LOS ANGELES--Anthony Jefferson has played in three UCLA football games, but those were so long ago that he barely remembers them.
In fact, Jefferson, a defensive back, would just as soon forget them considering he got beaten for a touchdown in one of those games and suffered a season-ending broken foot in another.
He's finally getting the chance for a career reboot this spring after that broken foot and the ensuing surgery to repair it forced him to miss most of the 2010 season and then surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back kept him out all of last season.
It has been a long two years of rehab and waiting, but Jefferson says he's finally ready to go.
"It’s been a long two years since I got to UCLA, but I’m finally back healthy and over both injuries, so right now I’m just looking forward to the future and getting better and getting more healthy every day," he said.
Jefferson came to UCLA with high expectations. An all-state selection out of Cathedral High, he was the No. 15-ranked cornerback in the nation after helping the Phantoms to an 11-2 record. At 6 feet 1, 190 pounds, he has excellent size for a corner and the fact that he was playing games as a true freshman was a testament to his ability.
But his career never really took off and after suffering a Lisfranc fracture during a 35-7 loss to California, he was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. He sat out last spring recovering, but suffered a setback when his back gave out last fall while rehabbing his foot. Back surgery last August and a four-month recovery left Jefferson on the sideline again last season and he will enter next season as a redshirt sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.
"I’m not going to lie, when you love football and you’re as passionate about football as I am, then it’s been real tough," he said. "I’ve tried to be patient and been waiting and grinding to get through it as well as I can."
At first, he was rusty, but he's starting to show signs that he's ready to compete for playing time. He's making plays in practice and showing the kind of effort that has drawn the attention of coach Jim Mora.
"He’s becoming a legitimate player to me," Mora said. "He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s aggressive. He’s playing with more confidence now because he probably feels better."
That's a far cry from the player Mora saw over the winter as Jefferson was working his way back into playing shape. Mora's initial impressions of Jefferson were that he wasn't putting in the type of effort it would take to succeed at UCLA, but Jefferson has changed that perception.
"At the start of the spring, I wasn’t sure if he was going to buy in and then he did," Mora said. "[There were] some indicators that I had seen in the winter where I just wasn’t sure, but really what it was was that he was not feeling good. He wasn’t feeling healthy. And I didn’t know the kid and so my initial perception was ‘This guy is kind of dour.’ But it was his injury."
Jefferson acknowledged that he wasn't going 100 percent at first because he had to get over fears of re-injuring himself. He'd think about his foot when cutting and his back when running and lifting weights. Now, those thought don't enter his mind any more.
"When I first got back running and doing drills in the winter, that’s when I kind of got over my little frights about cutting and everything," he said. "Now I’ve been through a whole winter of workouts and I’m comfortable in my body."
Mora has noticed the difference.
"He’s feeling better now and his spirit has picked up," Mora said. "It’s fun to see. He walks around every once in a while with a smile on his face. I’ve been really impressed with him, I really have. I don’t know where he’s going to end up, but he does a good job."
Jefferson has his work cut out if he's going to crack the starting lineup at cornerback. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are returning starters and appear to be slotted at the top of the cornerback depth chart, so Jefferson will probably have to bide his time as a backup or maybe get in as a nickel back.
But for now, Jefferson isn't concerned with where he ends up. He only cares about being healthy, staying healthy and getting on the field wherever and whenever he can.
"Just the fact of being back and having another chance is a great opportunity and I’m trying to make the best out of that opportunity," he said.