SoCal-native Utes will have family in the stands at UCLA

Chris Ayers

The Utes’ matchup with eighth-ranked UCLA this Saturday will be a difficult challenge. Every Utah player will need grit and motivation in order to walk away from the Rose Bowl as victors.

Perhaps a little bit of extra motivation will come from the large portion of the Utah roster who are SoCal natives.

The Utes have 35 native Californians on their roster, and 31 of them hail from the southern portion of the state where schools such as UCLA and USC pick up the bulk of their talent pool. For those 31 players, this game is a chance to go home, see loved ones and maybe even leave their home state with a big upset win and a 1-1 record in the Pac-12.

Junior center Saiosi Aiono grew up 35 miles from the UCLA campus in West Covina, Calif. He said he will have a lot of family members at and around the game, and they will all be wearing Utah crimson. Aiono also said that for him, the best part about going to play UCLA in Pasadena would be seeing all his family members and playing in what he calls “one of the best college venues in America.”

“I’m going to love just being home, it feels so good to go home,” Aiono said. “I can always count on the weather to be good, so that’s nice … the beach is my favorite place to be, and being around family again just makes me feel at home.”

Growing up close to the Bruin campus, it’s not hard to guess who Aiono rooted for as a kid.

“To be honest, I was a UCLA fan,” Aiono said. “It was the closest school to me, and my favorite color was blue, so it just kind of fit.”

Utah’s special teams phenom Kaelin Clay also hails from southern California. He grew up just over 30 miles away in Long Beach, Calif.

Clay said returning to SoCal is like “a coming-home party,” complete with 50 family members in the stands at the Rose Bowl wearing customized Kaelin Clay shirts. Clay said he is most anxious about seeing his family and friends as well as playing against several UCLA players who he played with as a kid in Long Beach.

“I know a lot of guys that play for UCLA,” Clay said. “My cousin plays safety for them, but he’s injured right now. But playing against guys you grew up with is a lot of fun.”

Clay grew up rooting for UCLA’s crosstown rivals in USC, so there’s no love lost when Clay takes the field against the Bruins on Saturday. According to Clay, the most exciting part about returning home is the chance to take the field at the Rose Bowl and upset the Bruins on their home field with his family watching.

“With [UCLA] being top 10 in the nation, we shouldn’t need anything else to motivate us,” Clay said. “In a sense it’s just another game, but it is different because they are a top 10 opponent, and it is UCLA. But there’s no added pressure … I’ve been playing with my family in the stands my entire life.”

For senior receiver Dres Anderson, who grew up in Riverside, Calif., returning home to play the Bruins isn’t just a business affair, it’s a family affair.

Anderson’s dad, Willie “Flipper” Anderson, not only played at UCLA but is also one of the highest ranked receivers in Bruin history. From 1984-87, Flipper Anderson was one of Troy Aikman’s favorite offensive weapons while at UCLA, and it eventually led to a 10-year career in the NFL, where he spent a majority of his playing days with the Los Angeles Rams. Flipper still holds the all-time NFL record for most receiving yards in a single game (336).

One might think there would be a heap of added pressure to perform against the school where his dad got off to such an illustrious start, but Dres Anderson isn’t focusing on any kind of additional pressure.

“I feel like I have pressure to perform every game,” Anderson said. “I’m a leader and captain of this team and a playmaker, so I have to perform every week, regardless of where we are.”

Obviously, a dream scenario for Anderson would be to walk into the stadium where his dad dazzled UCLA fans, past and present, and crush their dreams by walking out a victor with the Utes. He said that’s what the Utes are leaving Salt Lake City to do, and he thinks everyone else is as excited as he is to make that happen.

“That’s what we’re planning on doing, so that would be an awesome feeling for me and for all of us,” Anderson said.

Kickoff between Utah and UCLA is set for 8:30 p.m. MT on Saturday.

 

t.chappell@chronicle.utah.edu

@TalonChappell

 

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