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Kickbacks

Bruins would rather punt than turn the ball over, making Perez a major weapon

September 07, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

You punt. You win.

As coaching rhetoric goes, this hardly ranks with "win one for the Gipper." Still, UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel has gone about convincing his team that sending punter Aaron Perez onto the field is not crying uncle.

When Perez casts his punts against blue-gray October sky, victory is at hand . . . really.

"People hear 'punt' and the first thought is, 'Oh we didn't score.' Or, 'we didn't get a first down,' " said Perez, a senior. "But if you have a punter who can help you in the field-position game, you put the defense on the field where it can create some turnovers or back the other team up and make them punt. The field keeps getting shorter and shorter, and you win."

This is a necessary philosophy for the Bruins this season. With an offense going through on-the-job training and a defense that has a hefty resume from the last two seasons, the best option sometimes is to have Perez give things a swift kick.

That was an integral part of the game plan against Tennessee in the opener. Perez averaged 46.8 yards a punt in the 27-24 victory, two that covered 55 yards.

This might not provide scintillating talk radio fodder, or make the cut on the highlight-reel editing, but to hear Neuheisel preach, this is football gospel.

"It's imperative that we make it a long field," Neuheisel said. "With Aaron Perez and his leg, we can do that. As we grow in terms of our explosiveness and our ability to run the ball, we've got to be mindful of field position. So punting is not a bad thing."

Perez never thought so.

He has been at it for eight years now, ever since a friend called him a week before freshman football season started for Covina Charter Oak High.

"He knew I was a good soccer player and said, 'Come out and kick for us,' " Perez said. "The first game I played in was the first time I was ever at a football game. Three games later, I was on the varsity."

Perez attacks his new hobby with the same competitive, obsessive style he reserves for video games.

"He can be obsessive," said Bruins long snapper Christian Yount, one of Perez's close friends. "The guy was once ranked No. 1 in the world at the FIFA online video game because he played it constantly. He's obsessive about ketchup. He puts it on everything. I've seen him ruin some good meals by putting ungodly amounts of ketchup on it."

That attitude prevented Perez from being satisfied with merely earning a scholarship.

He has improved considerably from his redshirt freshman season, when he averaged 39.9 yards. Perez averaged 42.3 last season, ranking him second in the Pacific 10 Conference. He also dropped 35 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

"Right now, he has the tools, but he has to be more consistent," said Frank Gansz Jr., the Bruins' special teams coach. "You can have a 55-yarder down the middle of the field with no hang time. That will look good on the stats, but they are hard to cover."

Perez had a 55-yard punt that pinned Tennessee deep in its own territory. He also had a 55-yard punt returned 33 yards.

"I tell him all the time, it's not the good ones," Gansz said. "They won't remember those. They are going to remember the bad ones. You have to eliminate the bad ones."

Actually, it's a "good one" people remember. Perez put the final boot into UCLA's 13-9 upset of USC in 2006 with a 63-yard punt that took 11 seconds off the clock and left the Trojans on their own seven with four seconds left.

"He is serious about his punting," said defensive tackle Brigham Harwell, who shared an apartment with Perez. "One time, one of the guys said something about his punting game and Aaron started getting mad. He walked out of the dorm room, pouting."

Harwell smiled, and said, "Make sure you use that word, 'pouting.' "

Harwell delivers this as good-natured teasing, but he also has seen how seriously competitive Perez can be.

"He was playing that FIFA online this summer and he was losing," Harwell said. "He wasn't doing well and got so mad that he pulled the cord from the TV before the game was over so it wouldn't count against his won-loss record. I wish I would have recorded that one."

The Bruins, with low expectations rooted in an inexperienced offensive line and new quarterback, had to look for strengths. The defense was at the top of the list, with Perez not far below.

In the relentlessly optimistic bubble that Neuheisel has created around the Bruins, the "you punt, you win" mantra took hold.

"It means if you punt, you didn't turn it over," Gansz said. "You give yourself a chance to put your defense on the field and let them go play. If it's third and long, and you don't get the first down, you get to go punt. For us, that puts the strength of our team on the field. But if throw an interception or fumble the football and you don't give yourself a chance to punt the ball, that's not good."

The Bruins saw both sides of that against Tennessee.

Quarterback Kevin Craft had four passes intercepted in the first half, and UCLA trailed, 14-7. Perez averaged 53 yards a punt in the second half and the Bruins rallied.

Meaning . . .

"You punt, you win," Perez said.

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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NO. 23 UCLA (1-0) AT

NO. 15 BYU (2-0)

Saturday, 12:30 p.m, Versus

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