UCLA’s Adarius Pickett keeps energy high despite punt miscues

LOS ANGELES — Adarius Pickett can’t quite explain it and definitely can’t change it. The best thing the redshirt senior can do after muffing two punts in as many weeks is move on.

“Sometimes things don’t go how we would want them to go, but I feel like it was just a test,” Pickett said. “My team needed me to step up on defense.”

After botching a punt against Oregon last week, Pickett tried to offset the miscue with a team-high 11 tackles, his fifth double-digit tackle game of the year. With 95 tackles on the year, he is on pace to become the first defensive back to lead the team in tackles since Tony Dye in 2010 and the first defensive back to crack the 100-tackle mark since Dennis Keyes had 115 in 2007.

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Entering what are likely the final three games of his UCLA career, Pickett, despite uncharacteristic struggles in the punt game in recent weeks, is still trying to give his teammates every ounce of energy he has because he knows that after five years in Westwood, his time is winding down.

“Even if I do get fortunate enough to go to the next level and play, it’s not going to be the same team,” the safety from Richmond said. “That’s why I just try to go out there each Saturday and give them my all. I feel like they deserve that from me.”

Pickett delivered what could have been one of the biggest defensive plays of the game for the Bruins (2-7, 2-4 Pac-12) last week as he dropped Oregon’s Travis Dye for no gain on fourth-and-1 early in third quarter. At the time, the Bruins were still within two touchdowns, despite giving up 21 points in the first half off special teams miscues, his muffed punt being one of them.

Receiver Theo Howard and cornerback Darnay Holmes returned punts in practice Tuesday. Howard replaced Pickett against Oregon. Holmes was UCLA’s original punt returner this year, but because the sophomore also played significant snaps on defense and returned kickoffs, the coaching staff wanted replacement options to allow Holmes to occasionally rest.

Pickett, with five punt returns this year and the team’s longest of the year on a 40-yard scamper against Cal, was a sure-handed substitute until he suddenly wasn’t.

When he muffed a punt at the 5-yard line against Utah, Pickett said he misjudged the ball and that he shouldn’t have even tried to catch the ball because it was inside the 10-yard line. Head coach Chip Kelly said the advised cut-off for catching punts is the 10-yard line, but the coaching staff will tolerate backing up to about the 8. Pickett muffed the punt against Oregon at the 12 when he was trying to follow the instructions of not backing up much further but then had to face a ball that carried further than he anticipated.

It hit him in the shoulder pad.

“Adarius has been great for us all season long, so maybe it’s just a little bit of a slump, you’re thinking a little bit too much about everything,” Kelly said.

Kelly didn’t commit to a single punt returner when asked this week, acknowledging that the Bruins are also without Kyle Philips and Kazmeir Allen, who worked with the returners group before both suffering injuries. Philips returned punts for three games until he was injured and hasn’t played since Sept. 28. If Pickett gets another shot, he wouldn’t shy away.

“I’m not the one who makes those decisions,” Pickett said, “but I’m always up to return.”

Back to work

Offensive lineman Christaphany Murray returned to practice Tuesday after missing Monday. The freshman worked with freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson during the quarterback-center exchange drill with grad transfer quarterback Wilton Speight working with starting center Boss Tagaloa.

Quick hits

Philips participated in noncontact drills on the field for the first time since his last game appearance against Colorado on Sept. 28. The freshman who has participated in four games this season had been limited to individual conditioning for the past two weeks. … Linebacker Krys Barnes participated in practice with a non-contact jersey. … Running back Kazmeir Allen was limited to individual conditioning. … Offensive lineman Justin Murphy, who has been rehabbing after knee surgery, was not seen during the 20-minute viewing period. … Outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South (arm) participated in tackling drills after being held out Monday.

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