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UCLA FOOTBALL

Bruins' special teams have a knack for blocking kicks

In the last 17 games, UCLA has blocked 10 kicks. The keys to success include preparation by special-teams coach Jeff Ulbrich, but he credits players who have 'the timing, the big eyes.'

September 25, 2013|By Chris Foster

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UCLA assistant coach Jeff Ulbrich has been on his weekly fishing expedition, dissecting tape of Utah's special teams, looking for that one guy.

"We look for a fish," Ulbrich said. "We want to find somebody we can exploit, some deficiency in their coverage."

Guys like Kenny Orjioke and Cassius Marsh take it from there. Both have blocked kicks this season — Orjioke a punt, Marsh a field-goal attempt.

It seems to be a trend with the Bruins.

In Jim Mora's 17 games as coach, with Ulbrich in charge of the linebackers and special teams, the Bruins have blocked 10 kicks. They have blocked eight in the last eight games, including Marsh's swatting away a field-goal attempt against New Mexico State on Saturday.

"They say a block on special teams and a return for a touchdown by the defense are the two things that most quickly change the momentum of a game," Mora said.

The Bruins got both in their season opener against Nevada. Orjioke blocked a punt, and the ball bounced into the arms of Phillip Ruhl, who scored.

"Everyone was going crazy after that," Orjioke said.

The art of blocking a kick is said to be 10% preparation, 90% perspiration. Or maybe it's the other way around.

"Coach puts us in positions to get the job done," Orjioke said.

Ulbrich said that a player "has to have the knack, the feel for when the kick is coming, the timing, the big eyes."

That was evident in Datone Jones a year ago. He blocked a field-goal attempt and an extra-point try. Now with the Green Bay Packers, Jones blocked an extra-point attempt Sunday.

"Blocking an extra point in the NFL is virtually impossible," Ulbrich said.

The Da Vinci moment for Ulbrich and UCLA special teams came against Washington State last season. The Bruins blocked two punts and a field-goal attempt. They blocked a punt and a field-goal try against USC, with the blocked punt leading to a touchdown.

"A coach can make guarantees, but when you make one and we get the block, players go, 'OK, we're all in,'" Ulbrich said.

The last two seasons, blocked kicks have led to 21 UCLA points while keeping eight opponent points off the scoreboard.

"You see a lot of teams that give a half-hearted effort on field goals and extra points," Mora said. "Our guys have totally bought into it. Cassius would knee-walk to try to get one."

Thigpen's limits

Damien Thigpen is expected to play at running back against Utah on Oct. 3, but he will not be allowed to return kicks.

Thigpen will be playing for the first time since injuring his knee against USC last November. He was the Bruins' top kickoff returner, averaging 26.9 yards, last season.

"There is still an aspect of protecting him," Mora said. "To throw him back there to return kicks would not be smart right now. Three weeks down the road, maybe. He is very explosive."

Quick hits

Receiver Darren Andrews left practice with his right arm in a sling. Mora said the injury was not serious and he would be available against Utah.... UCLA has its first day of classes Thursday, which is why Mora likes having an open date this week. "Not having the distraction of a game Saturday allows them to focus on school and get that part of their lives organized," Mora said. "I'd like to have a bye this week every year."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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