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UCLA FOOTBALL

UCLA's Damien Thigpen expected to return from injury Oct. 3 at Utah

Running back, who had knee surgery after sustaining a torn ligament last year against USC, will be making his season debut.

September 24, 2013|By Chris Foster

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Running back Damien Thigpen is ready to make his season debut for the UCLA football team.

"I can play right now," Thigpen said. "But, you know what, give me four weeks and I'm going to be better than I am right now."

Thigpen is expected to make his return from knee surgery when UCLA plays at Utah on Oct. 3.

Describing him as anxious doesn't begin to cover it.

A year ago, Thigpen looked like the heir apparent to Johnathan Franklin. He demonstrated the ability to create big plays as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Then he sustained a torn ligament in his left knee in November's game against USC.

Thigpen has spent the last three weeks in full contact during practice, preparing for his return.

"It was a gradual thing," Thigpen said. "There was no one day, no one moment, where I felt ready. Coming into training camp, I had my doubts. As the days went by, I kept faith and kept progressing."

Coach Jim Mora said Thigpen would be eased into the backfield rotation against Utah.

"Ideally, it would be good to get him three, four, five carries, so he can get hit, jump up off the turf and go back to the huddle," Mora said. "It will give him confidence."

That is something Thigpen doesn't lack.

Even with a brace on his knee, Thigpen said he would run with his same cutting and slashing style.

"It's a mind game with the brace," Thigpen said. "If you're thinking, 'Oh man, this brace feels stiff,' it will affect you. If I ran 100 meters with the brace on, would I be the same if I didn't have it on? It might be a little different. But I'm still explosive."

Thigpen was third on the team with 262 yards rushing in 2012. He caught 18 passes for 211 yards. He scored four touchdowns.

"I want to see him in the open field, make some cuts," Mora said. "Emotionally, mentally and physically, he's ready to go," but "until you get in that game and it's live it's hard to tell."

Thigpen said his knee has already passed enough tests in practice.

"I have had guys hit it, knee me, linemen fall over me," Thigpen said. "When you're a running back, you're on the ground a little bit. I have been hit enough."

Rios out

Cornerback Marcus Rios is unlikely to be cleared to play against Utah.

Rios, who battled through a near-fatal fungal infection in his sinuses, has worked out without pads for a couple of weeks and suited up for the New Mexico State game on Saturday. However, he did not take part in practice Tuesday.

Quick hits

Tackle Simon Goines has been bothered by a sore right knee, which he hyperextended during spring practice. He was moved from left tackle to right tackle because of the soreness. … Tackle Christian Morris, a freshman has left the program and said he hopes to transfer to Mississippi … UCLA announced it will need to raise about $50 million to build a football training facility at Spaulding Field. The facility will be built entirely with private donations.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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