Easy-going Baca reflects on UCLA career

So, exactly what does a 6-foot-4, 305-pounder look like diving in the sands of Manhattan Beach to dig out a spike?

"Agile," says UCLA offensive lineman Jeff Baca with a laugh. "Very, very agile."

Beach volleyball is among the Southern California native's loves. But it's his agility that makes the fifth-year senior an asset to new Bruins coach Jim Mora. Asked where he'll end up on the offensive line this season, Baca gives an honest answer, preceded by another laugh.

"I don't really know," he said. "I've been told I'll play guard. I've been told I'll play tackle. I'm fine with whatever. I'm blessed just to be here playing."

Two laughs in the first 30 seconds of an interview. As you can guess, Baca is a pretty jovial, easy-going guy. He gets that from his dad, which is why putting on the UCLA uniform probably means more to Baca than most.

Growing up in Mission Viejo, Baca was a regular at UCLA games. He and his father, Jim, would hit up the Rose Bowl a few times a year and also go to UCLA basketball games. But his world changed on April 22, 2003, when Jim Baca died of a stroke. Jeff was 13.

"It was extremely tough," said Baca, the youngest of three boys. "We were extremely tight. My dad was my best friend. It was incredible the kind of bond we shared."

But he and his family stuck it out together, and when Baca was offered a scholarship to UCLA, he accepted the same day.

He entered the school as a pre-med major and made an immediate impact, being named to the Rivals.com Pac-10 freshman team. He started all 13 games the next year, playing virtually every snap. But the toll of studying to be a doctor and playing football was too much, and in 2010 he was forced to redshirt for failing to make grades.

"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," Baca said.

He switched his major to political science and has made the honor roll five of the past six quarters. After football (whether that means after college is still up in the air), he's considering being a teacher, coach or firefighter.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs in my career," he said. "The one thing I take from my time here is how to handle adversity. I've had great seasons. Bad games, injuries and earned player of the game.

"They never told you it was going to be easy. They just told you it would be worth it."

Now Baca has one year left to keep living the dream that first started when he and his dad would come to games. Mora's presence has brought a new sense of excitement to the program, and Baca and his teammates are getting caught up in it.

"We're as excited as we've ever been," he said. "We had a great spring and have been having some really good training sessions the last few weeks. We're excited for the energy and the intensity this coaching staff is bringing."

For now, his focus is on football and maintaining his grades. So his beach volleyball career will have to wait.