State of the UCLA Quarterback: Part 1

A new contributor to Bruin Report Online, Robert Kuwada, looked into the UCLA quarterback situation heading into spring practice. Head Coach Rick Neuheisel plans on doing something unconventional in terms of reps. Here's Part One...

Robert Kuwada is a veteran Los Angeles area sports writer, having written prominently for the Long Beach Press Telegram and Orange County Register over the course of two decades. He was the UCLA beat writer for the Register for five seasons.
He looks less like a wide-eyed kid now, struggling in his surroundings. The fifteen pounds of lean muscle that he has added over the past four months can do that.

But with Kevin Craft, the issue a year ago was not so much how he looked but what he saw. It was read and recognition and how he reacted when presented with a certain look from a defense, all while dealing with a line that was cobbled together week-to-week because of injury and ineffective play, with broken routes by receivers, a weak running game and other issues. Beyond that the Bruins' quarterback struggled through errors in execution - poor footwork and timing, a ball thrown high, wide, low, early or late - that only made bad situations worse.

It added up to a school-record 20 interceptions, including six that were returned for touchdowns. Craft even threw three interceptions in a victory at Washington - and the woeful winless Huskies had only three picks going into that game and ended the season with seven.

That had to be particularly galling to Coach Rick Neuheisel, who still holds the UCLA records for completion percentage in a season (69.3 in 1983) and career (68.0 from 1979 to '83), a nasty thorn in his return to his alma mater.

"There's no question," Neuheisel said. "We've got to play the position better."

The Bruins will try to do that when they open spring practice on April 2.

And while Craft remains confident that he can improve in a second season in the offense and working with coordinator Norm Chow - a luxury, given only one player (Marcus Everett) on that side of the ball last year had ever played for the same coordinator in back-to-back seasons - the majority of reps initially will go to redshirt freshman Kevin Prince and freshman Richard Brehaut.

"It's to get those kids some chances so we can find out what they can do," Neuheisel said. "We haven't established a pecking order yet, but we want to give those kids some chances early on at the expense maybe of some of the other guys just because there aren't enough reps to go around, so that we can find out and give ourselves the best film to evaluate which is the direction to go in the latter part of the spring.

"We've got to give ourselves the most amount of information we can have to make the best decision for the football team and, as I've said to the quarterbacks as well as our coaches, it's not always going to look fair. It's not. But it's how we're going to arrive at getting the right amount of information to make the best choice."

Prince, who spent the second half of the past season running the scout team after a decision was made to preserve his redshirt, has not played in a game since he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of his senior season at Crespi High in 2007. But he goes into the spring with a strong arm and a comfort level working within the offense.

"There are specific things we're supposed to look for based on coverages that we see, or in the run game, different fronts that were supposed to check out of if we see them," he said. ''It's just making sure that we understand what to do in certain situations. Coach Chow's thing, and Coach Neuheisel's thing, they always harp on us to make sure you have a plan before you get to the line - if you see Cover 4 do this, if you see Cover 3 do this. You have to have a plan.

Prince said: "I feel very comfortable with it. For the last half of the season I was running the scout team, so I wasn't able to do that much in practice, but I was still in all the meetings and was in for all of the installation, watched film with all the quarterbacks. But for the first part of the season I was kind of in that second- or third-string spot, so that if Kevin had been hurt or something I wanted to make sure I was prepared. That first half I was really grinding just to make sure I understood what was going on, and that has carried over to now. I feel like, with a season's experience, I have a firm grasp on the offense."

Brehaut, too, is looking forward to an opportunity to compete for the starting job. He completed his senior-year class work at Los Osos High in one semester in order to enroll at UCLA and participate in spring practices. "I'm not going to worry about the pressure of living up to all the hype," he said. "I'm just going to be me, play some football and do whatever I can on the field, whatever I have to do to make my team get that first down and score some points."

The Bruins' other quarterbacks will be scrambling for reps.

Redshirt junior Chris Forcier, the backup the last part of the 2008 season, has to prove that he can run the Bruins' offense and still has issues with his accuracy and arm strength.

"I think (Forcier) is a gifted athlete, but he has to prove to me he has a quarterback mentality. I don't know that he's gotten to that point yet,'' Neuheisel said. ''He makes plays with his legs. I need to know that he can make plays with his arm because he knew what the defense was giving him and he took it rather than just … it happened."

Senior Osaar Rasshan will participate in spring practice but get just a few reps and redshirt freshman Nick Crissman is expected to do some throwing but is not quite to a point he can compete for playing time after having surgery last year to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

But at least for the first two weeks (seven practices), it will be mostly about Prince and Brehaut.

"The traditional way is that the incumbent gets the first reps and all that kind of stuff, but for the guys who are behind, it's very hard to go by somebody without playing in the same situations and with the same players," Neuheisel said.

He continued: "So, to at least give ourselves the most amount of accurate information, we're going to try to play those two younger guys a lot early just to see if they're ready. There is a reason to make this really competitive and so forth, because we've gotten a chance to watch the other guys a lot over the course of the past year - not to say that they can't improve - but just to get an idea where everybody is before we start creating the competition for that pecking order."

Neuheisel and Chow, obviously, do not want to see more of what they did last season.

"I think what we're looking for, number one, is command presence. Number two, some measure of consistency in terms of hitting open receivers. In tennis they call it unforced errors, right? You don't want a bunch of unforced errors. And then number three, play-making ability, where a play breaks down and you can still make it a good play and sometimes still making it a good play is minimizing the disaster," Neuheisel said.

"While you coach that, some people have more of an innate ability to do that than others. But you have to give them a chance to see where they fit in all that."

Craft believes he will be better at that given all of the work that the Bruins' have done since the end of the season, in informal throwing sessions and 7-on-7 scrimmages.

"I think all of us, we've come a long way in the past year,'' Craft said. "Guys aren't learning it, we know it. If you look at a comparison from last year, we're already 10 steps ahead of anywhere we could have been. It's not just at the quarterback position, it's at every position."

But Craft has perhaps more to prove this spring than Prince or Brehaut, considering he was one of only two quarterbacks nationally to throw 20 or more interceptions last season, along with Bo Levi Mitchell from Southern Methodist (23).

"He's got to get a sense of timing, and the timing mechanism for a quarterback are your feet," Neuheisel said. "Your feet have to tell you when to let go of the ball. Obviously a defense and the anticipation of people coming into zones, we're hoping, will get better and I think in time it will as more trust develops between quarterback and receiver. But until we're there, we've got a lot of improvement to do."

Neuheisel elaborated: "A lot of what happened last year was not his (Craft's) fault. A lot of things were protection issues, route breakdowns … people getting familiar with a new offense. That's not his fault. But, that being said, there were things that he has to do better and prove to me that those were aberrations rather than a guy who doesn't understand what we're trying to get done."

Part Two, which focuses on true freshman quarterback Richard Brehaut, is coming soon...

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