We are now in the post-Hundley era, and if history is our guide, this is a pretty critical year for the future of the program. Maintaining the momentum of the Hundley years at the quarterback position is going to be key in maintaining and expanding the overall run that Jim Mora has started at UCLA, and in keeping UCLA from drifting slowly back to mediocrity.
Replacing Hundley isn't an easy thing. We have certainly had our critiques of Hundley in the past, but he is still one of the top five or so quarterbacks in UCLA history, and one of the most successful. He beat USC three times, and each time was pretty critical to the victory. His uncanny agility and athleticism made 3rd and longs altogether too easy to convert, and he was a force in the red zone with his ability to turn quarterback draws into touchdowns at a pretty absurd rate. As a passer, he had some flaws, but still had some truly spectacular games, and was easily UCLA's best passer since at least Drew Olson.
There are some reasons for optimism, though, and we'll get to some below, but one to touch on here is this: Hundley had a really impressive three-year run, and he only had about eight months to learn Noel Mazzone's system before he started his first game. As college offenses go, Mazzone's is probably on the less complex side of things, and that makes it easier for someone new to the system to jump in and get to a competent level pretty quickly.
Keep that in mind...
***Asiantii Woulard, who would have been a redshirt sophomore this season, elected to transfer soon after spring practice ended. It appears he's going to try his luck at South Florida next, but it's interesting that he elected to leave, since he was probably the second best quarterback this spring. Without Woulard, the depth chart is extremely thin.
It seems like he's been here for a season already, but, although he entered school in January, Rosen is still essentially an incoming freshman. He had an excellent spring, looking much more comfortable than a true freshman reasonably should have been expected to look. He has all the tools to be an elite passer at UCLA, and he showed them all during the four weeks of spring ball. He was pretty clearly the best quarterback this spring and, in our opinion, it wasn't particularly close.
If you wanted a clear picture of the difference between local and national media, the UCLA quarterback conversation is a great example. Most national media previews of UCLA are still saying there is a legitimate competition for the starting quarterback job, and that the Bruins might very well start Jerry Neuheisel for a couple of games to begin the season and then give the job to Rosen after a couple of games. With little to go on but public comments by coaches and a rudimentary look at the UCLA depth chart, that's even a semi-defensible theory.
On the flip side, every single local reporter (BRO included) who watched more than a handful of practices is fairly adamant that Rosen is going to start from day one, that he was clearly the best quarterback on the field this spring, and that he might actually be pretty good this season, even though he's a true freshman. That's how obvious it was if you made it out to practice.
It's not a stretch to say that Rosen, this spring, had the most impressive camp for a freshman quarterback we've seen at UCLA. He put together excellent practice after excellent practice, showing off an advanced feel for the position, a very good arm, great footwork, very good decision-making, and, already, a more than solid command of the offense. We've been consistently reluctant to over-hype Rosen, so keep that in mind when we describe him with these sorts of superlatives.
The only real question is when UCLA will end up naming a starter. Jim Mora has joked that he won't tell anyone and just roll the ball out on Sept. 5, but more than likely, it'll become apparent after a week or so who's getting the majority of the No. 1 reps, since the coaches will want to build some comfort with whoever is going to be the starter. At this point, we would be absolutely floored if Rosen isn't the guy.
Now, what should expectations be for the true freshman? Here's where it gets interesting, because, again, go back to what we wrote about Hundley. Although he was a redshirt freshman that first year under Mora, he started from just about the same point as Rosen with learning Mazzone's offense. Hundley had three months to learn it before spring, and then another three months in between spring and fall to master it, which is exactly what Rosen has had. And, while these sorts of comparisons are never great as a general rule, Rosen looked better this spring than Hundley looked in the spring of 2012 -- more advanced as a passer, better command of the offense, just overall a little bit better in most areas outside of athleticism. If you were to assume he continues on a similar trajectory to Hundley in 2012, Rosen might be markedly better in fall camp than he even was in spring, which is...well, an interesting thought.
Hundley had a very impressive first year as a starter, and in some ways, it might have been his most effective year as a quarterback. He was also very much a gamer, meaning that he performed better in games than he ever really did in practice. We don't know if Rosen will be that sort of player -- it's the kind of thing that's impossible to judge until you see him in a college game for the first time.
So, certainty is hard to come by, and we can't say with 100% confidence that Josh Rosen is going to have a very good freshman season. But from everything we saw of him in high school, and everything we saw of him in spring, and given the supporting cast he'll have in his first year at the helm, we'd bet on it.
And here's where the real issues are. Barring disaster, Rosen is going to be the starter for the next three years (at least). But behind him, UCLA now has just one scholarship quarterback in Jerry Neuheisel. Mike Fafaul should also count, since he's pretty similar to Neuheisel, and is definitely better than an average walkon, but still the depth chart is mighty thin.
Both Fafaul and Neuheisel make more sense as emergency backups than as true second-stringers. They're both smart, savvy players who generally make good decisions, but neither has the arm to make all of the throws. Neuheisel, obviously, had his big moment last year against Texas, when he hit Jordan Payton for the go-ahead touchdown, and, while he probably can't be counted on for that sort of performance all the time, he's good enough that he can come in for a series and run the offense. Fafaul, though we haven't seen him in games, gives off a similar sense of steadiness and cool-headedness.
The issue is if Rosen, for whatever reason, has to miss more than an odd series here or there. UCLA was very lucky the last three years that Brett Hundley is made from approximately 80% titanium, because the depth has been pretty poor since 2013. Rosen cannot possibly be as tough and durable as Hundley -- it just goes against reason to expect that. He'll have a better offensive line than Hundley ever had, but even still, he's going to take some hits. So, if he does go down at some point, one of Neuheisel or Fafaul might have to come in to win a game, or even start a game, this season.
And that's where problems arise. Most opposing teams won't do a full scout on a particular team's quarterback depth, but if one of Neuheisel or Fafaul is asked to start a game, it's a pretty good bet their deficiencies (namely: arm strength) will be sussed out fairly quickly, and UCLA will see a lot of very aggressive defenses attempting to take away the short passing game. There would certainly be things UCLA could do to counter those sorts of defensive strategies, but it's not a good situation to be in.
Keeping the depth from being legitimately tested (i.e. keeping Rosen healthy)is going to be critical this year, and probably in 2016 as well.