Abbott a valuable tone-setter for Bruins

Andrew Abbott has intercepted passes on the first defensive series the past two games for UCLA. Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Quarterbacks opposing the UCLA Bruins might want to start thinking twice about throwing in the direction of Andrew Abbott during the first drive of the game.

For two consecutive weeks, Abbott, a senior safety, has intercepted a pass during UCLA's first defensive series, continuing a remarkable rise from walk-on to starter to captain. Last season, he was UCLA's most improved player, this year, he might be the most valuable on defense.

He's second on the team with three interceptions, second in passes defended with five and sixth in tackles with 25.

"He is a special player," defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said. "He studies the game. He's passionate. He plays hard and, of course, he makes plays. Week in and week out there is always Andrew doing something in the run game or the passing game."

These days, Abbott hasn't been wasting much time making those plays. Last week against California, he intercepted a Zach Maynard pass on the fourth play of the game and UCLA turned it into a touchdown. Saturday against Utah, the Utes drove into UCLA territory on their first possession, but Abbott picked off a tipped Travis Wilson pass at the UCLA 31. Once again, it led to a UCLA touchdown and sparked the 21-14 UCLA victory.

"As a leader it's good to set the tone like that," Abbott said. "These younger guys look at you and they follow you, and if you are off, you kind of feel like they'll be off. That was kind of my mentality that guys will just follow me if I get going."

Not all of Abbott's heroics come early in games. Earlier this season, with UCLA clinging to a 29-27 lead against Nebraska, he intercepted a pass with 3:07 to play and set up the victory-sealing score in a 36-30 upset over the Cornhuskers. Last season he had an interception with 2:01 to play that preserved a 28-25 victory over Washington State.

"He's one of our captains and every one respects him," coach Jim Mora said. "They respect him in the locker room and they respect him on the field. And he comes up with plays when you need them."

He's also among the most versatile players in the defensive backfield. He has the ability to play both safety spots, played cornerback when Sheldon Price had to sit out against Nebraska and was the nickelback last season and has played there at time this season.

"The guy is a playmaker," Mora said. "He's just a really solid football player who the rest of our team members really respect."

It's quite a place to be for a player who came to UCLA as an undersized walk-on known more for catching passes from Mater Dei High teammate and USC quarterback Matt Barkley than his ability as a defensive back. He earned a scholarship from former coach Rick Neuheisel before the 2010 season and has become the defensive leader of the Bruins.

Mora, in his first season as coach, didn't know Abbott in high school but said his size (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) has not impacted his ability to perform at a high level.

"He lacks a little height but there are a lot of players playing today that are the same stature as him," Mora said. "What he lacks in height, he makes up for in football intelligence and overall intelligence and competitiveness and preparation, work ethic. He's versatile and can do a lot of things and he does them well."

And he's the kind of guy the current coaching staff is going to be sorry to see go when the season ends.

"I wish I could keep Andrew as long as I coach," Spanos said.