Brett Hundley’s outside-of-football interests include art, philosophy and history. And those all could come in handy as he takes over as UCLA’s quarterback and tries to remind fans of another era.
Thirteen long seasons have passed since a UCLA quarterback took the Bruins to a Rose Bowl. Thirteen NFL drafts have come and gone since a UCLA quarterback was deemed worthy of selection.
The Bruins have had impact quarterbacks. Bob Waterfield, Gary Beban, Troy Aikman, Tommy Maddox, Cade McNown and others left their mark.
Hundley, 19, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound redshirt freshman who is as much a threat running as he is throwing, now gets his chance.
“The No. 1 problem with the UCLA football program for the last decade has been the fact that we have not had the kind quarterback on a consistent level that we had prior to that,” former Bruins coach Terry Donahue says.
Hundley will now take his shot at becoming the solution.
Injuries and inconsistency have haunted the UCLA quarterback position since 1998, when McNown led the Bruins to their last Rose Bowl appearance. McNown was a first-round pick in the NFL draft that spring, the last UCLA quarterback selected.
“I was 5, just a little kid with a thick head, running around tossing the ball with Pops,” Hundley says.
As for the Bruins’ history at the position, Hundley was thrown for a loss, saying, “I know about Aikman.”
That makes for quite a generation gap.
Stanford was long ago dubbed Quarterback U, with Andrew Luck reaffirming that the last two seasons. But UCLA could once lay claim to Quarterback Us Too.
The Cardinal had Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett in 1970. UCLA’s Beban took home the statute three years earlier. John Elway left Stanford and won two Super Bowls. Aikman left UCLA and won three.
Stanford could not match UCLA’s success in the 1980s, when Tom Ramsey, Rick Neuheisel and David Norrie all led UCLA to Rose Bowl victories. Aikman transferred in from Oklahoma and went 20-4 in two seasons.
“From Tom Ramsey on, it was a big-time quarterback school,” says Matt Stevens, the Bruins’ starting quarterback in 1986. “My senior year, we had Jeff George and Troy Aikman who wanted to transfer in.”
Both became first overall picks in the NFL draft, Aikman in 1989 and George, who went to Illinois, in 1990.
So what happened?
Since McNown, quarterbacks at UCLA have struggled. There was a one-season revival with Drew Olson, who had future NFL stars in running back Maurice Jones-Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis with him in 2005. Olson threw 34 touchdown passes and finished eighth in the Heisman voting. No UCLA quarterback has thrown for more than 12 touchdowns since.
Kevin Prince, now a senior, won the job the past three seasons but was unable to stay healthy. Ben Olson, once described as a left-handed Elway, had the same problem from 2006-08.
But injuries are only a portion of the saga.
“Depth at quarterback has been a problem,” says Stevens, now a radio analyst for UCLA games. “You need a guy pushing the other guy, and another guy pushing him. When I came here, I was sixth string. As a freshman, I got two plays in the scrimmage and that was a big deal.”
From 1982-86, Neuheisel, Norrie, Stevens and Steve Bono were fifth-year seniors when they got the job.
“It took a lot of our guys four years, five years to win the job,” Donahue says. “A program needs a series of quarterbacks coming into the program. That keeps you going.”
Hundley is taking over in his second year in the program. He practiced but did not play in a game last year, so his is a blank canvas. He lacks experience but has other qualities that first-year Coach Jim Mora has quickly grown to appreciate.
“He has a rare confidence, especially for a young guy who has never taken a snap in a college football game,” Mora says. “He plays the game with enthusiasm and it’s infectious.”
After Hundley completed a pass to Tyler Scott, a walk-on wide receiver, last week in practice, he sprinted upfield shouting, “I told you I would put it up there for you.”
It’s the Hundley touch. He is outgoing, personable, and totes a sense of purpose like carry-on luggage.
Hundley says the first time he pointed out a mistake to an upperclassman, “I was like, ‘Uh, um, don’t do that.’” The next time, he was more forceful.
“The seniors want to win now,” Hundley says, adding this about his philosophy: “We’re not building for the future. We’re building for this season.”
Hundley has been building to this all his life. Brett Hundley Sr. remembers his son as a 3-year-old “with a plastic Fred Flintstone bat wanting me to keep throwing balls at him in the backyard.”
Hundley Sr. says he watched his son as a 4-year old in flag football, and “I thought, ‘Whoa, we may be on to something here.’”
Hundley threw for 2,348 yards and ran for 856 as a senior at Chandler (Ariz.) High.
“He had raw mechanics, but I liked the way he handled himself,” says UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who was an Arizona State assistant at the time.
Neuheisel, UCLA’s coach from 2008-2011, won the recruiting tug-of-war and Hundley brought high expectations to Westwood.
The Heisman Trophy discussion in Los Angeles has been at USC, where the Trojans have won three trophies — though they gave one back — since 2002. Quarterback Matt Barkley is the front-runner this season.
“We have to bring that talk back across town,” Hundley says. “I’m not talking about me, but we need to work together to put someone in that spotlight.”
As for all that recent UCLA history, forget it. The Hundley era begins in Houston against Rice on Aug. 30.
“We’re not going to tiptoe into it,” the new guy promises. “We’re going to be ready to show the nation what we can do.”