Redshirt-sophomore-to-be Aaron Hester sat down with BRO recently.
Last season, for you personally, what is the right adjective to describe that whole deal, with the injury, the rehab, the comeback, then getting reinjured …
‘'Man, it was a nightmare season last year. It was pretty hard …''
How have you put all that behind you? Or, tried to …
‘'I was always taught that the past is the past. I got hurt, that set me back a lot. I came back and I didn't play as much as I wanted to, but it was the coaches' decision and they felt like that it was in my best interest, to sit out or whatever, so I wouldn't hurt it worse. They were looking out for my future and I respect that. So, now I'm 100 percent and now I'm ready to rock.''
With where you are now with the leg, and looking back, were you really able to play at a high level?
‘'I was able to play, but now I realize that I wasn't how I feel now. Now that I'm all the way back to normal – fast and strong and everything, everything is back clicking right.''
Even when you were back in practice, how restricted were you in doing a lot of leg work?
‘'Actually, when I got hurt last year, I couldn't do any leg work for 10 weeks. So, I kind of lost weight. I lost all of the muscles in my legs. Now, I'm back at 200, 2-even, so I have the muscles back in my legs, I've been doing a lot of calf raises to build up my muscles where the break was.''
So, even though you were able to run around and do a little cutting when you came back, you weren't able to do any of the weight work, even maintenance work …
‘'Yeah, the weight work is what I was missing. But in my rehab, I did a lot of hip work, so my hips got stronger and I can tell now. When I come out of my breaks and stuff like that, I feel way more fluid than I did before last year. Right now, as a corner, I think I'm better than I was last year before I got hurt because of the rehab and the time off watching, just seeing it … my knowledge of the whole game, it's come all together now.''
Now, then, what kind of things are you doing physically to be ready for the spring and into next season? What are you trying to work on specifically?
‘'I'm lifting weights hard, doing extra stuff on my own, even after we get done lifting I get extra stuff in just to make sure I'm up on my game. I get a lot of footwork drills on my own, jump rope so I can stay light on my feet and a lot of core work so I can be able to change direction, just be a physical specimen.''
All of that is going to be needed. There's a pretty big hole out there on that one corner without Alterraun Verner. I'm not out too far on a limb thinking you're the guy there …
‘'Oh, yeah. I mean, Alterraun is a great player and to fill his shoes is something that I'm looking forward to doing. He made plays and he made it look easy out there and that's what I'm going to try to do – make it look easy. I'm going to go out there with intensity, bring speed and just play big.''
He was very big into the film work … How much of that did you pick up?
‘'He was real big on film work. In high school, I didn't know the importance of watching film. Then when I got here, I noticed that film is how you make a lot of your plays. If you can notice a receiver's tendencies or a formation, I could be the athlete that I am without thinking. I could use all my athleticism because I already know what's going on.''
Break down that process for me, just learning how to use the film to your advantage. Coming from high school, where maybe you just watched, to UCLA, where you're breaking it down, you're honed in, picking up little nuances of a receiver or offensive tendencies …
‘'OK, well, Coach (Carnell) Lake, he really was the person who taught me how to sit down and break down film. What I do, if we're preparing for a game, I'll look at the tendencies, frequencies, what they like to do on this yard line … for instance, if a team gets past the 50-yard line, are they taking shots into the end zone? So I prepare myself – I'll probably, not loosen up my coverage, but I'll be alert for it, because I know we run a Cover 4 for a post route, so they could try to score or whatever. Or, I just notice a receiver's tendencies – if he lines up here, or if he lines up inside the numbers he might do an out route, if he lines up outside the numbers most likely it's an inside route.
‘'Football is a game inside of a game. You have to breakdown so much stuff, people don't really know until they get to college. You have to break a lot of stuff down and it's so technical when you get here. It's not just all athleticism. That's why there are a lot of people who are great athletes that probably don't succeed because they don't take the time out to study or put in the extra film work.''
It takes a lot of time …
‘'It takes time, man. I'm putting in my time now for the spring ball coming up and for the season coming up. I've been doing a lot of extra stuff. Me and my boy Rahim Moore, he's my best friend, so he teaches me a lot of stuff on how to prepare. I mean, I ask him stuff all the time. He's an All-American, so who better to ask than him? I ask him all the time. We'll just sit down and watch film. It will be a Saturday evening and we'll sit down, we'll pop a DVD in and just break down film for hours, just try to be good players, just be all-around better players.''
Saturday evening? Aaron, you guys are in college … Call me crazy, but there are a few things I can think of to do on a Saturday night other than break down tape …
‘'That's going to be the difference, though. A lot of people want to go out on Saturday evening, but we're at home trying to be better football players. That's what it takes to be great and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be great this year – not just as individual players, but as a secondary and as a whole team. I think we're maturing as a team. We were young guys, but we're older now. We're the guys who are going to have to take over, be leaders, and this off-season I like what our team has done. We've come together as a team and it's a lot more brotherhood. We're a tight-knit team now and that's what I like. That's what it takes to win.''
That seems to be such an important piece to the puzzle there, that you're adding …
‘'It is. It's like, you could put the fastest dude, the fastest, strongest, dude at corner, you could put him out there and he would make some plays just on athletic ability. But he could make even more plays if he has a read on what's going to happen. So, you can't just be out there in la-la land, just reacting on stuff like that, because it would be hard … it would be hard. To make it easier on myself, I go into the film room, break it down, take notes, all day long. In my spare time, that's what I do, so I can be out there, like I said earlier, be out there just using my gifts that God gave me to make plays. If I can get a read on what's going to happen, it will make it that much easier for me to make a play.''
How much more advanced are in you in that regard, just from last year, maybe a year and a half ago?
‘'A year and a half ago … I'm 19 now. I've matured as a person and as a football player. I think all that tied together makes me a better football player, just maturing, being more poised and not being so antsy at stuff. I'm playing more within myself, playing within the defensive scheme. I think this spring you can expect me to make a lot more plays than I did last year, because last year I was just out there off adrenaline and hype and stuff like that. And now, I'm mature as a person, now I can go out there and make a lot more plays, jump stuff because I know what's coming, and play within the defense, do my assignments and help other people out. We have check calls and audibles and stuff like that I have to make as a corner, and if I've seen it on film, say it's an off tackle play or something like that, and Datone Jones is on my side, I can warn him, like, ‘Datone, this is coming …' If all 11 of us can do that on defense, mature as people and as football players, our defense will be rock solid. It will be rock solid tight. That's what I think everybody is working on doing.
‘'Sheldon Price, even though he is running track, me and him, we still go in there and we watch film, we watch film and break it down. Even though we're on different sides, we still have to work together. We work on our disguises, our press looks. We have little slides and stuff. When we do 7 on 7, I tell him, ‘OK, let's make it a (Cover) 4 look and roll up to Cover 2. Little things like that. If everybody does all that stuff, like I said, our defense can be great.''
When you look at the offseason program, I mean, it's obvious guys are getting their work in. But is the level that much higher than it has been in the past?
‘'Yeah. The level is higher. We've taken up our intensity a whole lot. I can tell from when I got here, from the summer when I got here to now, the intensity in the weight room and the intensity in our drills is way higher than it was. Everybody, like I said, the creation of that competition, it's really working now. People are really getting in to the competition and just working hard. There's no slacking. If we see somebody bending over, we tell them to get up, to breathe and get ready for another rep because in a game, in the fourth quarter, when you're tired, that's when you have to push through.''
The cornerback position, you have to be pretty competitive. You have to be pretty self sufficient. When you look at that group of players, yourself and Sheldon, Marlon Pollard and everyone else, take me through the competitiveness between you guys …
‘'As far as me, I look at them, even though they're my teammates, we're still competing. It might not be a verbal competition, but I know it's a mental competition. If you see someone doing this real good, you have to get up and try to match his footwork or try to match his reps or just try to be the best. If everybody tries to be the best, I think as a group, we will be real good because the competition is there and the higher the competition the better we'll play as a group.''
You're a guy who came in with a future beyond UCLA in football. That has to help, just having more guys like that in the program, guys with an eye toward cashing paychecks …
‘'That's the plan. There are a lot of people. Like you said, the next level is within reach, so I'm going to try to go get it. I think I have what it takes to play at the next level – the size, the speed, the competitiveness and now I'm adding in the film work and the Xs and Os of the football game now. If I do that, stick to that and stay healthy, I think I will get to the next level.
‘'Then you have somebody like Sheldon. He's also a prototypical cornerback – 6-foot-2, can run like the wind, and I think with us out there this year it's going to be hard for somebody to pass on us. You've got a vet like Rahim back there patrolling the secondary, then you have us with our athleticism at the corners, then you have the other safety who is going to come up and hit … I mean, our secondary this year, I wouldn't be surprised if we all played at the next level.
‘'You've got me and Sheldon, who are sophomores, Rahim, who could possibly be three and out, and if he goes three and out, he'll be setting the bar for other DBs to come in and try to match what he did. We could turn in to the modern day ‘U,' like Miami was back in the day. They were producing DBs, sending them into the league every year. That's our plan. We talk about it all the time. We want to be like Miami was back in the '80s and '90s and even the early 2000s. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be the modern day ‘U.' We're trying to match what they did. We're trying to match their intensity. Have you seen that documentary, ‘The U?' We watched that a lot. We try to pick up on stuff they did because, I mean, it worked. If it worked back then, it can work now.''
So, in getting there, last year I know you had some problems early in the year grabbing guys. How do you wean yourself from that, get that out of your system?
‘'I didn't really grab … I mean, I probably held somebody a couple of times, but what corner doesn't? It's just like, when I did it, it got publicized. There are a lot of little tricks you do as a cornerback, but, I think, if you practice bad habits it will continue to stay on you. If I held a couple of times last year, I'm going to try not to hold this year. But I didn't really hold that much.''
It's one of those things, like an offensive lineman and holding … everyone is doing it on just about every play and every once in a while, you get caught.
‘'It happens. I guess it was a knock on me, or something like that. But if they say I'm holding, I'm going to come back and try to prove that I wasn't holding or try to lock them up the next play or something like that. With the new rules coming in with the pass interference and stuff like that, it really forces you to become a great corner to make a play.
‘'If you do anything – don't look back for the ball – it's a flag. So, I mean, it forces you to be a great corner and have your skills at a high level on every play because if you don't make a play it could be a catch and if you don't make a play it could be a flag. You have to really be on your game.''
I would think the improved footwork, the increased fluidness in your hips and the extra oomph coming out of your breaks, will help you a great deal in those situations. …
‘'Oh, yeah. The better my footwork, the less hands I have to use. That's what I'm improving, my footwork, with the jumping rope, the cone drills, working the hips and all that. I'm a big corner, but I want to be a 6-1 person who can move like a 5-10 person, and if I can do that, I think I can be a great corner. You see a lot of big corners who are stiff or whatnot, but I'm not. I'm just as fast as anybody on the team or in the Pac-10. That's what I think is one of my big attributes, that I can move and that I can be real physical. That will be good plus for me this year.''
What part of the position do you like the most? Is it stoning a guy at the line or just being out there on that island, maybe something else?
‘'The part of the position that I like the most is the responsibility. I mean, at corner, you can win a game or you could lose a game and that challenge, that thrills me. I love challenges. I respect any good corner that ever played. Any good corner, you have to respect them, because I know how hard the position is and all the challenges and all the competition that comes with it. That's what I thrive off of, the competition, the challenges, and just being able to make a play. That's why I get excited if I make a play, because I know how hard it is for a corner to make a play. The respect that you get from playing corner, that's what I like about playing the position. Corner fits my personality as a person. I think it's the perfect position for me – sometimes you can get physical, you can switch it up, and you can always keep the receiver guessing. It's like a chess game out there, the whole game, and if you win that battle you can go home at night and sleep knowing you just won a hard-fought battle.''
Your first word was ‘responsibility.' …
‘'Even in a zone coverage, all zones eventually turn into man coverage somewhere down the line. I can play Cover 4, Cover 3, Cover 2, it turns into a man coverage. So, the responsibility … you always have responsibility. At corner, there are no plays off. You can play a Cover 3 and they can run a skinny post, and say the safety was occupied or something like that, that's your responsibility. You have to be there, even though it wasn't as much in your zone as you thought it would be. You still have to be there and make a play. That's where the athleticism part comes in, being able to catch up, catch the ball at the highest point or knock the ball out of the receivers hands, something like that.''
The receivers here at UCLA, in terms of challenges for you, in practice which one of those guys do you love to line up and compete against the most?
‘'Last year, in the spring, me and Nelson Rosario had a little competition going on. And then in the fall, me and Taylor Embree had a little competition going on. And now, in 7 -on-7s, me and Josh Smith have a little competition going on. I kind of got, not the best of both worlds, but the best of all three of them. All three of them give me a different look every time and it's a challenge. Like, with Josh, he's the deep threat. He's fast. If you slip up on Josh, he will score on you. And Nelson, he's so deceptive in his route running, that you don't know what he's going to do. Every route that he runs, it looks the same. And then Taylor Embree, at the point of attack, he's dangerous. When the ball is in the air, when it's time to catch it, that's where Taylor Embree excels the most.
‘'Just with that, it makes me better as a corner going against those three guys. Whoever lines up on my side some spring time, I know I have a challenge coming up.
‘'And then you have Ricky Marvray, who is coming along real good. He's really coming along. He is one of the hardest working dudes that have ever been on my team. That dude loves the game so much, and I respect that, because I love the game so much. Me and him, we talk all the time about how we're going to go out and go hard every single day. I told him, if you work hard every single day it's going to pay off in the games. That's why you see him out there with a spark lit under him every day. He's going hard and he's maturing in his route running. When we get him in out scheme, because he was on scout team last year, and he did really good on scout team, once he gets in our scheme and learns the scheme and plays within our offensive system, he'll be good, too.
‘'Those four dudes, you've really got a force to be reckoned with, because they all bring something special to the table, four different special things to the table. That's what I like about them.''
Sounds like fun …
‘'It's going to be fun. If you're not having fun playing football, I mean … why are you playing? It has to be fun, and I think for it to be fun, you have to grind in the offseason, do the extra work. If somebody tells you that football is not fun, I guarantee you they're not doing the things to make football fun. To make plays, you have to study, you have to work on your craft 24/7. That's what makes football fun, too go out there and know you're about to make a play. That's where I'm trying to get myself as a football player, to where I go out there and know that I'm going to make a play, to know that I studied so good that I know I'm about the ace my test. That's how I want football to be for me.
‘'My first two seasons here were kind of rough for me, you know, I redshirted, then I got hurt. Now this year, I think I can go out there and prove myself, not prove myself, but prove myself part 2, go out there and let everybody know that I'm still the great corner that I was before I got hurt, just a more mature, improved corner.''
You mentioned being antsy, I would think with the maturity, there will be less of that …
"Yeah, I'm just going to let routes develop and not be so antsy to just jump on everything because when you gamble, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Like I said at corner, you can make or break a game. If I'm an antsy player, it could eventually be costly or it could work out good. But I want to be 100 percent sure of what's going on and just know that there's no route that I can't guard.
‘'If there are nine routes on the route tree, I want the confidence to know that I can guard any route at any time in any coverage on the football field. That's pretty much the maturity part and not being antsy and just being confident in myself as a football player and just trusting in my training, trust my coaches and trust the scheme and everything will be all right.''
I guess when you're that prepared, you have that maturity, you sleep better at night …
‘'Oh, yeah, you sleep better. In football, I don't think I've ever been scared. I've probably been nervous before a game, just because that's part of the game. But if you're scared, a coach can pick that up. An offensive coordinator, say Norm Chow, if he sees a corner is scared, he's going at him and they're going to go at him and go at him and force him to make a play. If you're scared to make a play, you won't make a play. I want to go out there with the confidence and try to make all the plays that I can, and don't miss any opportunities. If the ball is right there, I'm going to try to pick it and if I don't catch it, nobody is going to catch it. That's the confidence I'm going out there with, just to go out there to be the best that I can be, to be the best teammate and the best person I can be. If I could do that, that would really be a good season for me this year.
‘'If I go out there and make plays and we win … the offense is clicking, the defense is clicking, special teams … Kai Forbath nailing all the field goals, Jeff Locke punting 80 yard punts. I mean, we have all the tools to be a great team. We came together a little bit in 2009, we won more games. Now, in 2010, when we jell all together and get rock solid tight, we will be a Pac-10 contender this year.
‘'There's no more seventh place, sixth place, hoping and praying for a bowl game. As a team, we want to go into the season, when it's bowl time, we already have nine wins. We know we're going to a bowl game. It's, ‘which bowl game are we going to? Not, ‘Are we going to a bowl game?'
‘'My teammates, I told them, ‘The more games you win … because we were cold out there in D.C. … We were cold. We were freezing. And I told them, if we win more games, the better weather we get, the more West Coast the bowl game is. If we win nine or 10 games, we could possibly be in the Rose Bowl or the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. If we do that, we won't have to go back to the cold this year … because it was f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g out there.''
I tell you what, that's motivation right there … ‘Let's not freeze this year!'
‘'That's motivation, and motivation is a big key to success. I mean, if you don't have anything to work for, you won't be successful. You have to have goals and something to strive for, a passion and a will to do something, and I think our team has really given in to being the best and I think we can be one of the best this year in the Pac-10.''