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UCLA's Hester and Price are ready to let chips fall

Cornerbacks have something to prove, with Hester missing most of last season with injury and Price seeing opponents run right at him. Neuheisel sets tone with big praise.

August 16, 2010|By Chris Foster

No pressure here.

UCLA's Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are just a couple kids dangled like live bait every day. It comes with the 100-yard-territory as a cornerback.

Then your coach does something rooted in his endless euphoric drumbeat, the shtick that he wants to make stick. Bruins Coach Rick Neuheisel does like to poke the Bear … or Husky … or Trojan.

"Those two guys are two of the finest sophomore cornerbacks I can imagine," Neuheisel said.

Hear that offensive coordinators? Take your best shot.

Over there is Hester, with the gift for gab and, occasionally, grab. He has less than one college football game on his resume, thanks to a fractured fibula last season.

On the flip side is Price, the 98-pound (OK, 159-pound) weakling last season, who was offered up as a sacrifice as a true freshman. He played in 13 games, all on his heels.

Take your pick, gentlemen.

Or, maybe, pick your poison.

Neuheisel does have the "carnie" in him, with a "step right up and win a prize" spiel. Yet, the carnie usually takes your money and keeps the prize.

Hester, big and fast, has a chip on his shoulder after a season lost in the Westwood wilderness. Price had that chip installed after being every opposing quarterback's buddy in 2009.

Opponents are going to test them.

Bring-it seems the response.

Said Hester: "I'm going to let [receivers] know that it's going to be a physical game. … I'm going to be in their face, going to get my hands on them."

Said Price: "I want to make receivers invisible, like they don't even exist."

A leg up

Hester, and others, thought 2009 would be his breakout season, with his 6-foot-1, 203-pound frame and sprinter's speed on display.

That ended in the season opener against San Diego State with the fracture. Hester felt abandoned.

"He went through a lot of he-said, she-said things, 'Can he do this; is he as good as advertised?" said free safety Rahim Moore, Hester's close friend. "He went from playing to not being in view. It hurt. Now he has been reborn."

The new and improved Hester has refined his aggressive skills, kept his edgy attitude and focused.

At night, before he goes to bed, he watches DVDs of Nnamdi Asomugha ( Oakland Raiders), Antonio Comatie ( New York Jets) and Darrelle Revis (Jets), studying their techniques. By day, he applies those home-school lessons.

"Not playing was hard," Hester said. "You don't want people to feel sorry for you when you're hurt, but people kind of forget about you. The phone stops ringing. It was humbling."

Hester is trying to recapture the lost year, letting out the frustration in measured bursts. Of course, sometimes it's a pint, sometimes a gallon.

After teammate Akeem Ayers leveled running back Derrick Coleman in scrimmage Saturday, Hester flew over to ask how that felt.

"I like that fire in the belly," Neuheisel said, though he has also tried to establish parameters, saying, "If it's constructive, it's terrific. If it becomes personal, it becomes destructive."

As to which way it currently leans, Neuheisel said, "It's better. I wouldn't say we're there yet. But it's better."

Hester, though, has shown he can change.

Cornerbacks coach Daronte' Jones said, "What he has learned is that he can do everything he did before, but he doesn't have to put his hands on guys as much. He's always going to have that swagger. That's the mind-set of a cornerback."

Food for thought

Price wanted to cast a giant shadow. The trouble was, he was so thin it was difficult to believe he had a shadow.

When Hester went down, Price, less than three months removed from La Puente Bishop Amat, was sent in with a bull's-eye on his back. Listed at 6-2, 163, he shrank to 159 after starting the last 11 games.

Quarterbacks threw his way and offensive coordinators ran right at him.

"During games, I could hear them on the sidelines, 'We're going after No. 22,' " Price said.

Price had seven solo tackles against USC, but only because he was earmarked. On the touchdown drive that clinched the victory, the Trojans threw four consecutive passes Price's way.

"That's not going to happen again," Price said. "I'd come home and turn on the TV and the 'SC replays would be on. I'd switch to cartoons or something. I can't watch that game. It bugs me."

Price had to get bigger. At one point during the off-season, he was eating five meals per day. Before bed, he stills puts away a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

Said Tish Price, his mother, "He'd come home on weekends and I'd make him breakfast. He'd start asking, 'What's for lunch?' I'd say, 'I haven't even washed the breakfast dishes yet.' "

The result: Price said he weighs 178 pounds.

"He still has to run around to get wet in the shower," Neuheisel said. "But he will be a more formidable player."

The added weight goes with added experience. Price is ready to show he is no longer a light-weight in either area.

"I want to send a message on the first play of every game," Price said.

Cornered the market?

This remains just talk. Hester still only has one game of experience. Price still hasn't thrown his added weight around.

"Show-me" will be what opponents will be thinking. But …

Said Price: "I have that mentality where I want to embarrass the opponent."

Said Hester: "I think I can go out there and be one of the premier corners in college football."

Imagine that … Neuheisel has.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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