Bowl game gives injured players chance to return

LOS ANGELES -- Bowl games mean a lot of different things to those who get to participate: A last shot at glory, a last chance to play with graduating seniors, a chance to end the season on a positive note.

For three UCLA Bruins who have played key roles this season, the Holiday Bowl offers the chance to play in one more game and not have their season end on the sidelines.

Receiver Devin Lucien, running back Steven Manfro and safety Dalton Hilliard all have missed games because of injuries and are looking forward to getting back on the field against Baylor on Dec. 27 in San Diego.

"Any time someone comes up to me and tells me we're going to have to sit you out, that scares you," Hilliard said. "You never know when your last play is and you never know when you're going to have a serious injury. Thankfully I was blessed that this wasn't too serious and I'm able to come back out and play with these guys."

Hilliard missed the Pac-12 championship game after suffering a separated shoulder in the regular-season finale against Stanford.

He missed only one game, but he's also the only senior among the three so he's especially thankful to get one more shot at playing with the team. He said he put in a lot of extra work in the training room getting treatment and rehab over the last couple of weeks to ensure he could play in the bowl.

"There was no way I was going to let that first Stanford game be my last game as a Bruin," Hilliard said.

Manfro, a starter for most games this season, sprained his ankle on his first carry Nov. 10 at Washington State and missed the USC game and the two Stanford games. He said he wanted badly to play each game, but that every time he tested his ankle it was clear he wasn't ready. That's no longer the case, he said.

"I feel like it's 100 percent now," he said.

The main issue will be shaking off the rust from not having played a game in six weeks. Manfro is expected to resume his role as a change of pace back, slot receiver and kickoff returner.

"We've had a lot of time to prep for this game so I can get back into the swing of things," he said. "I don't think I'm too far behind."

That's not quite the case with Lucien, the athletic receiver who was starting to come into his own before a broken clavicle sidelined him during UCLA's Sept. 29 victory at Colorado. Lucien had surgery to insert a plate and eight screws to repair the break. He had been hopeful about returning by the USC game but is finally cleared to play a month later.

"I'm just thankful that I have one game to play rather than no games to play," Lucien said.

Lucien had 10 catches for 188 yards before his injury -- an 18.8 average that is second on the team. He was establishing himself as a go-to type of player and had made several spectacular catches before the injury.

"I felt like when I got hurt I was just really starting to prove that I could be a starter," he said. "It felt like a real setback as it would for any player but more so for me because I felt like I had a lot to prove."

Coach Jim Mora said getting injured players back is always a boon, especially when they are key contributors. He added that the nearly month-long break between the Pac-12 title game and the bowl game will help integrate the players back into the game plan.

"It would be [more difficult] if it were just a week of practice," Mora said. "I think they'll feel comfortable. I think it's really important for Devin, especially. Steven has played at least. Devin, it's been a long time for him but having the extra practices will help."