The competition, at last, is on.
UCLA sophomore linebacker Patrick Larimore, out the last five days with a hamstring injury, returned to contract drills Thursday. That put the middle linebacker spot under the microscope, with Larimore and junior Steve Sloan looking to win the job.
The two came out of spring practice neck-and-neck, with a to-do list to accomplish before training camp.
"It's good to have Patrick back," linebackers coach Clark Lea said. "He had a nice practice, but, gosh dog, he has a lot to prove."
Still, Lea said, "we have plenty of time before we play Kansas State [in the season opener]. Either guy can take it."
For Sloan, the must-show ability is purely physical.
"Sloan is kind of the wise man of the group," Lea said. "He knows the defense in and out. Another thing Sloan has is he's a guy guys want to follow."
But, Lea said, "he has to get in position to make more plays. Where last fall he might have been step slow, he now needs to be in position to make a tackle."
Sloan, who is 6 feet 4 and 228 pounds, worked on his flexibility during the off-season to "help me with my man-to-man coverage and nickel defense," he said.
Larimore, on the other hand, is expected to show a better mental approach to the game. While Sloan had the benefit of starting nine games in 2008, Larimore "has to prove during the next two weeks that he can handle the defense and make the checks," Lea said.
But the 6-foot-3, 249-pound Larimore is "physically gifted and brings a lot of tools," Lea said.
The Bruins went through a controlled scrimmage Thursday, working on situations. Backed up against its goal, the offense got a first down on only one of six possessions and gave up two safeties.
Mano a mano
The most intense moment in practice — every day — is when wide receiver Nelson Rosario and cornerback Aaron Hester line up against each other in drills. The two always try to go head-to-head.
Said Hester: "There are not many 6-1corners that are going to be as physical or as fast as me in the country, and there are not many 6-6 receivers who can run or jump like him. We're getting each other ready for the season."
It's a friendly, no-prisoners competition.
Rosario caught a fade pass over Hester in the end zone Thursday, then either was pushed or had his momentum carry him into a stack of orange water containers.
"It was his momentum," Hester said.
Rosario disagreed: "It was a push."
Rosario won out, though, as he hung on to the ball and even held it high in the air while on his back.
"First I needed to check if I was hurt, so I wiggled my toes, then I held the ball up," Rosario said.
Defensive tackle Brandon Willis has received his release from North Carolina and is expected to enroll at UCLA in September, according to a source close to his family who was not authorized to speak on the subject. …Guard Eddie Williams took a blow to the head during Thursday's practice and sat out with concussion-like symptoms, Coach Rick Neuheisel said. … Freshman cornerback Anthony Jefferson was cleared to play by the NCAA. … Freshman defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (hip flexor injury) rejoined practice.