After deciding to return, UCLA's Brett Hundley coming into his own
LOS ANGELES -- After Brett Hundley decided to return to UCLA for his junior season, Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone dug deep into his contacts list and brought in a cavalcade of guest stars to help mentor a quarterback on the verge of ... what exactly? Championships? A spot near (or at) the top of the 2015 NFL draft? Given what Hundley has already done and the talent that UCLA returns, this all seems entirely plausible. That's why Mazzone called in Jeff Garcia, Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow and Brock Osweiler between Hundley's decision to return and the start of UCLA's spring practice.
Hundley spent time with each quarterback, watching film, taking notes and asking questions. He picked the brains of four quarterbacks who have experienced varying levels of collegiate and pro success with the goal of learning how to better lead his Bruins team.
Each quarterback had advice for Hundley. Garcia and Rivers explained how life works in the NFL, how to command an offense and how to train in the offseason. Tebow explained how to inspire confidence in college teammates with an eye on titles. "I wanted to go play football right after I was done talking to him," Hundley said. Osweiler, who played for Mazzone at Arizona State from 2009-11 and now backs up Peyton Manning on the Denver Broncos, had plenty of practical advice about the offense Hundley runs. Osweiler also introduced Hundley to a concept that had thus far escaped his notice.
"Their coaches at Denver tell them to go be normal," Hundley said, referring to an order from Broncos coaches to occasionally decompress in the offseason. "How ... do ... you ... do ... that?" Hundley remembered asking Osweiler. Osweiler gave the example of reducing one daily workout to a foam roller stretch routine and then playing a round of golf, a sport Hundley recently took up.
The idea seemed so foreign to Hundley. In high school, he used to rise before dawn to run with his father, even though he had football workouts scheduled later in the day. He wants everything immediately, and if he can't get it, he assumes that he should be doing more. Hundley can't stand not knowing. He doesn't even want to start catching up on Breaking Bad because he fears he'll feel the need to binge-watch all the way to the end. Hundley attempted to follow Osweiler's advice, especially on a three-day trip to Jamaica for spring break. Unfortunately, he couldn't be normal for long. "I tried," he said, laughing. "Didn't work."
With so many exciting possibilities arrayed before him, Hundley can't be blamed for his inability to relax. The Bruins, whose roster has seemed perpetually young in recent years, finally have veterans on both sides of the ball -- even though they have only six scholarship seniors. In his third season as the starter, Hundley understands Mazzone's offense so well that the first wiggle of a finger in a hand signal is usually all he needs to identify a play. UCLA has bought into the attitude imported by head coach Jim Mora and his staff that it should neither expect nor accept mediocrity.
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Beyond the immediate future, Hundley has a chance to play his way up NFL draft boards. Depending on his workouts, he could probably have been a first-round pick this May. But another solid season in college along with a continuing shift in the priorities of NFL teams could vault the 6-foot-3, 227-pound dual-threat passer into the top five. There may have been some rah-rah in Hundley's choice to return to Westwood, but there is also a potentially huge financial upside. "He's still got to have a great season and do all the things he's got to do," Mazzone said. "But I think he could be one of those guys that have top-10 range."
Hundley led the Bruins to a 10-3 record in 2013 despite having an offensive line and backfield in constant flux because of injuries. How bad was it for UCLA along the line last year? After starting left tackle Torian White -- since dismissed following a November arrest on suspicion of sexual assault -- broke his ankle Oct. 3 at Utah, he was replaced by Simon Goines. Goines, who had moved from right tackle, injured his knee at Stanford on Oct. 19, which forced then-redshirt freshman Conor McDermott to take over at left tackle. After only a few plays, McDermott injured his shoulder and had to be replaced by Xavier Su'a-Filo, who slid over from left guard.
Meanwhile, the Bruins were so thin at tailback late in the season that then-freshman linebacker Myles Jack had to moonlight on offense. In the de facto Pac-12 South championship game against Arizona State on Nov. 23, Jack played offense exclusively. That is one of Mora's biggest regrets from last season. The coach still wonders if the game -- a 38-33 UCLA loss -- would have turned out differently with Jack playing his true position.
Still, the Bruins won every game they were supposed to win. The combined record of the teams that beat UCLA was 32-9. Now, Hundley has to carry the Bruins into another echelon. "The next step for Brett," Mora said, "is to lead this team to wins over Texas and Oregon and Stanford."
He'll have a chance to do that. The Bruins face all three of those schools in the 2014 regular season, and if all goes as planned, they would probably see Oregon or Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. But getting to that stage will be difficult in a league loaded with quality quarterbacks. Hundley isn't the only accomplished signal-caller eyeing a title. Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly share the same dream, and all three helped their teams to wins over UCLA last fall.
Bruins coaches noticed a change in Hundley late last year. He had been voted a captain by his teammates as a redshirt freshman in 2012, but Mora had scuttled that notion. Hundley had experience when last season began, but he hadn't truly taken command of the offense. As the season wore on and the injuries mounted, he did. "Toward the end of the year," Mazzone said, "he just said, 'Screw it, I can run this team.'"
The proof came on Dec. 31, in a Sun Bowl victory over a Virginia Tech defense ranked eighth nationally in rushing defense and scoring defense. With 9:17 remaining in the first half, Hundley had already scored on rushes of seven and 86 yards, respectively. Later, he added two touchdown passes and finished with 226 passing yards and 161 rushing yards as the Bruins rolled to a 42-12 win. "That was a hell of a defense, and they were bringing it," Mora said. "All of a sudden, it's like he said, 'I'm going to win this game for my team.'"
The confidence with which Hundley closed last season has carried into the spring. On the advice of Garcia, Rivers, Tebow and Osweiler, he has tried to marry that confidence with consistent performance in practice and in meetings. "It's really just about being yourself, leading the team. Being the guy that everybody can look up to," Hundley said. "Staying consistent is really key. That's the thing I'm really trying to focus on this spring -- being the same guy each and every day."
Mora, who once declared Hundley wasn't ready to be a captain, is now happy to let him lead. "When he goes out on the field, he's the best player out there," Mora said. "So they see the work ethic and they see the results. Now, he's earned the authority to hold people to his standard. That's when leadership really occurs. As much as people want to say the leaders are the vocal guys, the leaders are the demonstrators. The leaders are the ones they can count on, that they can trust."
Hundley has proven himself trustworthy. After spring practice ends, he hopes he can prove himself normal, at least for a few days. With a high-stakes season on the horizon, he doesn't want to burn out too early. "I'm going to figure it out sooner rather than later," Hundley said.