WESTWOOD, Calif. -- As Jerry Rice Jr. lines up at his customary position in the slot, the relentless sun above beats down on his blue and gold clad UCLA helmet. It's stifling hot, uncomfortable. So much so, the non-stop perspiration building up inside his face mask distorts his vision and spills over onto his chinstrap before finally finding a home on the grass at his feet.
Seconds later, thankfully, a cool breeze whips through the practice field at Drake Stadium. The relief is temporary. The grueling task remains at hand, favorable conditions or not.
|Jerry Rice Jr. (right) strikes a family pose last September as his dad's famed No. 80 jersey is retired at Candlestick Park. (US Presswire)|
Forget about the fact his father is Jerry Rice, one of the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T), a living legend by most NFL standards after a 20-year career. The younger Rice's famous bloodlines are not going to necessarily help him catch a pass in this instance, although the good ol' family genes are an advantage most individuals would kill for.
"Come on Jerry, make a play," Neuheisel shouts toward the underclassman.
Accordingly, Rice Jr. obliges. His timing could not be much better, in fact.
"Every time I get a chance, I try to make a play, that's the way I was raised," Rice Jr. said. "I'm out there competing, all of us receivers here at UCLA are pushing each other and we're getting better as a group. Anything can happen in this game, so I'm always ready to play. My goal is to keep my head up and keep grinding. My time will come if I keep working hard."
He uses a quick stutter step at the line of scrimmage to create some much-needed separation from the cornerback. A head-and-shoulders fake freezes the linebacker at the second level. An uncanny burst of speed follows as he blows by the safety. Seconds later, Rice Jr. is in the end zone, snatching the pass out of mid-air while keeping both feet in bounds for a touchdown.
This isn't the first time Rice Jr. has shown a fleeting glimpse of his immense potential during a UCLA scrimmage. Problem is, opportunities have been few and far between.
The Bruins are absolutely loaded at receiver this season, they haven't had depth at the position like this in years. That said, not only is Rice Jr. living in the rather large shadow cast by his father, but he's also been buried on the depth chart while trying to make a name for himself.
In terms of deflecting of attention when it comes to his family lineage, Rice Jr. is a good position to do so at UCLA. For a number of reasons, mind you.
First and foremost, Neuheisel is on the proverbial hot seat heading into the first game of the year, a nonconference encounter Sept. 3 at Houston. His job is on the line after compiling a 15-22 overall record in his previous three years at the helm of Bruins, his alma mater.
Essentially, it's bowl game or bust for Neuheisel this time around.
There's a quarterback controversy as well. Juniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut are in the midst of a battle for the starter's role. And it figures to be just a matter of time before Brett Hundley, a highly-touted freshman, starts pushing both of the upperclassmen.
Rice Jr. has faced several obstacles in his second year as a walk-on player at UCLA, most notably an ongoing fight for playing time at his position. Competition at receiver was fierce during spring and fall camps. Things don't figure to change anytime soon.
Seniors Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree are penciled in as the experienced playmakers for UCLA. Juniors Randall Carroll and Jerry Johnson appear to be next in line. Senior Josh Smith and sophomore Ricky Marvray have done their respective bests to make things interesting. Also worth mentioning is sophomore transfer Shaquelle Evans, from Notre Dame, is in the mix.
It appears as if Rice Jr. is on the outside looking in, without a defined role.
"We're as deep as we've ever been at receiver, it's a fun crew," Neuheisel said. "With Jerry, he's a jack-of-all-trades. He knows all the positions, he can play them equally well. He's a player on this team, a guy I wouldn't hesitate putting in the game. You never know. You never say you're chalk full of guys at a position to where someone like him can't come in and contribute. Jerry Rice Jr.'s opportunity will come, I'm pretty confident about that. When it comes, I think he'll respond.
In the meantime, the patriarch of the family, Jerry Rice, has been supportive of his son. It's been that way since Day One, regardless of what the endeavor was in the past.
"I've never tried to force anything on him, neither has his mom, we've brought Jerry up to be a good young man and he's fulfilling his promise,” said Jerry Rice. "I've never placed unreal expectations on my son, most parents don't do that kind of stuff to their kids, they let them grow up and choose their own path. He's his own man. That's all you can ask for as a father.
"It's funny, most people don't know this but, Jerry was a good basketball player when he was young. He was good at baseball, too. He could have been a really good player at both those sports. Once high school rolled around, he kept leaning toward football though."
The younger Rice agreed.
"My dad doesn't push me though, he doesn't pressure on me. He's letting my find my own road, that's the best part of it all. I'm working from the bottom up, just like he did. It's all about work ethic. If I'm half as good as he is in the future, I'll still make the NFL Hall of Fame."
Go figure. Like father, like son.
Rice Jr. played his prep ball at Atherton (Calif.) Menlo, where he was a two-year starter on the varsity level for the coach Mark Newton and the Knights.
As a senior in 2008-'09, he played receiver, of course. Out of necessity and his versatility, Rice Jr. spent time on the defensive side of the ball too, at defensive back. He also lined up at quarterback from time to time, completing 9-of-9 passes for 108 yards. When scrambling, Rice Jr. averaged nine yards each time he touched the ball. He averaged 16 yards per reception.
Nevertheless, Rice Jr. was not heavily recruited. Sound familiar? His father also flew underneath the radar during his high school days at Crawford (MS) Moor.
"I have watched him mature into a man while fighting the haters and other obstacles," Jerry Rice said.
Make no mistake, Rice Jr. is still greeted with skepticism on occasion. That, however, is something that simply comes along with territory when your namesake used to wear No. 80.
The similarities are striking, aside from the obvious physical features.
"They said the same thing about me, I'm too little and too slow, but guess who got voted as the best receiver and maybe the best player to ever play the game," Jerry Rice said. "It's not about being the most gifted, with size and speed. My heart made up for that. What I'm saying is, my son doesn't have to prove anything to me because he already has. I'm proud of him."
Rice Jr. did have offers from Kansas State and Air Force after graduating from Menlo High. Both potential destinations did not fit in with his future plans.
"I'm happy Jerry is over at UCLA. He might not have a big role now, that's fine. He doesn't want any perks because he's my son and has the mystique of the Rice name. He wants to stick things out. I'm not going to uproot him because he's not playing as much he'd like.
Some thought was given to walking-on at Stanford. The same thing could be said about Cal. Without scholarship offers on the table for Rice Jr., those options were ruled out.
UCLA proved to be the best fit. At least, things appear that way.
"On the whole, he's been received here well," Neuheisel said. "He's fit in well with the players and coaches. Aside from that, I'm sure he's learned a lot from his father, like any young man learns from his father over the course of time.
"When your father is the best wide receiver in the history of the game, that's probably a good place to go for information. It also can be a little burdensome, because the expectations go up. We've talked about that too. He wants to be known as Jerry, rather than Jerry Rice's kid. He's working hard to make that a reality and I think he's doing a marvelous job."
Whether Rice Jr. sees extensive on-the-field-action this season remains to be seen. He could end up playing a limited role for the Bruins, perhaps help run the scout team.
"He wants to prove he belongs. He wants to prove he deserves to be on the field at all times," Jerry Rice said. "There will always be someone bigger and faster, guys who will overshadow him. That was the way things were when I was coming up. He knows he has to find his niche, just like I did, I tell him that all of the time. He's hungry. He wants it. You can see that in the way he plays."
One thing is becoming more certain: Rice Jr. has found a home at UCLA.
"The Bruins have welcomed me with open arms, everyone has supported me since I've been here," Rice Jr. said. "When people talk smack talk, other teams and fans, my teammates have had my back. They're my brothers, it's been like that since the start. I respect that."
"It's all about work ethic. If I'm half as good as he is in the future, I'll still make the NFL Hall of Fame."
Easier said than done.
Then again, he does have the Rice blood running through his veins.
"My son has given me the best gift as a dad, to see him go through all of this and still stay committed as a Bruin," Jerry Rice said. "The one thing that separates Jerry is his heart and determination."