Friendly rivalry proves fruitful for Johnson, Hester

Jerry Johnson, above, says his rivalry with teammate Aaron Hester has helped raise his level of play. Peter Yoon/ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- With UCLA's training camp coming to a close and the Bruins moving on to game preparation for the Aug. 30 season opener at Rice, a battle within the battle will also quiet down a bit.

Receiver Jerry Johnson and cornerback Aaron Hester have been going at each other in a competitive and entertaining one-on-one rivalry almost since the beginning of spring practice.

The two have rarely lined up against anyone else during drills at camp and often get matched up during team periods. They talk trash and the play gets physical as each has tried to get the better of the other. Sometimes Johnson comes out on top and other times Hester makes the play.

Now that the focus will shift to other opponents, they won't line up against each other quite as much, but they hope the effects of the rivalry will linger into the season.

"It’s helping me because he’s getting better," Hester said. "And when he gets better, I get better and when I get better, he gets better. We’re just elevating our games to the maximum."

Off the field, the two consider each another close friends. Both redshirt seniors, they came to UCLA together and have been through all of the ups and downs of the last four seasons. But on the field, things get pretty competitive.

"We’ve talked all kinds of mess with each other," Johnson said. "At one point, I just forgot we were friends for a quick split second. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be on the field. Out there, you’re my enemy. I don’t care if you are on my team or not, I’m trying to be beat the guy across from me. Off the field, we’re close friends. We talk about everything."

Coach Jim Mora likes to see that kind of competitiveness on the field. At 6 feet 3, 211 pounds, Johnson is UCLA's biggest and most physical outside receiver. After three injury-plagued seasons, he's poised for a breakout year. And Hester, at 6-1, 207, is among the few cornerbacks in the Pac-12 who can physically match up with Johnson. He's also a three-year starter.

"Any time two of your best players are competing against each other on a daily basis and taking it as seriously as they are taking it, I think it’s a real positive for both of them as long as it doesn’t get contentious," Mora said. "You’d like to see that at all positions. We try to get our most experienced and best players on our best players on each other as much as we can in those situations just to help them get better."

The rivalry began as coincidence in spring. Johnson would often line up on the side of the field Hester played. Neither knows exactly how, but it quickly became competitive between the two and it reached the point where they sought matchups against each other.

Hester has cut in front of other corners during drills to ensure he covers Johnson. Both players will ask for a re-do when they don't like the outcome of the play. It became quite physical one day when the team was in San Bernardino, but the rivalry continues to remain healthy.

"I know how bad he wants to be good so I’m going to give him every thing I’ve got to get him good," Hester said. "I’m getting him prepared for how Pac-12 corners play. Whatever another corner is going to do to him in a game he’s going to be able to adjust because I’m throwing all my tools at him."

Johnson said the constant battling with Hester has helped him improve a great deal since spring practice.

"Honestly, I think he’s probably one of the best corners in the Pac-12, so going against him has made me extremely better," Johnson said. "When I play a game there’s not going to be any competition I'll face like I face everyday in practice."

Practice notes: Offensive linemen Jeff Baca (concussion), Greg Capella (concussion) and Alberto Cid (concussion) all dressed and participated. Mora said "they're ready to go." ... Defensive end Ellis McCarthy did individual drills for the first time this season. He is recovering from surgery to repair his meniscus. ... The team did extensive work against a simulated Rice team, with reserve players dressed in scout uniforms for the first time. ... UCLA will have a walk-through at the Rose Bowl on Thursday. It is closed to the public and the media. Friday is an off day and game-week practice begins Saturday.