Priest Willis entered UCLA last year as one of the Bruins’ most highly touted recruits, but didn’t live up to the hype with a nine-tackle season spent mostly on special teams.
“It wasn’t the year I wanted,” the cornerback said. “I wasn’t happy with it, but everyone learns differently. Sometimes, you can’t just be a Myles Jack. Sometimes, people learn much slower. That was the process for me.”
After sitting out most of spring and fall camp, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks returned to 11-on-11 drills Tuesday morning, the most field action he’s seen in nearly four months.
Last year’s Pac-12 leader with 150 tackles, the 6-foot, 228-pound junior said he underwent ankle surgery four weeks ago. The procedure was optional, but he said he didn’t opt for it because of worsening pain. He just wanted to be fully ready for the season.
“It feels great to be back,” Kendricks said. “To be honest with you, I’ve just been taking it easy. I’ve been in the training room. I got a lot of treatment in San Bernardino.”
He said Tuesday that he had been instructed not to disclose the exact nature of the injury.
Half a day after his first extended practice, Eddie Vanderdoes started turning heads.
Still working his way back from a tight back, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive end commanded regular double teams — quickly backing up his ranking as the No. 21 recruit in the country. Even when going up against starting offensive linemen Caleb Benenoch and Torian White, Vanderdoes more than held his own.
Vanderdoes looked more bothered by fatigue Friday night than by the back issues (likely a herniated disc) that had sidelined him for over a week. If the injury doesn’t flare up again, the Auburn, Calif., native will be a beast.
— Before practice started, quarterback Brett Hundley tried to drill a fast-moving camera drone from at least 40 yards away. As teammates and coaches formed an eager audience, he missed the target by just two or three feet. Even got plenty and oohs and aahs out of the crowd.
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.
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.