SAN FRANCISCO — There’s 11:29 left in the second quarter at AT&T Park on Saturday. In a scoreless tie against Illinois, UCLA has called timeout. The Bruins have possession, facing third-and-16 at the 50-yard line.
FIGHTING ILLINI All-American Whitney Mercilus (85) is unable to get around UCLA tackle and former Bret Harte star Brett Downey (78) during Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. GREG SCOTT/UNION DEMOCRAT
For the first time ever, a Bret Harte graduate is starting in a Division I bowl game. Brett Downey, class of 2008, is now a junior quick-side tackle at UCLA.
This is the first start of Downey’s collegiate career and he has been squaring up against Whitney Mercilus (6-4, 265, Jr.). Mercilus, a consensus All-American, was recently honored with The Ted Hendricks Award, signifying him as top defensive end in America. This, most likely, is the final collegiate contest for Mercilus. He’s projected as a first-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft.
The attendance is 29,878 in San Francisco. A national television audience is looking on. This is the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and there’s a longer-than-ususal TV-timeout.
Finally, Bruins junior quarterback Kevin Prince takes the snap, drops back into the pocket and looks downfield. Mercilus tries to get at Prince, Downey stops the All-American cold, and Prince completes a 13-yard pass. Illinois gets called for pass interference and UCLA has a first down.
On the next snap, Prince hands off to junior running back Johnathan Franklin. Downey knocks Mercilus left — completely out of harms way — Franklin runs right and gains 20 yards.
Soon after, UCLA faces second-and-10 at Illinois’ 16 and is planning pass.
“I saw (Mercilus) lining up a bit outside, so I was expecting a speed rush,” said the 6-foot-7, 305-pound Downey.
Prince dropped back into the pocket.
“(Mercilus) tried to stop and spin on me,” said Downey, “and I was waiting for it. I didn’t let him get too upfield.”
Mercilus wasn’t anywhere close to Prince when he lofted a fine toss into the waiting arms of wide receiver Taylor Embree. Touchdown, Bruins.
“Brett was a walk-on at UCLA and I thought he had potential,” said Bruins associate head coach and offensive line coach Bob Palcic. “We figured he’d earn a full scholarship (which Downey did). He’s worked so hard in practice and today was a coming out party for him. He had to play against a probable No. 1 draft pick and the best defensive end in the country so that was a real challenge we had put in front of him. Brett did a good job and I’m proud of what Brett has accomplished.”
On Saturday, Mercilus lined up across from Downey 32 times. On 30 of those plays, Downey took Mercilus out of the action.
After the contest, ultimately won by Illinois 20-14, Downey and Mercilus explained pleasantries.
“I congratulated him on a good game,” said Downey. “I wished him luck next year in the NFL and he said, ‘Thanks, man. And good luck to you, too. Good luck next year.’ ”
“No doubt about it — Brett has a good future,” said Palcic, who coached 12 seasons in the NFL.
“Today was an amazing experience for me,” said Downey, who played on every offensive snap for UCLA. “This was my dream. This is the school I wanted to be at it. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point.”
“What I found so interesting about UCLA’s offensive approach,” said Bret Harte six-year head coach Scott Edwards, who attended the contest, “is that UCLA had a lot of passing attempts (29) without ever trying to establish the run (18 yards total). That means they were probably thinking, ‘We can’t run today, but we can pass.’ And that says they had a lot of confidence in Brett Downey because UCLA knew it was facing the top pass rusher in the country and Brett would be the guy primarily blocking him.
“I was very excited for Brett and very proud of him. Brett made some great blocks and, overall, I thought he did one hell of a job.”
Downey was a two-way starter on Bret Harte’s 2007 squad which destroyed Modesto Christian during the regular season and then earned a postseason spot.
“I was proud to represent Bret Harte here today,” said Downey. “It was Coach Edwards who told me I could go on to the next level and play at college. I am so grateful to Coach Edwards who believed in me then and still continues to care about me and help me so much.”
After Downey’s junior season (2006), Edwards had requested Downey to switch positions on offense. From the often-glamorous spot of tight end, Downey was penned in at left tackle. Edwards, himself a former collegiate lineman, felt Downey’s best shot to succeed in college was at tackle.
“Well,” said Downey, with a chuckle, “I can’t say I was too pleased with that switch at first from tight end. But I was happy to do whatever Coach thought best for Bret Harte. Now? Today? I’m glad I did!”
“Brett has done a tremendous job since he’s been at UCLA,” said UCLA special teams coach Angus McClure. “I remember recruiting him to come here. He showed up as a tall, skinny, lanky guy and he slowly built himself into a strong offensive lineman. He’s not only improved size-wise and strength-wise. He has also improved on his technique.
“For his first start ever, I thought he did a good job. He faced an excellent player on Illinois. Yeah, he gave up a couple of tough plays. But his work overall today is encouraging for his future.”
“I’ve always been a fan of Brett’s,” said UCLA interim head coach Mike Johnson. “I think he has the chance to be a very good player down the road and I’m excited about his future.
“I was impressed with the way Brett worked in practice preparing for this game. I have to look at the tape but I’m sure he did a decent job today. He got to start for the first time in his career and got a lot of playing time. I’m sure he was excited to be in there.”
“Brett is always gonna give you 100 percent and that’s what we love about him,” said Prince, who completed 14 of 29 passes for 201 yards and two scores. “It was good having him out there today. Hopefully, he works his butt off during the offseason — and I think he will — and becomes a full-time starter for us.”
Next fall, Jim Mora, Jr. will take over as the Bruins head coach. Rick Neuheisel was fired from that position in November.
“When Coach Mora talked to us as a team, he was real no-nonsense,” said Downey. “That’s what’s needed. I’m planning on proving to the new coaches that I’m the guy to go with as the starter.”
From now through the summer, said Downey, “I’ll be doing a lot of lifting. I want to get up to 315 pounds and get faster, too.” “When the coaches look at the tape of this game against Illinois,” said Edwards, “I think they will be asking, ‘Why did we wait so long to give Brett this shot?’
“Illinois had this NFL first-round draft pick who has made every All-American team published so far. Well, he didn’t look like an All-American against UCLA today. And who was going against this guy most of this game? Brett!”
“Downey is a hard worker,” said Franklin, who ended this season with 998 rushing yards and is considering a jump to the NFL. “I just got done talking with him and I told him ‘Stay strong, fight and stay hungry.’ He has a lot of potential and he hasn’t reached it yet but I know he will. If he has a great off-season, I know he’ll be one of our top tackles in the fall.
“If I do come back, I would love it if Brett was blocking for me. I would love him to be our starting tackle next year.”
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties