While the coaching staff did not decide on a starting quarterback by the end of spring practice as they had hoped, I walked away from the spring with the sense, first, that Brett Hundley will be the starter in the fall, and second, that even if he is not the starter, UCLA's quarterback play will be better than it has been in several years. And for that, you can thank Noel Mazzone.
Mazzone's offense has many great qualities, not the least of which is its simplicity. There just aren't many plays, and the offense does not put great demands on the quarterback making several split second decisions after the snap. For once, UCLA actually looks like it has an offense designed for a college team.
Mazzone also did some mechanical work for his quarterbacks, especially Hundley and T.J. Millweard. Hundley tended, even through the first couple of weeks of spring ball, to throw with sort of a three-quarters motion, which flattened some of his throws and contributed to some inaccuracy. Around the third week, Mazzone reformed his throwing motion, getting him to throw more over the top, and it almost immediately paid dividends, with Hundley throwing more accurately, and with much more consistent strength.
With Millweard, we honestly didn't know what to make of him at the beginning of the spring. He had a really long motion with a big hitch in it. He was extremely inaccurate, and every ball he threw looked wobbly, without much natural spiraling. He was almost certainly the sixth best out of the six quarterbacks in camp through the first three or four weeks.
But in the last week or so, Millweard began to exhibit signs of progress, shortening up his motion and removing most of the hitch. He still has a long way to go with getting consistent with the new motion, and he doesn‘t have the most athletic of bodies, but he looks like a different quarterback now than on the first day of spring camp.
The story of the spring, though, was the competition between the top three guys. As we said above, we think Hundley is probably going to be tapped for the spot in the fall, but there still isn't a whole lot of separation at the top.
Kevin Prince came in as the incumbent starter, and through the first two or so weeks of camp, looked like he might have a chance to hang onto the role. He hasn't had great zip on the ball since hurting his shoulder a few years ago, but he was displaying decent accuracy, and with his leadership attributes and experience, he might even have been leading in the eyes of the coaching staff through the first couple of weeks.
Then he hit a period of very poor play, coupled with some nagging shoulder soreness. He had a stretch of three or four practices where he really looked quite bad- struggling to hit throws with any kind of oomph, struggling to throw accurately beyond ten yards. His decision making suffered as well, with him frequently throwing head-scratching interceptions. And he didn't really recover from that. After the third week or so, he had maybe one more good-ish practice, and seemed to play himself out of the competition.
It's a shame, because he does have significant leadership qualities you'd want in a quarterback. However, at this point, we can't see him fighting his way back into the competition.
Brehaut had an interesting spring. Heading into it, until the last couple of weeks, we weren't even sure he'd be attending spring ball over baseball, and then he came in and was almost certainly the best quarterback through the first couple of weeks. He was the most accurate, by far, through the first half of spring, and he has the best touch on the deep ball of any of the quarterbacks on the team.
The issues with Brehaut are the inconsistencies. He had a couple of practices where he just made atrocious decisions, and even during his good days, he would scatter a few poor decisions throughout the day. The thing is, he is generally an accurate thrower, both short and long, and he's got good touch throwing deep. With the simplicity of the offense, he could come on strong with an offseason of studying the playbook.
After last fall, we basically wrote that Hundley hadn't received much effective coaching over the last year. He still had the same basic issues with footwork and his throwing motion that he had at the beginning of the year, and it didn't seem like much work had been done from the coaching end to improve his decision making. So, heading into the spring, we were looking at Hundley as, essentially, a very talented incoming freshman.
It's clear, first off, that he came into spring with an attitude that the job was his to seize. Little leadership moments kept cropping up with him, from running over to his receivers after they dropped passes to give them a pep talk, to staying behind to jog with Albert Cid when he couldn't keep up with gassers, to staying late after practice through the first few weeks to get extra work. It's clear that he took it upon himself to play that role, and that attitude really seemed to pervade his play as well.
And then, while he was far from perfect during the spring, he didn't have the maddening stretch of poor play that Prince had, or the occasional head scratching decisions of Brehaut. Generally, when Hundley misses a throw, it's due to a technical flaw, not a poor decision- either his footwork is a little off or he releases too high. And given the amount of progress he made from the beginning of the spring to the end in terms of technique, you have to figure Mazzone and the coaching staff are anxious to see how he does with a summer of refining his footwork and motion with Mazzone's tutelage.
He has a naturally strong arm, and he seems to have a good command of the offense already. Accuracy is something that will come as he gets more comfortable throwing over the top, but you could already see him making huge strides by the end of spring. And if you throw in his ability to make plays with his legs, it's hard to see any reason that, with reasonable progress, he isn't the starter heading into the fall.
Behind those three, Jerry Neuheisel was a pleasant surprise this spring. While there was some argument (and, perhaps, there still IS some argument) that Neuheisel should not have been given a scholarship, he showed this spring that he has enough talent to be a very important contributor on the scout team at least. The positives are obvious: he's a very smart player, with probably the most advanced knowledge of the offense of any of the quarterbacks, and he has an accurate arm. The downside is that he's limited physically, in that he'll have a hard time developing a strong enough arm to start at this level. He has a pretty thin build, with narrow shoulders, so there's probably a natural limit to how much power he's going to have throwing the ball. He's the only guy this spring I saw who had a swing pass picked off, and he has real trouble hitting throws to the sidelines that aren't fades. But he could very well grow into a serviceable No. 2 quarterback at some point down the road.
Mike Fafaul, the walk on, looked like he might have been the fourth best quarterback through the first few practices, but that subsided quickly. He has a nice throwing motion, and can hit most throws accurately, but he also has a pretty slight frame, and once the other quarterbacks started progressing, his limitations became more obvious. But, between he, Neuheisel, and Millweard, UCLA is going to be getting some pretty good scout team quarterbacking this year.
Regardless of who wins the job (we have to imagine it's between Brehaut and Hundley in the eyes of the coaches), for the first time in a long time with UCLA, you get the overwhelming sense that the offense has direction inexorable enough as to not be limited by the selection of a quarterback. Whether it's Brehaut, Hundley, or even Prince, you get the sense that Mazzone will force effective play out of the position.
Spring Review: Quarterbacks
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