Old-School Guy

Quarterback Brett Hundley is having a tremendous season as a freshman, with the chance to set UCLA records. His coaches and teammates attribute it not only to his talent, but his personality, work ethic, and old-school approach to the game...

The best compliments that people give Brett Hundley – teammates, opponents and coaches alike – are about his cool, his calm, his steady hand.

He is not playing like a redshirt freshman, they say, and through seven games, the stats are pretty convincing.

Nearly 2,000 yards on 167 of 251 passing, 14 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, a 143.5 quarterback rating that ranks fourth in the conference. In fact, If he continues at this pace for the rest of the season, he'll throw for over 3,500 yards, which would set the all-time, single-season UCLA passing record for a single season (currently held by Cade McNown, who threw for 3,470 in 1998).

He is not playing like a redshirt freshman, they say, and they point to his poise in the pocket and his ability to take the good times with the bad.

He is not playing like a redshirt freshman, they say, and they are right. He is not, and it is because he is an old soul.

Johnathan Franklin knows it best. He hears it first-hand.

"He's an old-school guy; he likes a little Luther Vandross," said the redshirt senior running back, Hundley's roommate. "It's funny hearing him try to sing and dance it. He sings it in the shower. Dancing, no rhythm. He's a funny guy, and a good person."

But that is Brett at home, in his private moments, when it's just him, the water and the sweet, sultry sounds of "If This World Were Mine."

Hundley on the football field is a different person.

He approaches the game as if it something to be cared for, nurtured, studied. He understands the responsibilities of the position, and he accepts them and he embraces them.

The reason he is off to his great start, which at UCLA, with its recent quarterback history, makes it seem almost legendary, is not because of his arm or his legs, but because of his heart and his head. He pours both into this game, with a seriousness and a sense of responsibility beyond his years.

Franklin sees – and hears? – the goofy side at home and out for dinner and while poring over scripture.

The rest of the Bruins see the other Brett.

"Brett Hundley is very talented, but the thing about him is his work ethic," said Jerry Rice, Jr., a guy who knows a thing or two about work ethic himself from his own father. "You know, he has the typical freshman bumps and bruises, and obviously playing quarterback is a very hard position, but as you've seen him in his developing years, you've seen him become a more complete quarterback. All it takes is experience – the only thing you can learn from is experience and being out there, making mistakes – and he's already showing a lot of signs and ability, but you can see he's getting more polished out there."

Polish seems like the right word – Hundley does not seem to have very many rough edges.

It has not always been that way.

For every quarterback, there is a singular moment when the game is no longer too big for them, too fast or too daunting. Pundits discuss it often at the professional level – when it "clicks" for that young promising quarterback – but the process begins much, much earlier.

Sometimes in Pop Warner, sometimes in junior varsity, sometimes even at the varsity level, all the pressures of being the quarterback finally come to a crescendo. Some kids don't have the patience, and they might end up at wide receiver. Some don't have the headiness, and they might end up at linebacker. Some don't have the cool, the calm, and they end up at running back. Some can't handle the press and the attention and even the glory.

But for a quarterback who stays a quarterback, it is eventually going to happen.

"It took until my senior year of high school," Hundley said. "My junior year, I was getting exposed. I was just understanding what it was like to be in the limelight, to take on the role of the starting quarterback. After I got that year in, I was able to relax. My family did a good job of saying football is football and not to be taken lightly. You have to have maturity at the quarterback position. You have to have fun but know everything you do is being watched. I'm a real kicked-back, relaxed guy anyway. I'm always trying to have fun, explore my interests. But in critical times, I'm able to be relaxed, not get too low or too high."

That pleases Jim Mora.

That pleases Jim Mora greatly.

******

Head coaches around the Pac-12 are laudatory of Hundley, but perhaps none more so than his own coach.

If Rick Neuheisel was thought to have left a mess of the UCLA football program after a 21-30 four-year stint, and Mora is thought to be the guy to clean it all up, then Hundley is the paper towel, or at the very least, the Windex.

Hundley was the coup of Neuheisel's 2011 recruiting class, one that by recent UCLA standards was drastically sub-par. Hundley was the only five-star prospect in the class, rated the No. 3 quarterback in the country by Scout.com, the crown jewel. He was raw but talented, athletic and strong, mature for his age and headstrong coming out of high school.

And like Windex he is not streaky.

That, Mora believes, is his best quality.

"The way he just stays even keeled and focused," said Mora back in early October of the ultimate hand-me-down, truly a gift from Neuheisel. "Regardless if things are going well or not going well, he's just steady and consistent. I think that's really impressive for a young guy. He doesn't get on an emotional rollercoaster, and I think that's one of the reasons he improves every week, is he's always looking forward. That's very impressive for a kid who's only played five games to be assembling a body of work as complete as he is and playing with confidence, maturity and focus he's playing with."

Mora's contemporaries agree with that assessment.

Both Hundley's Week 5 opponent – Colorado head coach Jon Embree, whose Buffaloes were torched by Hundley in a 42-14 loss – and his Week 6 foe, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, whose Bears dismantled the Bruins 43-17, are impressed by the youngster.

"Hundley is, for a young guy, doing an excellent job," said Tedford. "He is running the offense efficiently. He looks very accurate throwing the football. It looks like he is making good decisions and kind of running the show. I have been impressed with his accuracy with throwing the football. He is controlling it – looks like he's playing with a lot of confidence."

The accuracy that Tedford mentioned was the final fig leaf for Hundley, the last thing keeping him from taking the quarterback position immediately and flying with it.

Last season as a true freshman, set back because of a knee injury that occurred during a summer pick-up basketball game, Hundley lacked accuracy both deep and short. Adjusting to the Pistol offense, Hundley constantly tinkered with his footwork, and that lead long passes to go too long and short passes to go too wide. Fast forward to spring ball last April, and Hundley had improved, but not taken a massive stride in the category.

He dedicated himself to improving the swing pass – a fixture in the Noel Mazzone offense – and the deep ball.

Against the Buffaloes, Hundley completed 25 of 38 passes for a 65.8 completion percentage, the second best of his young career, for 281 yards, an impressive clip of more than 10 yards per completion. It was his fourth straight game doing that, and his fifth straight game with a QB rating of more than 134.5, the best such streak at UCLA in at least a decade.

"I thought Brett played well," Embree said. "He did a good job managing the offense, taking care of the football. … He made quick decisions, he was decisive when he pulled it down to run. I thought he played well. This is all his first action in a completely new offense. I think he has a very bright future in front of him."

A little like wide-open daylight, and that is nothing new to Hundley.

******

If Hundley ends up where Hundley could end up and takes UCLA to where Hundley could take UCLA, then someday, people will look back on his first career play from scrimmage against Rice and say, "We knew it then."

They'll be able to find it easily, and show their friends, because there is ample video proof, including one Youtube video that has more than 430,000 views. (Hundley's First Play)

No doubt, one frustrated UCLA fan has watched that video 400,000 times, weeping alone, quietly, clutching a blue-and-yellow blankie and trembling, looking up and thanking.

Such were the depths of the position.

Such were the heights of that play.

You can almost see the catharsis wash over the Bruins' sideline as the players scramble jubilantly, some making figure-8s because they can't control their excitement.

Hundley remembers it well – taking the snap, reading the defensive end, breaking said defensive end's ankles, seeing a crack between two would-be Owl tacklers, feeling Shaquelle Evans sprint from behind to handle one last defensive back, bending in, bouncing out, 72 yards, touchdown, glory, chest bump, satisfaction – and more importantly, he understands the significance of it.

"I was able to understand that you take a year of working and you're trying to get there and finally you get on the field and you want to blow up," Hundley said. "This is everything you've ever dreamed of. And then that? The first play helped me realize that my running game is still there. It was nice to know I belong in this game."

It did more than that.

The play was perfect for Hundley for three reasons.

It sent his confidence soaring, and really, it hasn't come down too often since.

It made him realize that he was not too small, too slow, too scared, too anything for the college game.

But most importantly, it made him realize that wait, it won't always be this easy, that yeah, a long touchdown run is great, but so is a five-yard gain.

"I think it was after the Rice game," Hundley said of when the moment sunk in. "I was able to understand that not every play is going to be the best touchdown. The way it started it was like, ‘Wow…this is going to be fun.' But after the game, I was able to sit back and realize that not every play is an 80-yard touchdown run."

Hundley was reminded of that, time and time again, in Berkeley.

******

There were always going to be bad moments, too, that had to be understood and anticipated, but we are not defined by when we fall but if we get back up.

That's coach-speak, anyway.

Thing is, it's true. And for those who've seen the Bruins turn a molehill into a mountain, bad play begetting bad play begetting bad play, Hundley would not be solely defined by his performance against Cal, but his response to it.

Hundley's 15 of 21 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown – and, crucially, no interceptions a week after throwing a career-worst four against the Bears -- plus 68 rushing yards and a touchdown against Utah was the latest reminder that UCLA may have entered a new era. So was the 21-14 win, which put the Bruins at 5-2.

"That's always the sign of a good QB, right?" offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "Guys who don't repeat mistakes. There are a group of plays in any game for a quarterback where they've got to make them for you. You need those plays. He's starting to make them more consistently."

Week-to-week, Mazzone looks for those little improvements, the subtlest tweaks to Hundley's play. We see the touchdowns and the picks, Mazzone sees the perfect timing of a pitch to a tailback, the command of an entire series, the calming of a frustrated offensive lineman.

Mazzone sounds like such a dad when he laughs and says, "No doubt I still bang my head every day; I have to step back and say, ‘The kid is still a redshirt freshman,'" but he acknowledges that he's working with something that could be special.

And working with is the right term, because with Hundley's thirst for the specifics, there is often give-and-take.

"Football is situational, and you see it when he takes ownership of the offense and manages the game for you," Mazzone said. "When your quarterback can understand the situations, down and distance, the red zone and starts to do the job of managing those situations, every week is like Christmas. There's something different and he has to open a different package and he doesn't know what's in it. He's experiencing those different situations, and experience is the best teacher in the game. There are things I can tell him until I'm blue in the face, but it doesn't hit him until he experiences it."

******

Interviewing players for several years, you pick up on their tells, when they are being sincere or insincere, when they are offering the company line or toeing it, when they truly believe what they say or when they are paying lip service.

Right now, Franklin is being sincere, and you can tell, because he is nodding and closing his eyes as he talks about his roommate, his friend, his protégé, and that is his tell.

"We trust him." Eyes closed, head nod.

"We can rely on him." Eyes closed, head nod.

"No matter what is going on in the game, with Brett, every play he is going to keep coming." Eyes closed, many head nods.

"He is a great player, he is a great guy, he is a man of God," Franklin continues. "He wants to be the best. He's always working, always trying to perfect himself, if that's on the football field or if that's his character off the field."

To receive that level of praise, from a player with the character of Franklin, probably says a lot about what Hundley did to endear himself to his teammates.

The youngsters might point to his talent, to his excitedness, to his footwork or his fist pump.

Veterans look deeper.

"Everyone knew he was the QB, the highly-touted guy, and I think everyone looked to see how he reacted," senior linebacker Damien Holmes said. "To see his actions – see if he was humble or if he was arrogant, if he was going to work hard or if he was going to expect things to be given to him. But we saw that he put the work in. This year, even during summer, I'd always see him working on the field with a receiver, throwing. Not even having them run – just having them go where the route should end up. Repetition, repetition. Constant drills.

"You talk about approaching this like a professional – I think his actions answer that."

When Hundley was named starting quarterback, it was not a surprise to those who have seen the offense wax and wane, mostly wane, for the longest.

"He demanded it," Franklin said. "He got the guys to come out here and work out on our days off. He was always in the film room. You get respect doing things like that. Stepping up as a leader. Doing the unexpected. The sky is the limit for that kid."

Combine his summer effort with his fall performance, and it's easy to see where the trust has formed.

"It's more an at-ease thing," Holmes said. "Obviously, anything can happen, turnovers are going to happen, but when you see a guy work like that, you're more at ease. I know me, I saw him working. When he's avoiding a rush, shuffling forward or shuffling back, I've seen him do drills like that on the field. When you see it carry over, you kind of realize his hard work is paying off."

******

Every now and again, like Mazzone said, you're reminded that Hundley is still so young.

His nervous laugh and shrug, the speed with which words pour out of his mouth, sometimes making him restart a sentence of a phrase, the goofy post-game beanie that was the focus of a news article.

But you're not often reminded by his play on the field.

"No, I haven't had any freshman moments," Hundley said, and he's obviously forgetting his laughable performance in the Victory formation at the end of the Nebraska win, when he stumbled onto his backside more times than a drunken sailor. "I try to leave those for practice. The only thing I can remember is getting hit for the first time. I got hit and I knew it's a lot different than high school."

Remember that hit? Which Hundley took from a diving Rice Owl, and promptly shrugged off, on his way to a 72-yard touchdown run. A sign of things to come.

"I'm looking for more," Hundley said. "I understand the stats are there, and it's cool to see that. After the season you can look back, but during the season, I'm not trying to get on that. Oregon State, I could've done so much better. Colorado, I could've made better throws. That's what I look for, what I try to correct. I know I can be so much better than what I am now. I honestly believe I can be so much better than what I can be now. We can do a lot. We can be off the charts. It's scary to think. When someone says we can be so much better…we really can. We're not young anymore."

Hundley, though.

He never was…

"…I don't listen to music from my generation very much. The way I was raised, dad and mom, they always had the music playing. Old school."

Sounds good.


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