SAN BERNARDINO — Early in Friday’s afternoon practice, Sean Covington launched his first punts wearing a UCLA jersey.
There was one that arced high and back, landing some 60 yards away. Another swung short and hooked left. He’s still a freshman, after all.
Ranked one of the top punters in the country, the St. Petersburg, Fla., native was the first member of the 2013 class to fax in his signed letter of intent on Feb. 6. He has the unenviable task of following Jeff Locke, one of the best punters in UCLA history and a recent fifth-round draft pick.
Locke may be the most difficult player to replace for the Bruins, who are trying to better a 9-5 record amidst higher expectations and a tougher schedule. That Covington worked with Locke earlier this summer is a good start. The freshman said the two, roughly 90-minute sessions at UCLA were very productive. For one, they share a dominant foot.
“You don’t see many lefties,” Covington said. “That was a lot, just seeing his form and his steps and just how he drops. You can critique what you do and what you’re not doing, what you need to work on.”
Covington acknowledged the pressure in following a two-time Ray Guy semifinalist and fifth-round draft pick, but said it won’t faze him. Still, there’s a long way for him to go before he can fill Locke’s shoes.
“I think the key with Sean is his operation time,” head coach Jim Mora said. “When you go from Jeff (Locke) and Kevin McDermott, the snapper, they were so efficient from snap to kick. … With Sean, it’s just that operation. That’s so critical. But he has an excellent leg.”
“I don’t know if he’ll be the Jeff Locke that we saw that could pin teams down inside the 10-yard line on a pretty consistent basis. That’s kind of an art.”
» Priest Willis has played cornerback so far in San Bernardino, backing up his status as a top-100 recruit. During his recruitment, however, some thought the 6-foot-2 Arizona native would be better off at safety.
Asked if he was glad Willis fit at corner, Mora began dropping his own credentials.
“I’ve coached defensive backs my whole career,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to been around some — Rod Woodson, he’s a pretty good corner. All-Century player. So I would think that people would trust my judgment when it comes to defensive backs. All I’ve said from the very first day is that Priest Willis is a corner. I don’t know why people don’t believe that. I guess there’s someone out there that has more experience than me. I don’t know who they are, but I guess they’re out there.
“He’s a corner. There will never be a doubt he’s a corner. I don’t know why people want to make him a safety. He’s a friggin’ picture-perfect, beautiful corner.”
Woodson — who worked with Mora in 1997 on the San Francisco 49ers — successfully transitioned to safety in the latter half of his Hall of Fame career.
» Junior Anthony Jefferson saw time at safety on Friday after playing well at cornerback all of spring. He hasn’t been as impressive as he was in April, but is one of the few players on the roster who has taken game snaps at safety.
“We don’t have a lot back there,” Mora said. “We’ve got some skilled players, and we just need to bring them along quickly. … We don’t have a lot of experience, but we have some talent.”
Freshman Jayon Brown is also working exclusively with the safeties now after entering as a potential mini-linebacker.
» Jalen Ortiz is being used as an F-back, but the diminutive speedster also played some defensive back as an Arizona high schooler. UCLA coaches talked about using the 5-foot-9, 176-pound freshman in the secondary if necessary, but the plan for now is to keep him on offense.
“He’s still real raw, but he’s got burst,” Mora said. “He’s got quickness. He catches the ball well. … Right now, I feel good about the skill level we have at the corner position.”
» Freshman Caleb Benenoch worked with the first-team offensive line for the second straight day, and could be close to locking down the right guard spot. Position coach Adrian Klemm said he wanted to make a decision early next week.
» Freshman defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes has been limited the second and third days of fall camp due to a tight back. Linebacker Eric Kendricks missed another practice recovering from his ankle operation, but walked with only a very slight limp.