- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- UCLA redshirt freshman Kevin Prince didn't get through the first possession of his first spring game before discovering what every quarterback in the Pacific-10 Conference already knows.
1. When you get to the line of scrimmage, find No. 1.
2. Throw to the other side of the field.
No. 1 is senior corner Alterraun Verner. On Prince's third pass of the night at the Rose Bowl, Verner stepped inside of tight end Morrell Presley, intercepted the pass and returned it from near midfield to inside the 20.
"I knew my responsibilities," Verner said. "I had underneath things. I was able to jump. When I saw Kevin roll out to us, I felt the receiver, so I was just baiting it. I was kind of shocked he threw the ball."
In Prince's defense, Presley, a January enrollee, did not run the right route. But if Prince had heeded the aforementioned Rules 1 and 2, this never would have happened.
"Alterraun is a good corner," Prince said. "That's what good corners do. They know how to bait the quarterback."
OK, it's a stretch to say that no one threw at Verner last year. After all, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound graduate of Carson (Calif.) Mayfair High led the nation with 20 passes defended (18 deflections, two interceptions). But coach Rick Neuheisel swears that teams went after senior corner Michael Norris last season.
"[Aaron] Hester will probably feel the same thing as a freshman corner," Neuheisel said of Norris' replacement.
Verner has eight career picks, three of which he has returned for touchdowns, including a game-clinching 76-yard return for a score in UCLA's 30-21 victory over Cal in 2007. That play represents a peak that the Bruins haven't achieved since. That victory raised their record to 5-2. They have gone 5-13 since.
He is a unique individual and he is as advertised. He is just a model citizen, a great leader, a great role model for the young kids in the secondary as well as the kids on the team. And I think a legitimate NFL prospect.
”-- UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel
The secondary this fall will be young. Hester and Verner will bracket two sophomore safeties. But Verner is convinced this defense is the most talented of his UCLA career.
"Something we might have lacked in past years is athleticism, but we made up for it in smarts," Verner said. "Now we have a lot of athletic ability out there. We just have to catch up with the smarts. We're slowly but surely getting there."
The smarts start with Verner, a two-time Academic All-Pac-10 player. Suffice it to say, you don't meet a whole lot of math/applied science majors in the huddle. Nor do the other students in his Math 164 (Optimization) class this quarter run into a lot of guys who can keep their hips open and sprint while backpedaling.
"I liked math since I was younger," Verner said. "I've always excelled in math, particularly calculus, AP test [he made a 5, the highest score], everything. I didn't get my first non-A until I was in college."
What does he like about it?
"I like solving things," Verner said. "Knowing there is a definite answer to a problem, and the process of trying to find that, and then actually getting a solution, I like that. English is how you feel about it. A teacher can't really tell me that's wrong [because] that's my opinion. Math is one straight answer that's going to solve the problem. That's why I like it."
Verner said there might be parallels between some math work and measuring the flight of the ball through the secondary while on a dead sprint toward a receiver who has you by three inches and 20 pounds. His head coach sees the connection.
"We say all the time that football is a game of leverage and angles. If that doesn't come straight from the math homework assignments, I don't know what does," Neuheisel said. "He's just got great instincts. He's a hard worker. Math requires a lot of diligence, in terms of staying on top of things, being aware of formulas. Alterraun has done a great job of studying offenses. He is very instinctive. He has great anticipation, and that comes from the study that he puts forth."
Verner said he loves the competition in math as much as he does the competition on the field. He has not made all A's in his major.
"Almost all the upper division classes, I got B's in," Verner said. "I got a C in one. When you get to the upper divisions, at UCLA, it's the cream of the crop. It's a challenge I like facing. My teammates -- I mean my classmates -- push me, so it's good."
The NCAA has succeeded in its decades-long quest to make "student-athlete" part of the American sports lexicon. That doesn't make it accurate. Student-athlete shouldn't be a generic description. It should be reserved for the Alterraun Verners, to whom the construct really applies.
"He is a unique individual and he is as advertised," Neuheisel said. "He is just a model citizen, a great leader, a great role model for the young kids in the secondary as well as the kids on the team. And I think a legitimate NFL prospect. It's fun to be around him. He will hopefully flourish as a senior."
Look for him this fall. As Prince learned in the spring game, Verner wears No. 1.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
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