UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel is out to prove detractors wrong

UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel is looking to claim the Bruins' starting quarterback job this season over incoming freshman Josh Rosen.

UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel is looking to claim the Bruins’ starting quarterback job this season over incoming freshman Josh Rosen.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Jerry Neuheisel is 22, but not so old that he doesn’t connect with the age-old lesson from a classic children’s story.

“I keep telling him,” his father said, “about ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ ”

The moral of the story: Don’t underestimate someone who believes in himself.


Which Jerry Neuheisel does, prompting an add-on from his father: “He keeps saying, ‘The Little Engine That Could, did,’ ” Jerry said.

Which brings us around to the way the UCLA football team chugged Tuesday into its first spring practice.

The Bruins have 18 starters returning, but Brett Hundley, their quarterback the last three seasons, isn’t one of them.

Neuheisel, who will be a redshirt junior in the fall, has been a backup the last two seasons. Now he is vying to become the starter, but he probably wouldn’t receive a vote among UCLA fans.

The popular candidate is Josh Rosen, a freshman from Bellflower St. John Bosco High, who enrolled early to compete for the job. He was rated very high among the best high school quarterbacks in the nation.

Yet, it was Neuheisel running the first team at the first practice, and dislodging him won’t be easy.

“Jerry is a very, very competitive person,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “He takes what he does seriously. There is no chance that this just gets handed [to Josh]. This is going to be a true battle.”

Neuheisel has been fighting for respect, and playing time, for years.

He was quarterback for a very good high school program at Los Angeles Loyola, but some people considered his scholarship to UCLA a fatherly gift. The head coach who offered it was his dad, who was fired before his son arrived on campus.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a chip on my shoulder,” Neuheisel said. “Everyone thought the scholarship was handed to me, that I didn’t deserve to be here. That motivated me more and more.”

Jerry’s father, Rick, is a former UCLA quarterback who became the Bruins head coach. Rick arrived at UCLA as a walk-on — without a scholarship — but worked his way into becoming a starter who led the Bruins to victory in the 1983 Rose Bowl.

His son was given the walk-on tag unofficially.

“It’s a little frustrating for him,” Rick Neuheisel said. “But he understands why people think that. He has just done the best he can to be ready.”

Jerry Neuheisel was ready in September when Hundley was injured during a game against Texas. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns, including a 33-yard strike to Payton that gave UCLA a 20-17 victory.

Afterward, people stopped giving UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone a skeptical look when he talked glowingly about Neuheisel.

“He has the skill set to do what we ask our quarterbacks to do in this offense,” Mazzone said. “I’m excited about him. He has been in our offense for three years and understands it.”

Coach Jim Mora said that a decision on a quarterback will almost certainly be put off until the summer.

“We just want to see them make progress and set themselves up going into [training] camp in San Bernardino,” Mora said.

During the spring, the quarterbacks will rotate so that two will get all the 11-on-11 work in a practice. Neuheisel and Asiantii Woulard, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, took the first shift. Rosen will get his chance later this week.

There will be little heard from Rosen during spring. He is off limits for interviews until the last spring practice.

Mora said that Rosen’s most difficult chore would be “managing expectations, whether it’s his own expectations or our staff’s expectations or our fans’ expectations.”

Rosen’s play Tuesday, even when limited to individual drills, said plenty. He looked sharp, making zip-line throws on deep passes.

Neuheisel’s arm strength could not compete. But once he began running the offense he looked in command.

“I knew going into this spring that people had written me off,” Neuheisel said. “I think the play is going to speak for itself.”

Follow Chris Foster on Twitter @cfosterlatimes