- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Jeff Baca surprised his doctors and coaches by returning from a broken ankle about two weeks earlier than expected and now he's surprising himself with the amount of playing time he has received since.
Baca, an offensive lineman, played part time in his first game back against San Jose State, but has started at tackle in the two games since and has not missed a snap.
"It's very surprising," Baca said. "But people heal in different ways and I was definitely blessed enough to be able to heal super fast."
Baca broke his ankle in spring practice and was supposed to be out six months. As the recovery process went on, that turned into five and a half months and the target date for a return was last Saturday at Oregon State, but Baca was back two weeks before that.
The challenge was not only getting back into game shape but having to shake the rust off of his technique as well as play in UCLA's offense at game speed. Baca missed last year because he was academically ineligible so he practiced with the scout team.
"He’s coming back after a long layoff and there’s going to be rust as part of that," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "I don’t know that he’s 100 percent, but he’s getting closer all the time. As he gains more and more confidence in the ankle and all that stuff I think he’ll continue to improve."
An eight-game starter in 2008 and a 12-game starter in 2009, Baca was considered UCLA's top lineman coming into this season. His return helped couch the loss of Sean Sheller for the season because of a broken arm suffered against Texas, but Baca said he's still not quite to the level he was before the injury.
"It didn’t help that I didn’t play last year and I didn’t play in spring, so I’m still shaking off the rust a little bit," he said. "It’s an ongoing process with technique, especially when you are off as long as I was. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I’m back to where I was, but I'm definitely glad to be back out there helping the team."
3dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell