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Very Mobile At Qb

Kevin Craft began at San Diego State, transferred to Mt. SAC, and now he could be UCLA's starter in the fall

June 13, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The unknown UCLA quarterback strolled across campus, just another anonymous face among students headed to early-morning classes.

"I blend in," says Kevin Craft, who played for San Diego State and Mt. San Antonio College before joining the Bruins. "I always have.

"When I was at San Diego State, I was the starting quarterback, had my photo in the student newspaper, but no one recognized me. I would be in class and people next to me would be saying, 'Did you go to the game? They lost again. Those guys are terrible.'

"No one noticed me."

At least his current classmates have an excuse. Craft has yet to play a down for UCLA and his recruitment didn't make headlines. He was brought in as disaster insurance where disaster has happened too often in the past -- and did so again in the final days of spring practice.

On consecutive plays, the Bruins lost their two seniors. Patrick Cowan sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, prematurely ending his 2008 season. Then Ben Olson suffered a broken bone in his foot.

Just like that, Craft was already No. 2 on the UCLA depth chart -- right behind a guy with a screw in his right foot.

Yes, Olson is expected to be healthy enough to participate when practices begin in August, but there certainly are no guarantees who will be commanding the offense come Labor Day, when the Bruins open against Tennessee.

Craft's attitude? Come what may.

"My mom jokes with me, 'You got it real hard, don't you?' " Craft says. "I've gone to San Diego State, lived in San Diego, took a trip out to Hawaii, and now I'm at UCLA.

"She tells me, 'Some people have to go Laramie, Wyoming.' "

And others roll with the punches.

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The early-morning ringing of metal on metal echoes through the UCLA weight room, the sound of a football program trying to bulk up after not doing squat in 2007.

Craft and freshman Chris Forcier, the only other healthy quarterback on the UCLA roster, are finishing up their workouts as a second wave of Bruins arrives, including Olson, who hobbles through on crutches.

"It is going to be interesting to see how Ben responds to the treatment on the foot and how ready he is to go," first-year Coach Rick Neuheisel says. "It's going to be one of those three guys."

Craft, who has two seasons of eligibility left, had a gunslinger's reputation at Mt. SAC, where his father, Tom, was offensive coordinator.

With Craft passing for 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns, the Mounties went 10-3.

Hawaii and Southern Methodist recruited him, but UCLA was an offer he couldn't refuse -- even with Olson and Cowan set to return for their senior seasons and Forcier and Osaar Rasshan waiting in the wings.

"I was concerned that, given two senior quarterbacks coming back, there might be attrition following spring football," Neuheisel says. "Somebody might say they needed to go somewhere else to play. I could feel in my bones that was a possibility."

The apparent logjam didn't worry Craft, though. "If you make a decision on 'I want a guaranteed spot,' I think that's being scared," he says. "It's not the right mentality for a team, or a player."

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Craft's day began at 5:15 a.m., but when it comes to football he's in no rush. In the film room, he stops the tape, rewinds it, then sets it in motion again.

"This is one of my favorite plays," he says. "Watch how the receiver comes across and finds the hole in the defense."

On the screen, Craft completes a pass. Then he switches to game tape of Tennessee, saying, "Watch how deep their safeties play."

Craft spends two hours watching tape and jotting notes, tedious work. "But when you love something, it's not boring," he says. "Football has been my life."

Tom Craft, who compares his son to "a gym rat in basketball," didn't drive him to play football. He merely took him to work.

The father spent 16 seasons as head coach at Palomar College and did two stints at San Diego State, as offensive coordinator from 1994 to '96 and as head coach from 2001 to '05.

By the time Kevin was in high school, he was a quarterback by osmosis.

"I guess there was always some influence," says Tom, who produced seven junior college All-American quarterbacks at Palomar. "He's been around football his whole life. He was a ball boy at Palomar. I was always afraid he was going to get run over. All that exposure gave him a strong feeling for the game."

Even so, Kevin has never been anointed in his career. He started part of his sophomore season at Valley Center High but watched a senior run the team the next year.

As a high school senior, he was chosen the top quarterback in San Diego County and chose to play in college for his father at hometown San Diego State.

"He told me that I would have to be twice as good as the other quarterbacks being the coach's son," Kevin says.

It didn't come to that. Tom was fired after his son's freshman season and replaced by Chuck Long.

Kevin, encouraged to do so by his father, stayed with the team.

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