Cornerback Priest Willis academically cleared by NCAA

Cornerback Priest Willis has received academic clearance from the NCAA, solidifying UCLA’s inexperienced secondary.

The Bruins heard the news at around 2 p.m., just a few hours before Thursday’s afternoon practice in San Bernardino. Arguably the most highly regarded of UCLA’s four freshman defensive backs, Willis has played well early on and should be a crucial piece of a secondary that returns no starters.

“He stands out,” head coach Jim Mora said. “He absolutely, positively can play corner at this level. He has the quickness. He has the burst. He’s got the length.”

— Safety Dietrich Riley is still working with the team as an undergraduate assistant. The junior had missed all of last season recovering from neck surgery, and took a medical retirement last month.

“I just think it’s important that we offer him that opportunity to see what he wants to do with his life,” Mora said. “For him to be out here with Tahaan (Goodman), with Tyler Foreman and some of those other (freshmen), it’s pretty selfless to me.

“He had big plans in terms of what his football career was gonna look like. It didn’t work out the way he wanted it. Rather than mourn, he’s just OK.”

— Freshman offensive lineman John Lopez missed Thursday’s practice with a minor knee injury. Linebacker Eric Kendricks is recovering after having minor ankle surgery. Tight end Darius Bell (hand) only participated in individual drills.

— Safety Randall Goforth missed today’s practice and stayed in his dorm at Cal State San Bernardino. Jim Mora declined to say why, but said the sophomore will return tomorrow. (The Los Angeles Times reports that he overslept and was late for a meeting.) Goforth started five games as a freshman and is the most experienced member of a very young secondary.

— Sophomore Steve Manfro broke out a couple of big touchdown runs on Thursday, but may be moved into the F-back rotation rather than tailback. Whether or not that happens will depend on the improvement of the other running backs, including Jordon James, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones.

“You would like to settle a guy into a spot so they can really develop in that spot,” Mora said. “But the thing about Steven is that he’s so versatile. You want to get him in positions where you can utilize his speed, his quickness, his burst, his ability to catch the ball.”

— Senior Damien Thigpen showed good straight-line speed during individual drills, but his return date (ACL) is still undetermined. Mora had previously ruled out return before October, but said Thursday that the prognosis may be more positive.

The tailback/kick returner was third on the team with 849 all-purpose yards last season.