Long said.

"He doesn't sit still. You will be in a meeting and he's walking around the room. He moves around a lot."

Yes, the Bruins have noticed that.

"The guy has some serious flavor when he dances," said freshman Rahim Moore, who is responsible for Craft's "Vanilla Ice" nickname.

Asked about it, Craft smiles and chuckles. "That's some bad sources," he said.

Back on the field, Chow continues to work on Craft's decision making but said, "I've seen tremendous improvement the last few weeks. All he has to do is manage the game. Make sure the game moves along, that we're not offside, we don't drop balls, we don't fumble balls. Just take care of the movement of the game."

Craft has done that before. He was not flashy at San Diego State, but he did lead the Aztecs to two victories during a 3-9 season, completing 69 of 121 passes for 737 yards and four touchdowns.

Neuheisel said he had seen Craft improve through a difficult transition.

"I can't even imagine how tough it was, getting here and trying to find your classes while learning a completely new offensive system," Neuheisel said.

"Then to be thrust into a position where you have to take the bull by the horns and act like you're the leader of a team."

Craft, though, appears to have that part down. During spring practice, when the Bruins did their traditional "over the wall day" and skipped drills, Craft hung around the field, waiting to practice.

He has become more assertive since.

"He reminds me a lot of Pat Cowan," center Micah Reed said.

"He's really enthusiastic in the huddle. But if the personnel are not coming in fast enough, he'll bark at us, 'Get in the huddle!' "

Said Craft: "It's like being a kid and your family moves to a new neighborhood. When I first came here, I didn't even know the streets, or where I was going. It's so different now.

"I have friends on the team. I'm comfortable off the field. When you get that all down, it just becomes about football and every day is cool."

Cool as ice?


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