When Tevin McDonald first started cracking the UCLA lineup at safety this season, he had a bit of a problem: He was too excited and was trying to do too much.
He'd get out of position trying to make a play and end up giving up a play. He'd try to make the big play instead of doing the sure thing. Opponents were much faster than he anticipated, so he was taking bad angles trying to cover receivers and make tackles.
That all changed Saturday when McDonald, a redshirt freshman, had a coming out party with three interceptions, as UCLA beat California 31-14.
He was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his effort, and he finally began to realize the potential that had coaches raving about him last season when he played only on the scout team.
"He’s got instincts galore, and usually when you’ve got a guy with instincts galore you’ve got to coach instincts out of him," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "He’s so used to making plays for others at the level from which he came that you have to make sure he’s there to make the plays that the defense needs him to make."
Three times, he was in the right place Saturday night. All three of his interceptions led to UCLA points -- two touchdowns and a field goal. The third one pretty much sealed the game when it ended a Cal drive at the UCLA 17 with UCLA hanging on to a 24-14 lead late in the fourth quarter.
"It was the greatest feeling," McDonald said. "I got the first one early and I was ecstatic. Then the second one came, and at that point I was just hoping they kept coming. And I hope they keep coming."
For McDonald, it was a dream come true to make significant contributions to the UCLA defense and the product of simply getting comfortable with the college game.
"It just came with time and experience, learning to trust the guys around me and learning the defense and knowing exactly what I had to do," McDonald said. "With experience you just get more of a feel for the game and learn where you are supposed to be and how you fit in certain situations."
McDonald's instincts for the game are no surprise because, as Neuheisel said, "he comes from a football family." His father, Tim, was an All-American safety at USC and played 12 years in the NFL. His brother, T.J., starts at safety for USC and was an second-team All Pac-10 selection last year. Tim also coached the brothers at Edison High in Fresno.
Still, McDonald began the season as a backup. He was a nickel back and the second-string free safety. He took over as the starter at free safety when Tony Dye went down with a neck injury and has started the last five games. He's showed some flashes of his ability but has also made some rookie mistakes along the way.
Now, however, his confidence is sky high.
"I didn’t expect that at the beginning of the year I’d be where I am right now," he said. "I just kept preparing as if I was going to be the starter and kept working hard waiting for my chance to come. Now that I’m getting my feet wet, I’m just soaking it all in and enjoying it. Hopefully I can keep ending up at the right place at the right time."
And maybe his parents will be in the right place at the right time, too. Instead of going to the Rose Bowl, they went to watch T.J.'s game against Stanford last weekend, so they missed Tevin's career game. He said they recorded the game on their DVR and watched it at 2 a.m. after driving back to Fresno Saturday night.
"They heard I got three picks, so of course they rushed home and turned it on right away," McDonald said. "They wanted to see it. So I got a text from my dad saying good game and that he was proud of me. That was pretty cool."
So was the reaction from T.J., who was so excited for his little brother that he went to Westwood to be with Tevin even though the Trojans had suffered a heartbreaking loss to Stanford.
"He was so excited for me he came over after the game and we hung out for a little while," McDonald said.
Of course, there was a little trash talk going on. T.J. has never had three interceptions in a game. But T.J. has won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors twice in his career. Still, it's all fun and games. The brothers are very close and are each other's biggest fans.
"We’re just trying to put up the best numbers as possible," McDonald said. "We’ve talked about how it would be nice to be on top of the conference in picks at the end of the season. That would be cool with the McDonald brothers leading the Pac-12 in interceptions."
If Tevin continues to progress at the rate he has from the beginning of the season, there's a good chance he could be on top of that list.
"I think he sees now what he’s capable of when he plays within the defense," Neuheisel said. "Hopefully he’ll see that as a reason to continue to do so."