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Chase is on for Cota as UCLA opens Saturday

Even when Chase Cota and his UCLA football teammates were essentially sent home this past spring due to COVID-19 precautions, he never flinched in his resolve that there would be football again in 2020.

The former South Medford High star simply came home and put in the work.

When he returned to Los Angeles later in the summer and the Bruins were resigned to strict one-hour workouts, that focus remained, with Cota and company trusting that their day would come and they would be ready.

All those positive vibes will finally pay off Saturday, and that day cannot come soon enough for the 6-foot-3, 201-pound junior wide receiver.

“Honestly I’m very excited,” said Cota of UCLA’s season opener at Colorado, “but I’m also sound and relaxed. We’ve been here before and we’ve known that this is the schedule we have so we’re ready. It’s game week now and it’s just been exciting watching another team on tape and getting ready for a game again. I’m feeling good about it and I’m happy.”

Kickoff for Saturday’s game in Boulder, Colorado, is 4 p.m. Pacific, with live coverage on ESPN2.

Cota ranked fifth in catches and fourth in receiving yards last year for UCLA, hauling in 25 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. With four of the Bruins’ top five receivers returning this year, along with third-year starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Cota has high hopes for what UCLA will be able to accomplish in 2020 under head coach Chip Kelly.

“Now being Year 3 in the system and Year 3 with our quarterback and all of our other wideouts,” said Cota, “and then having (Demetric Felton) at running back, I think just all around as an offense we’re going to be hopefully a lot better. I think personally I’ve just developed more and I’m excited to hopefully have more of an impact in every game.”

Cota has been tagged in several publications, including a Sports Illustrated team preview, as a breakout candidate for UCLA this year to complement leading receiver Kyle Philips (60 catches, 681 yards, five TDs), and he’s eager to live up to such expectations.

“I think this fall camp we’ve extended the playbook even more, again getting back to it being the third year (under Kelly),” said Cota, who turns 21 on Monday. “We have a lot more things in and a lot more looks, and I think definitely a lot more vertical things down the field that we’re looking at than before so I’m hoping for that.”

It was with such routes that Cota made a splash one year ago in a career-best effort against Washington State. His 37-yard touchdown reception helped ignite a 29-0 surge by the Bruins, who had fallen behind 49-17 in the third quarter, and UCLA wound up earning a thrilling 67-63 road victory.

“That was awesome,” said Cota, who considered the postgame locker room revelry at Pullman, Washington, his top moment of 2019. “I got some looks down the field and it was exciting to be able to get those and to be able to make some plays, especially back up there in the Northwest. Having people I know at the game, it was a lot of fun.”

Besides the long score, Cota finished with a career-high 147 yards receiving on four catches — including a 61-yarder — and hauled in a two-point conversion pass. Thompson-Robinson finished with five passing TDs and two rushing TDs in his top game at UCLA, throwing for 507 yards to spearhead the comeback.

Cota pointed to games like that to show how potent the Bruins can be on the field this fall. Despite an 0-3 start to last season, UCLA actually was 4-2 in Pacific-12 Conference play before dropping its final three conference games to finish 4-8 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12.

“Hopefully we’ll pick it up where we were at our best last season and then just go from there,” said Cota. “Hopefully we’ll be making a lot of plays starting Saturday and just not stop. We have a bunch of guys returning so I think it will be exciting.”

The difference, said Cota, is in how much more seasoned the Bruins will be this year under Kelly. UCLA utilized personnel that featured 57% freshmen and sophomores in 10 of 12 games last year. Cota has started 11 games in two seasons at UCLA, including nine in a row heading into Saturday’s contest.

“Now it’s where the coaching points are just so minute,” said Cota. “We’re so far past so many things we were talking about in Year 1. Now there’s no more talking about cleaning up splits or reading coverages and knowing what to do and what not to do in certain situations. I think it’s really just a lot less thinking for all of us, and that’s the most exciting part because with less thinking you definitely play a lot faster.”

And faster is exactly what Cota has worked to be this season, be it top-end speed or the ability to handle adjustments on the fly. That’s where the coronavirus couldn’t slow Cota, who moved back home to do his virtual-only schooling and worked with his father, former NFL defensive back Chad Cota, to fine-tune his skills.

“The offseason definitely was crazy,” said the 2018 South Medford graduate, “but being home it was definitely cool to get a new perspective and was almost like high school again, working out with my dad and everything.”

“It was nice because instead of doing the group training like you would in college,” Cota added, “I was able to do the things that I personally needed to work on the most and be able to go to the field and do the drills that I wanted to for that. I was also able to get in the weight room and do certain things that I knew I needed to correct while doing everything else, so I feel like it was a positive thing definitely being home (from March to July).”

The bulk of the work involved getting back to basics, with ladder and cone drills to increase his speed.

“I’ve just been trying to get the smallest things down rather than the full route,” said Cota. “I’ve been making sure my feet are quick enough to where I can get in and out of any situation because if you can’t make a perfect circle going around cones with your feet, how can you expect to maneuver with a defender on you? The two main things for me have just been top-end speed and quick feet.”

Having the Pac-12 Conference initially delay its season until the spring of 2021 before ultimately opting to rejoin the rest of the nation starting this weekend also brought along an increased appreciation for the game as he’s sat and watched others participate.

“It’s been different, for sure, but it’s been cool,” said Cota. “Before I never got the chance, other than our own Pac-12 tape, to watch any of my friends anywhere else, so being able to do that has been cool. Being able to take all that in and the NFL, it makes it that much more exciting to get back to it when you’re having to watch somebody else. We were obviously bummed during camp but now that we’re here, it makes it even more exciting that we get to finally play again.”

UCLA’s six-game schedule begins at Colorado, returns to L.A. on Nov. 13 against Utah before Cota gets a chance to come home and play Nov. 20 against the Ducks in Eugene, where his dad helped lead Oregon to the 1995 Rose Bowl and his cousin, Brady Breeze, was the defensive MVP in last year’s Rose Bowl.

“I’m excited for that to be back,” he said of the Week 3 matchup. “I don’t think we’ll be able to have family at the game or anything but to come back home and be able to play there is going to be awesome.”

“I got to play in Autzen once my freshman year, which is awesome,” Cota added, “but I’m very excited to do that again because, shoot, we weren’t even supposed to play Oregon until the new season schedule came out. That wasn’t the plan initially but obviously it’s a pleasant surprise we got.”

UCLA’s final three regular season games include a home date against Arizona (Nov. 28), trip to Arizona State (Dec. 5) and clash against crosstown rival USC (Dec. 18).

The fact that he even gets to mark those dates on his calendar is still incredible for Cota, who thus far has 38 career catches for 518 yards and three TDs for the Bruins after being a first-team all-state player for South Medford.

“Growing up, that’s just what I wanted to do was play on national TV and in the Pac-12 Conference,” said Cota. “Seeing yourself doing the things you wanted to do is exciting and it still feels like it’s just the start. This is my junior year but, seeing it all come together, I have an appreciation for being out there and I just hope to keep getting better and have a great time with my teammates this year.”

The Bruins have gone 7-16 in Cota’s two seasons, and haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2015. He hopes Saturday marks a new dawn for UCLA football.

“There’s guys who have been here with me and even longer than me that are definitely tired of losing more games than you’re winning,” said Cota. “I think definitely a lot of guys are feeling like we need to put an end to that. Moving forward, we’re just a lot more confident because it’s the third year and fourth year for some guys and we’re ready for all that to change.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Bruins Football versus the Oregon State Beavers at The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA.October 5th, 2019Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA191005_FBC_223.NEF