Be happy that you have one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Brett Hundley isn’t flawless, but not many players in the country have the same level of tantalizing potential. (I don’t think he’ll leave, but if Hundley declares for the 2014 draft, SI already has him as the No. 8 pick.)
A superlative freshman campaign — 3,745 yards, 29 touchdowns against 11 picks — proved that the 6-foot-3 dual threat is the quarterback the Bruins have long sought. Perhaps the biggest knock on him was his decision-making, whether that meant not throwing the ball away when he needed to or not sliding at the right time. In spring, he looked like he corrected some of that, drawing cheers from his teammates once when he slid on a scramble.
He also took 52 sacks last season — second-most in college football, and something that did start to affect him later in the fall.
“It’s easy on the sideline where I’ve got a collared shirt and pants on to tell him, ‘Keep your eyes down the field,’ quarterbacks coach Taylor Mazzone said. “He’s getting a 300-pound guy hitting him in the side of the face. … He did get timid a little bit. He sort of had happy feet, as we say. That pushed him off his progression too quickly and missing our pass concepts here and there. But he’s getting better.”
The additional 20 pounds he added — up 230, down to 8 percent body fat — should help him when he does get hit. An improved offensive line should make sure that happens less often.
Through the last week of spring, Hundley also strapped a Go-Pro camera to his helmet to add another angle on film; he had first tried out that vantage point during Holiday Bowl practices, when he kept a camera on after going paintballing.
As for backups, well, it’s obviously best to hope that none of them will be needed for extended action. Competition there is open, but T.J. Millweard looked like the most worthy candidate through the spring. Jerry Neuheisel just doesn’t have the same arm strength.
Wide receivers/tight end
Devin Fuller is the player you want to keep an eye on. Jim Mora said the converted quarterback is in the same mold as Percy Harvin, and as far as ceiling goes, Fuller has a chance to be that type of player. He seems a natural fit in the slot, though he has the athleticism to be used pretty much everywhere on the field. Mora did say that the team wanted to be careful about overloading Fuller — who is still learning the receiver position — so the Wildcat package he’s been featured in might only be used sparingly.
Shaq Evans and Jordan Payton still look like the starting outside receivers, with the former especially coming on through the last week or two of spring. Receivers coach Eric Yarber said about halfway through camp that he considers Devin Lucien a starter too in a three-man rotation, but the redshirt sophomore faded a bit after a great start to spring.
Replacing Joseph Fauria at Y receiver/tight end is the 5-foot-11 Darius Bell, who regards himself as a technician in the mold of Wes Welker. He has a firm grasp on that spot as long as he can stay healthy; last season, he battled a sprained ankle upon returning from his rib injury. Ian Taubler is behind him for now, but I’m eager to see what freshman Thomas Duarte does in San Bernardino.
Early enrollee Eldridge Massington is still rehabbing from the torn ACL that sidelined him for his senior season.
“It’s going to take an incident where he’s going to catch a ball, and he’s not gonna think about it and he’s going to spin, take a hit, put his foot in the ground and change direction,” Yarber said. “Then he’s going to say ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ That won’t happen until probably summer camp.”
Spring practices did nothing to change the inevitability of a running back committee this season. Jordon James, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones split reps while Steve Manfro (shoulder) and Damien Thigpen (ACL) rehabbed their respective injuries. Coaches repeatedly said they believe that approach will be effective, though I think if you had to pick a lead back at this point, it’d be James. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone also said he doesn’t see the backs working in specific roles either, such as Jones being used more in goal-line situations.
One or two freshmen will probably start come fall, with others playing substantial downs. This isn’t surprising considering the 52 sacks UCLA surrendered last season, and the ensuing recruiting push that landed seven offensive linemen — arguably the nation’s best haul at the position.
But the influx of talent — most notably guards Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch — also makes it hard to judge project the unit’s spring performance into the fall. Xavier Su’a-Filo and center Jake Brendel are virtual locks to start, while Torian White did enough in the spring that he’ll likely also stay in the first five. Simon Goines was in and out of practices, but could be solid if he’s fully healthy. Alberto Cid’s medical retirement (concussions) also hurts depth.
That said, the line will likely be better than it was a year ago, if for no reason besides the improvement of the returning players. Combined with Hundley becoming more decisive in the backfield, UCLA probably won’t lead the conference again in sacks allowed.
“I can maybe help a lineman out with knowing things and changing protection, helping them pick up who they need to pick up,” said Hundley, adding that he couldn’t have put up numbers last season without his line. “On my end, I’ve got to get better at throwing the ball away, running, or just knowing the situation and knowing what to do in that situation.”