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Thursday, November 1, 2012
Brett Hundley stays cool, aims high

By Peter Yoon

Brett Hundley
Brett Hundley's game-winning drive at ASU helped show his ability to become an elite quarterback.

LOS ANGELES -- Things are happening quickly for UCLA's Brett Hundley, but he’s trying to keep things in check.

He went from phenom prospect to starting quarterback during the offseason but tried to stay humble. He took command of a fast-paced offense and never really slowed down but surrounded himself with people who helped him keep his head out of the clouds.

Hundley's career started in spectacular fashion, a 72-yard touchdown run on his first college snap, at Rice, and the fairy tale continued last Saturday when he drove UCLA 65 yards in the final 1:33 to set up a winning field goal in a 45-43 victory over Arizona State.

In between, he became the first quarterback in UCLA history with three consecutive 300-yard passing games, has already set the school record for touchdown passes by a freshman with 18 and has started the season with at least one touchdown pass in eight consecutive games -- the first UCLA quarterback to do that since Cade McNown in 1998.

And all the while, Hundley has remained even-keeled -- a cool customer who vows the highs will never be too high and the lows will never be too low.

"I surround myself with the people I trust and they will lead me in the right direction," Hundley said. "If I step off the path for a second, they'll be there to slap me back on."

These days, it's getting harder and harder to stay on that path. He's third in the Pac-12 with 2,190 yards passing, behind seniors Matt Scott of Arizona (2,724) and Matt Barkley of USC (2,266), and is within reach of McNown’s single-season school record of 3,470 yards. And did we mention it is his first year as a college football starter?

Even as he has tried to keep a level head about his success so far, Hundley said it hasn't caught him off guard at all because it's exactly what he imagined would happen when he became a starting quarterback.

"I expect big things from myself," Hundley said. "I expect a lot of things from myself, so I always expect the best. I put in a lot of work, so I hope to make the most of that."

Hundley came to UCLA and immediately was dubbed "The Savior" because quarterback has been a sore spot for UCLA over much of the past decade. It's a nickname he reluctantly accepted because he indeed wanted to help turn a mediocre football program back into one of national prominence.

With 18 touchdown passes this season, the most in a season by a UCLA quarterback since Drew Olson had a school-record 34 in 2005, Hundley is off to a good start, but he knows it's only the beginning.

"I know it can all change in an instant," Hundley said. "If you have a bad game, it all goes to crap, so being consistent is what you try to strive for."

That lesson has been ingrained in him for years. His father, Brett Sr., used to take Hundley out on early-morning runs and have heart-to-heart talks about the day when he would become the focal point of a major college program. The message always centered on staying grounded.

"The main thing that we always talk about is just stay humble with everything," the elder Hundley said. "Stay true to yourself as a person, as a man and as an athlete. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Just try to be exactly who you are and remember every day is a new opportunity."

When Hundley won the job over experienced seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut in training camp, the coaches talked about his upside. They said he might be raw at first, but if he continued to progress, he'd eventually pass the others who, as seniors, were close to a plateau in their progression.

Even so, the coaches kept him in check. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Noel Mazzone kept a close eye on his prodigy. He kept things simple early, relied more on Johnathan Franklin and the run game and made sure to ride co-pilot as Hundley steered through games.

Mazzone likened Hundley's progress to a young driver learning how to drive a stick shift car.

"He'd be jerking back and forth and grinding the gears and popping the clutch and killing the car," Mazzone said. "One day he gets it, and you say, 'OK, it's your car, you go drive it.'"

That day came last week with 1:33 left against Arizona State. The Sun Devils scored a late touchdown to take a 43-42 lead and the Bruins took over at their own 25. Hundley completed 4 of 5 passes for 40 yards and got the Bruins to the Arizona State 15 with 2 seconds to go. Ka'imi Fairburn booted a 33-yard winning field goal.

It was a drive that elevated Hundley’s status. A quarterback with the ability to lead winning drives has a good chance to become elite.

"I think his ceiling is whatever he wants to be," Mazzone said. "That drive is another experience that you can put in your bank and say, 'I've been in this situation before and I've had successes.' Those are things you learn from. He's got his little bank of experiences that he can pull from and use when he gets in those situations again."

That bank also includes the game against California. Hundley had four passes intercepted after having only three intercepted in his first five games. It was one of those gear-grinding, clutch-popping moments.

Hundley turned to Franklin, his close friend and roommate who had been through plenty of hard times during his career. Franklin told him to keep on trucking.

"I've been there," Franklin said. "I started my redshirt freshman year, so I try give him wisdom and help him handle situations. When he has games that don't go his way with turnovers and things, I just tell him I've been there and that it's not about what happened, it's how you bounce back."

Two games after the California debacle, Hundley led the comeback.

"[Franklin] told me about how everything can change like that and everything can spiral down in a quick second," Hundley said. "I had heard that, but going through it firsthand was a learning experience. It helped."