UCLA running back Damien Thigpen scores a touchdown during the Bruins'… (Eric Kayne / Associated…)
As UCLA prepared to face Rice last week, Bruins running back Damien Thigpen said he was "anxious." And why wouldn't he be?
Thigpen sat out the 2011 season because of a torn hamstring. The previous season was cut short because of a fractured right clavicle and he sat out the final four games.
So how did things work out for Thigpen in the Bruins' 49-24 victory over Rice?
"It felt like practice," Thigpen said. "It was just going against guys with different-colored jerseys."
It was a long-anticipated appearance in Houston. A year ago, Thigpen injured his hamstring during training camp and then-coach Rick Neuheisel assured everyone he would be ready by the opener in Houston.
He was right … a year later.
Thigpen sat out the Bruins' opener against Houston last season but had moments against Rice that should make Nebraska coaches a bit anxious heading into Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl.
"Returning kicks, returning punts, special situations, the guy can be dynamic," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said.
The 5-foot-8, 178-pound junior has a running style in which he makes like a pinball. Thigpen had 25 yards rushing and caught four passes for 42 yards against Rice. He also had a 49-yard touchdown reception called back because of a penalty.
Thigpen's "body is not the type that you want him taking hits on 25 carries," Mora said. But, "he's got special quickness and special acceleration and special speed."
Thigpen said he can thrive in the Bruins' new offense.
"They are putting me in position where I can be effective, with the ball in space," he said. "They want me one on one with a linebacker. If I'm one on one with a linebacker, I win."
Nebraska has eight players from Southern California on its roster, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, who starred at Corona Centennial High. The Cornhuskers' last visit to the area was for the 2010 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
"We have had good success recruiting out there, and we expect to continue to have good success," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "A lot of those California kids are not afraid to go away to play. It's nice these guys get to come home. It doesn't happen a lot. I know our guys are looking for tickets from their teammates."
Working things out
A week into the season and UCLA is still working on its class of freshmen.
Eli Ankou, a defensive end expected to attend school without playing this season, participated in the Bruins' practice Wednesday. Meanwhile, linebacker Jeremy Castro and wide receiver Javon Williams continue to work through eligibility issues.
Castro, a linebacker, will take the ACT on Saturday. If he scores high enough to be cleared by the NCAA, he will enroll at UCLA. Bruins coaches will decide whether to have him sit out this season entirely or practice with the team and be a redshirt.
The NCAA clearinghouse is still reviewing Williams' paperwork with no indication when a decision is expected.
Ankou, 6-3 and 255 pounds, is unlikely to play this year. He is from Canada and "hasn't played a lot of American football," Mora said. "He's a good-looking, smart kid, but he still has a lot things to learn as far as technique."
Asked whether the Bruins have more confidence after beating Rice, Mora said, "Confidence can be a good thing, but it can be a poison as well."