Senior Alterraun Verner spent much of the middle part of Thursday’s spring practice backpedaling, but it wasn’t because he was getting off the line of scrimmage to cover a receiver.

Verner and senior Terrence Austin returned the punts of redshirt freshman Jeff Locke Thursday in a practice that primarily focused on special teams, and the pair of return men spent a lot of time in the end zone.

Locke clearly has a leg.

“I like what I’m seeing out of Jeff,” coach Rick Neuheisel said. “At the end of the day, it’s all going to be about consistency, but he certainly has shown he’s capable of big things as a punter.”

Locke has the undesirable task of filling the big shoes left by graduating senior Aaron Perez, a 2008 All-Pac-10 First Teamer. But Neuhesiel has already compared the two and is particularly impressed with his new punter’s hang time. “For where he is in his career, I think he is doing pretty darn well,” Neuhesiel said. “He’s got a great leg. For as good as Aaron was, Aaron’s hang time wasn’t consistent. Jeff has a chance to really give us some quality hang time.”

Locke said that he learned a great deal from Perez while sitting behind him during his redshirt year in 2008. He said Perez gave him pointers on footwork, and made it clear that consistency was the most important thing at the college level.

“I kind of took a couple kicks to get going (today) so I need to work on that ““ being able to just jump in and kick right away,” Locke said. “But I feel like after I get in a groove, I’m hitting them pretty good.”

Like Perez, Locke may play a pivotal role in the Bruins’ season as the offense sorts itself out and works on establishing ball control and a running game that was largely absent last season. Locke will be the key to winning the battle for field position.

“I feel like I can step in and contribute,” Locke said. “I feel like I’m ready.”

PRINCE BACK IN PRACTICE: Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince returned to practice Thursday after being absent Tuesday and Wednesday due to soreness in his right throwing shoulder.

“It’s feeling fine,” Prince said. “It was just some soreness on Tuesday. I got some treatment in the last few days and now its back to normal.” Prince, who is considered the front-runner in UCLA’s continuing quarterback competition, purposely took fewer reps than he had earlier in spring practice.

“We’re going to kind of monitor it and just kind of keep a pitch count on it throughout spring ball, which is why his reps were down today,” Neuhesiel said. “But it also gives other guys chances, so it’s a nice problem to have.”

One of those guys getting Prince’s reps is redshirt senior Kevin Craft, who started for the Bruins after a string of injuries depleted the depth chart last season. Craft said he doesn’t see himself as competing directly against Prince or incoming freshman Richard Brehaut.

“If anything I am trying to help those guys by telling about their experience or whatever I can do to help them, because the point is for the offense to be the best it can be for the first game,” Craft said. “Obviously I’m talking advantage of every rep I get and I’m trying to improve myself. Every rep is valuable to me. I’m trying to take advantage.”

Prince, for his part, showed both his potential brilliance and his inexperience on Thursday. In one sequence during seven-on-seven drills, he threw a beautiful deep post that hit Austin in stride for a touchdown.

On the next play, he threw an interception. “I made a poor read,” Prince said. “It’s obviously something you don’t want to do.”