Despite setbacks, UCLA’s Brett Hundley says his return was worth it

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley leads the nation with a 72% completion rate and is sixth with a 170.7 passing efficiency rating.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Quarterback Brett Hundley came back to UCLA this season with a to-do list after deciding to put off the NFL draft for a year:

•Win a Pac-12 Conference football championship.

•Take a run at the national title.

•Take a December trip to New York and pose while holding a bronze statue.

Halfway through this season, nothing on the list has been completely knocked off the table, but the first is looking like a longshot and the second two are hanging by a thread after back-to-back UCLA losses to Utah and Oregon.


But that doesn’t necessarily mean Hundley made a wrong decision.

“I think he made the right decision coming back,” said an NFL scout who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized by his team to discuss prospects publicly. “He has holes, and scouts would have found them last year. He holds the ball too long. He’s not as accurate in the pocket once you start charting him. Those things would pop up as scouts go through their evaluation of him.”

Hundley, a fourth-year junior, has worked hard to improve, and UCLA Coach Jim Mora talks glowingly about his quarterback’s development. But the scout said Hundley should consider staying with the Bruins again even after this season.

“We’ll see where he’s at in January,” the scout said. “We’ll see what that quarterback class looks like, who’s decided to come out, who’s staying. But I think he’s got to really consider [staying] right now.”

That’s not likely to happen.

Hundley said in January that this would be his last season at UCLA, and he said this week, “Nothing has changed.”

Hundley returned to UCLA in part because he believed he might be the difference in the Bruins having a breakout season. UCLA was ranked seventh in the nation when the season began but has a 4-2 record and is unranked heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 game against California at Berkeley.

Mora said he has seen growth in his quarterback, and points out that Hundley has completed 72% of his passes, tops in the nation. With 1,526 yards passing and 11 touchdown passes with just three passes intercepted, his 170.7 passing efficiency rating is sixth nationally.

But it has been a rough learning curve. Hundley has been sacked 23 times. Only four of the nation’s top-level teams have allowed more sacks per game.

UCLA has had some injuries and inconsistent play along its offensive line, but the NFL scout said Hundley hasn’t helped himself.

“He has a long way to go,” the scout said. “He’s still athletic. He’s still smart. He’s still a good worker. He just needs to become a better passer in the pocket, and he needs to learn that he’s got to stay in there and throw the ball accurately inside the pocket.

“Don’t take those sacks. You never see Peyton Manning taking those kind of sacks. You can’t hold onto the ball for five seconds.”

Noel Mazzone, UCLA’s offensive coordinator, said Hundley has improved as a passer but acknowledged this season hasn’t been smooth. He also said Hundley might be better for having faced the adversity.

“He has gone through experiences this season that quarterbacks need to go through,” Mazzone said. “The good and the bad. Those are things that make you a better quarterback.”

The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go decision for a high-end college quarterback is constantly re-visited.

USC’s Matt Barkley was considered a certain first round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. He chose to return for his senior year. USC, the top-ranked team heading into the season, finished 7-6 and Barkley suffered a separated shoulder. He became a fourth-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles.

“That’s the big one that everyone always talks about,” Hundley said. “To his credit, he came back and did what he needed to do. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the greatest season. At the same time, he got more experience.”

When Hundley was contemplating his decision, Mora showed him a power-point presentation of quarterbacks who benefited from returning for one more college season — Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Andrew Luck.

Even though Hundley said his NFL draft evaluation determined he “would go anywhere from high in the first round to low in the first round,” he decided to stay.

“The quarterbacks who stayed and had those extra college starts did a better statistically in the league,” Hundley said.

The NFL scout said the move was the right one, saying: “Had he gone out, he probably would have gone in the first round because there’s always going to be somebody who needs a quarterback. Coaches always think they can fix him because he’s a nice kid and he’s got a skill set.

“On the surface, if you just throw in a tape and you’re casually watching, yeah, he’s throwing for yards, he’s athletic, but he was very raw and under-developed.”

Hundley started the season high on many Heisman Trophy watch lists. This week, in a straw poll by, Hundley wasn’t even the top candidate in Los Angeles. USC running back Javorius Allen was sixth in the poll; Hundley was not listed.

Still, Hundley remains confident.

“If we go out and do what we need to do the next six games, we still have a chance,” he said. “We can still get to the Pac-12 championship game. We can still go to a big-time bowl game.”

And if those things don’t happen?

“Coming back,” Hundley said, “was worthwhile experience.”

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.