UCLA strength coach Sal Alosi is all business on the practice field -- and… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Say the words "Sal Alosi" and watch UCLA football players snap to attention.
The name inspires respect — and a certain amount of nervousness. You couldn't ask for more from a strength and conditioning coach.
"The first workout, I made a little joke," defensive end Datone Jones said. "Coach Alosi came over and said, 'Did I give you permission to speak?' I went, 'Wow, this guy is for real.'"
Ask a player, get a story. Alosi is intense. On a scale of 1 to 10, "he's a 12," safety Andrew Abbott said, laughing.
UCLA's defense will try to match that intensity when the 22nd-ranked Bruins (2-0) play pass-happy Houston (0-2) Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Alosi's work is most noticeable on that side of the ball. There are still some holes — one of which Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez shot through for a 92-yard touchdown run last week. But late in the game it was not the meat-and-potatoes Cornhuskers who took control.
Jones buried Martinez in the end zone for a safety that gave the Bruins a 29-27 lead — and the ball — in the fourth quarter.
Later, Martinez, under pressure, put a pass up for grabs that Abbott pulled in for an interception that set up a touchdown that put UCLA up 36-27.
"A lot of people outside this program don't understand, we're not that 50-0 defense anymore," Jones said, referring to last season's debacle against USC.
The defense has yet to match the offense, which ranks third nationally in total yards. But improvement is there. The Bruins gave up 439 yards against Nebraska, but only 106 in the second half, holding the Cornhuskers to two field goals in a 36-30 victory.
This from a defense that allowed 45 or more points in seven of the previous 22 games.
"There are things that are not acceptable this year," defensive end Cassius Marsh said. "That started in the weight room with Coach Alosi."
This is the first time UCLA has a strength and conditioning coach who focused solely on football, and the personal attention has paid off. The Bruins are bigger and stronger this season.
"In past years, when we had to grind it out at the end, we came up short," McDonald said. "Now, if it's close, we have put in the work in to pull through when times get tough."
Strength coaches are most often faceless taskmasters, but Alosi doesn't have that option.
In 2010, Alosi was an anonymous body on the New York Jets' sideline until he put his knee out to trip Miami's Nolan Carroll, who was running downfield on punt coverage. Alosi apologized, but he was suspended, fined and later resigned.
Alosi declined an interview request this week.
After nine years in the NFL, Alosi was in exile at Bryant College, a small school in Rhode Island. First-year UCLA Coach Jim Mora came calling last January. Alosi was the Atlanta Falcons' strength coach under Mora in 2006.
"He's got to be recognized as the best in his field," Mora said. "He's innovative and is always trying to find better ways to do things. He seeks out people who do things that are different."
And, "He has a toughness about him," Mora added.
The alpha dog personality was clear the first day.
"He was introduced and didn't say anything," safety Tevin McDonald. "He just put his hand up and nodded his head. We went, 'Oh man, he means business.'"
Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt learned that. "I was in the weight room talking football," Zumwalt recalled, "and he came up and said, 'Hey, I don't come out to the field and talk about bench press, don't bring football in here."
Alosi has carried that intensity his whole life. He was a walk-on linebacker at Hofstra who earned a starting spot and led the team in tackles as a senior in 2000.
He has also, at times, been a contradiction.
In 2000, Alosi was the co-winner of the Hempstead Mayor's Trophy, given to the Hofstra player who best exemplified good sportsmanship and fair play on and off the field. A year earlier, he was one of eight Hofstra players who broke into a dorm room and allegedly assaulted three students. Alosi pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of harassment, a misdemeanor.
That can be put down as a mistake of youth.
But there is an edge to Alosi, and it was needed in Westwood, where the Bruins have carried the reputation of being soft.
Said Zumwalt: "He's a strict guy and we needed that."