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All eyes will be on UCLA's Aaron Hester

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Bruins' freshman cornerback talks a big game, but with opposing offenses probably focusing on him, he'll need to back it up.

August 24, 2009|Chris Foster

Cornerback Aaron Hester had to make sure UCLA teammate Johnathan Franklin noticed.

He ran stride for stride with a speedy tailback, shouting the whole time, "I'm staying with you, I'm staying with," on a pass play during practice last week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 25, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
UCLA football: A profile of UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester in Monday's Sports section said he had anchored a Compton Dominguez High 1,600-meter relay team that turned in the fastest time in that event in California since 1977. The time was the fastest since 1997.

Hester wanted to make one thing clear to freshman wide receiver Rickey Marvray during drills.

"I caught a slant and turned and there was Aaron, smiling," Marvray said. "He said, 'Man, if we were in pads, you'd already be on the ground.' "

Then there are times when words fail him. Freshman tight end Morrell Presley caught a pass and was immediately walloped by Hester, who dislodged the ball.

This was a day, actually 30 minutes, in the life of Hester, who is a polite, well-spoken 19-year-old kid off the field and an amped-up one on it.

Hester knows he will stand center stage when the curtain on the Bruins' season goes up Sept. 5 against San Diego State. With Alterraun Verner, considered one of college football's best shut-down corners, patrolling the other side of the field, Hester begins the season with a bull's-eye on his back.

"I know they're not going to throw at Verner," said Hester, a redshirt freshman. "I know they're going to test me. It's going to be fun. If I make the plays, it won't be too long before people start noticing that I can play."

They are already noticing around the UCLA practice field.

"This guy is going to be a shut-down corner for us," said free safety Rahim Moore, who has known Hester since the two were kids.

Time will tell, but Hester does do well on the cornerback check list.

"You have to have speed and hips," defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said.

"You have to be competitive . . . really competitive," said Carnell Lake, one of two secondary coaches for the Bruins.

"You have to have confidence and amnesia," Verner said.

Verner, ranked as a top-10 cornerback by most preseason publications, is all that. Hester has some of those traits and is gathering the others.

Hester's raw abilities are apparent to the casual observer. At 6 feet 1 and 203 pounds, "he is long and lean and strong," Lake said, making him a physical presence that can bring the noise at the speed of sound.

Hester excelled in track and football at Compton Dominguez High. He anchored the 1,600-meter relay team, which posted the fastest time (3 minutes 9.59 seconds) for a California high school squad since 1977.

Franklin, one of the fastest Bruins in pads, couldn't shake Hester this week. And he heard about it.

"He keeps telling me he's a stallion and no one can keep up with him," Franklin said. Yes, Hester can pester, but, "you've got to have that swag no matter what position you play," Franklin said.

"I'm not a jaw-jacker," Hester said. "I respect other players. I just say some things to let them know I'm here. First play, I want the receiver to know it's going to be a rough day."

Besides, his abilities do speak for themselves. During one game as a senior, he caught two touchdown passes and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Al Hester, his father, would toss the football around with his 2-year-old son, who quickly grew up and discovered local youth leagues.

"The first time I met Aaron, I ran him over on the sidelines," Moore said.

Said Hester: "That's not true at all. I was playing safety and I laid somebody out on the sidelines."

The two are so tight that in spring they said they were going to "officially" become brothers, then had to admit it was a joke when word got back to their surprised parents. The two settled with being roommates.

"There is no problem with the TV remote control because the only channel we watch is the NFL Network," Hester said.

That relationship has helped Hester.

"I'm a question asker," Hester said. "I pick his brain about what it was like to be out there. He tells me that after the first couple series, it's just like playing in high school.

"You see people on TV making catches, but Rahim said that when I get out there not to be psyched out. He said, 'They're good, but they're only human.' "

As is Hester. Freshman mistakes await him on the field, "those guys on the other side of the line are on scholarship too," Bullough said. Yet, what Bullough has seen in Hester is a quick learner -- he had never played a zone defense until getting to UCLA last fall -- with immense abilities.

"There aren't many guys his size who can play corner," Bullough said. "He just has to prove he can play."

Proof is coming, according to Verner, who hosts video game gatherings among the defensive backs at his apartment.

"Aaron doesn't like to lose at anything," Verner said. "You're going to make mistakes. You'd like to be perfect, but it won't happen. What Aaron has is great abilities and a lot of confidence."

He will need both this season. "It's going to be a challenge," Hester said. "The spotlight is on you at cornerback. It will force me to perform."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

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