Brett Hundley learning fast for UCLA's own good

Brett Hundley is being brought along slowly, his coaches say, but his potential to be very good is evident. Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire

PASADENA, Calif. -- When UCLA Bruins coach Jim Mora was asked about redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley on Saturday night he simply smiled.

He wasn't grinning as he looked at the final stat sheet because Hundley completed 21-of-33 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns or because Hundley didn't throw an interception while running 12 times for 53 yards.

After Hundley led UCLA to a 36-30 upset victory over the No. 16 Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Rose Bowl, Mora was more focused on a couple of plays by Hundley that didn't show up on the final box score and certainly won't show up on the highlight reel.

"He needs to learn how to slide and he needs to learn how to take a knee," Mora said. "If he can learn how to do those things he might be able to avoid injury."

Mora was only half-joking following Hundley's second impressive start as UCLA's quarterback.

Hundley was momentarily knocked out of the game early in the third quarter when he attempted an awkward slide to the Nebraska nine-yard line after a five-yard run. Richard Brehaut replaced Hundley and went 1-for-5 for four yards as UCLA settled for a field goal. And at the end of the game as UCLA got into its "victory formation" to run out the clock, Hundley fell over as he attempted to take a knee.

"I probably need to get the Slip n' Slide out at practice," Hundley said with a smile. "I'll learn. I'll get there."

Perhaps nothing speaks to how far UCLA has come than the fact Hundley, the most dynamic quarterback UCLA has had in years, will spend this week practicing how to slide following a long run and how to take a knee to secure a victory.

If these are the kinds of things you're worrying about when it comes to your 19-year-old quarterback, well, you're way ahead of schedule.

No one can quite put their finger on when Hundley took a stranglehold of this team and made it his long before Mora named him the starter three weeks before the season opener against Rice. It wasn't one practice or one play or one moment that did it for him but a collection of them built over time. It was his constant presence in the film room, the weight room and the practice field.

Hundley didn't need to be told this was his team and the team didn't need to be told this was Hundley's team, it was just something that sort of happened and grew organically after the seeds were planted during a stellar spring camp.

"Brett is the type of guy that just being around him, he'll make you better," said UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, who ran for 217 yards in 26 carries and had three receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown. "He's humble. He works hard every day. He's in the film room all the time. He lives football. He's going to be a great player and he's going to take this team to the top."

Franklin, a redshirt senior, was laughing with Hundley after the game about Hundley turning into a 6-foot-4, 225-pound fullback for him on Franklin's final run of the game.

"He's our leader," Franklin said. "He sets the tone."

Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone didn't necessarily chart out a path for Hundley's growth this season. They threw out those conventional charts when they saw how much he grew from one practice to the next and now, from one game to the next.

"There was a tremendous amount of improvement by Brett from week one to week two," Mora said. "It was in his willingness to pull the trigger when he saw things down the field. He was much more decisive. We talked about last week how there was some hesitancy in his game, which is understandable starting his first game, but today I didn't see that hesitancy. I saw a decisive quarterback."

Last week when Hundley completed 21-of-28 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 68 more and a touchdown while Franklin rushed for 214 yards in 15 carries and three touchdowns, many gave Rice's porous defense more credit than UCLA for the 49-24 final score. That likely won't be the case this week after Hundley and Franklin put up better numbers against Nebraska.

This is beginning to look like more of a trend than an aberration under Mora, who has allowed his players far more freedom on offense than they have ever had before.

"Coach Mora, he's coached Michael Vick, so he knows if there's nothing there, you take off running," Hundley said. "That's what he always says. Have fun and play the game of football. We always talk about me playing my game, so if there's nothing there, I can take the ball and take off running."

Mora is far more comfortable allowing Hundley to play his game now after testing him during spring and fall camp and watching Hundley time after time pass each test.

"In practice you try to create problems for your players that they have to figure out," Mora said. "That's what happens on the field. You can't hold their hand out on the field. Every time we put Brett in a situation where he made a poor decision in practice, he followed it up by making a really good play. So there were indications early on that this game was not too big for him."

As Mazzone lingered in the Rose Bowl after the game, he was still surprised by the numbers his offense churned out and how well the tandem of Hundley and Franklin have played through the first two weeks.

The scary truth is Mazzone has actually reeled Hundley in a bit and tried not to put too much on his young quarterback's plate.

"He's a very smart kid," Mazzone said. "But I have to be careful I don't give him too much because he wants to do everything just right."

It's not that Hundley, who made the athletic director's honor roll last winter and graduated early from high school to enroll in UCLA last spring, can't handle it, but Mazzone still wants to bring him along slowly.

If this is Hundley being brought along slowly, there might very well be another quarterback in Los Angeles vying for a Heisman before too long.

"If he can overcome his coaching," Mazzone said. "He can really be good."