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UCLA FOOTBALL

Christian Ramirez is eligible to help Bruins

After sitting out a season because of academic problems, the junior tailback can't wait to get back in the game.

August 14, 2009|Chris Foster

The running back took the handoff, waited for blocking, hurdled a defender, and 48 yards later was in the end zone -- UCLA's longest run at the Rose Bowl last season.

Too bad for the Bruins that the highlight running play of 2008 came during a preseason scrimmage and was made by a ballcarrier who turned up academically ineligible.

It was the last time Christian Ramirez set foot on the Rose Bowl field in uniform last season. He spent Saturdays pacing the sidelines incognito, wearing an oversized bucket hat as cover, though, as he recalls, "I could still hear everyone saying I should have got those grades."

Indeed, in a matter of a few months he went from being a guy Coach Rick Neuheisel said, "We have to get on the field," to one who wasn't allowed to leave the sideline because of an academic no gain.

"It hurt," Ramirez said. "A lot."

Now, after a year in academic purgatory, the junior tailback again sees the field before him.

"Oh, he's really anxious to get back out there," senior linebacker Reggie Carter said. "He had that bucket hat, which covered his whole face, but he was there. I would probably go into a shell and be depressed."

That hat has been swapped for a helmet. Ramirez's head is now in the game. He is expected to be a primary ballcarrier for the Bruins, who "will be able to run the ball or die trying," according to Neuheisel.

"You can't take anything for granted," Ramirez said. "Tomorrow is never promised."

Yesterday, though, lingers.

The silver lining attached to Ramirez's academic gaffe was that he avoided the week-in, week-out pounding absorbed by other Bruins backs. UCLA's running game, behind a woeful offensive line, averaged 2.6 yards a carry and ranked 116th out of 119 major college teams at 82.8 yards a game during a 4-8 season.

The passing game wasn't much better, but Neuheisel intends to fix one to solve the other. With redshirt freshman Kevin Prince at quarterback and seven new offensive linemen in the program, the run-or-die-trying philosophy seemed the prudent choice.

"As a running back, you love to hear that," Ramirez said. "Coach has told us that in meetings. He has said it to me. It's even more exciting to know we're capable of running the ball."

But are they?

"We're still a 4-8 team and we can't change that until [the season opener] Sept. 5," Ramirez said. "The coaches tell us the numbers from last season all the time. We have built a new culture. Before, guys would do what they could just to get by. There are no cutting corners now. If you're supposed to do five reps, you do six."

The motivation, he added, is simple: "We have a lot to prove."

Ramirez knows that applies to him as much as anyone.

After two seasons seeking his niche, Ramirez caught Neuheisel's eye during spring practice in 2008, when offensive coordinator Norm Chow pegged him as a "gifted runner."

However, any opportunity for a breakout season evaporated when Ramirez dropped one class and received a poor grade in another, leaving him short of academic requirements.

"That has never been an issue before," Ramirez said. "It kind of crept up on me. I mean, I'm on time for everything. This one time I didn't keep up with what I was supposed to be doing and it came back to bite me. . . . Never again."

As if he needed a reminder of what he lost, running backs coach Wayne Moses got him a carry last summer in that scrimmage at the Rose Bowl.

"All week, he kept telling me, 'I might find you something to do out there,' " Ramirez said. "He kept bugging me, 'You better make the most of it.' "

He did.

"Wayne put him in without any of us knowing," Chow said. "All of a sudden he busts this run, jumped over a guy and took off. Wayne chuckled and said, 'I just wanted to whet your appetite.' "

And so Ramirez now re-enters a tailback competition that has better players -- and more of them. Derrick Coleman gained 284 yards as a freshman last season and Johnathan Franklin, a redshirt freshman, has impressive speed.

The field is so crowded that redshirt freshman Milton Knox, the object of a recruiting tug of war between UCLA and Notre Dame, enters camp as the fourth tailback.

Yet Ramirez, who missed much of spring practice because of a sore hamstring, retains abilities that fit with Chow's offensive philosophy.

"There are certain kinds of guys that can run a zone scheme, an NFL zone scheme," Chow said. "I think he has a great feel. He has patience coming off blocks."

Ramirez's 6-foot-2, 222-pound frame, plus his speed and receiving skills, make him a threat in any situation. He gave a brief glimpse of that as a sophomore, rushing for 55 yards and a touchdown in five carries in mop-up duty against Stanford.

"Everyone saw what Norm did with Reggie Bush [at USC]," Neuheisel said. "I'm not putting Christian in the Reggie Bush category, but in terms of explosiveness and as a pass catcher, he is gifted.

"Assuming he stays healthy and assuming he regains the form he had the first spring I was here, I think he is going have a marvelous season."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

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