Brett Hundley, U.C.L.A.'s new starting QB, will have some growing pains, but has the tools to grow up very quickly, too. (photo credit: Telemachus)
The Bruins practiced twice yesterday, so there was a lot of news. Lets get to it...
Much of the morning talk was about the Bruins new starting QB, Brett Hundley. Coach Mora said it came down to a 4 man race with Brett, Kevin Prince, Rich Brehaut, and Jerry Neuheisel. In the end, Mora cited Brett's leadership, his confident throws combined with good decision making, and his ability to run as the factors which set him apart and convinced him and his staff that Brett was the starter. Mora added that the mobility factor wasn't related specifically to the questions about the offensive line but rather that running was a requirement for the QB in this offense, as well as making adjustments within plays.
You can hear the thoughts of Coach Mora, Coach Mazzone, and the reaction of Brett, Prince, and Brehaut in the video compilation on the ESPN-LA UCLA Report here.
The morning practice started a bit earlier yesterday, kicking off at at 8:30. Practice lasted 90 minutes and the players were in helmets and no pads. HT to g.granillo who attended the practice and pointed his finger at some thoughts here. The Bruins got some good news when several players who have been out lately made their way back in to drills including Joe Fauria. Luke Gane, Malcolm Jones, and Tre Hale were all back for a shorter period of time, as well. DE/T Ellis McCarthy, and OL Torian White and Colby Cyburt were running on the sidelines in pads and looked closer to returning (White and Cyburt participated in the evening practice). Mora also sounded optimistic about the return of OL Jeff Baca and Albert Cid pretty soon.
Shaq Evans, Steven Manfro and Jordon James practiced returning kickoffs. Evans doesn't have the explosiveness that Manfor and James have, but he's a playmaker when hitting his stride. Manfro is elusive and James is hard nosed and finds the gaps.
Personally, I'd prefer to see James or Manfro back on kicks, and not because I have been drinking the White Mamba juice (ok, I have a bit) but more because I expect Shaq to be one of our top 2 or 3 receivers and don't think we need to risk him out on kick returns when we have other very good options.
WR Ricky Marvray looked a lot more energized in his second day of full contact drills. He definitely has a swagger to his step since ditching the red jersey.
Marvray is a warrior and I am glad to see him getting his confidence back after missing lots of time with an injury. That tells me he is feeling good physically and knows it is Ricky time. After a frustrating 2011, I am really looking forward to the watching our receiving corps this season. I have more thoughts on this in the evening practice recap below.
The only stability on the offensive line so far has been LT Xavier Su'a-Filo and C Jake Brendel. After that, it's anyone's guess as Ben Wysocki filled in at right guard and Brett Downey at right tackle. Connor McDermott saw time at left tackle and Carl Hulick was at left guard. Kody Innes saw some time at center. Tre Hale filled in at left guard at times before he was pulled from practice. Again, not having a consistent unit is hurting the line's chance to develop cohesiveness before the end of camp.
Maybe me talking about the line is the source of the bad karma? Who knows, but here I go again. In looking for at the instability of our OL so far, I have realized we are creating a lot more depth and experience than we ever would have had the starting 5 all stayed healthy. Granted, it is only practice, but our 2nd and 3rd stringers are getting a lot more reps than anyone ever expected. It does come at the cost of some continuity among the starters, but once we get guys like Baca and Cid and White back into the mix, I think the OL can come together nicely, and they will get a lot more of a push from the guys behind them than they would have had otherwise. I think that this can actually benefit us in the long run. But then, I'm just that sort of eternal optimist.
The evening practice was moved back to 6 pm to give the players a bit more rest between sessions. Coach Mora said that he felt having the previous day off combined with the later start, and the return of several more players, energized the team and everyone's performance stepped up. Melendez said everyone shined. Well, except for one guy.
For the first time in arguably all of camp, just about the entire team shined during the evening pratice.
You know who didn't have the best practice this evening? Brett Hundley. The newly annointed starting quarterback threw four interceptions thanks to a pesky secondary as Demetrice Martin's troops recorded three of the night's five interceptions. Tevin McDonald intercepted Brett Hundley twice in 11-on-11s and true freshman Taylor Lagace had two very nice pass breakups along with an interception off of Kevin Prince in 7-on-7s. Keenan Graham and Ryan Hofmeister intercepted Hundley, the former the end result after Sheldon Price's virtual sack.
Honestly, this news made me laugh. As concerned as we all have been with the starting QB position, we need to remember that Mora's decision to name Hundley the starter is not some sort of milestone at which we can all stop and relax and admire. Rather, it is the start of a new journey for U.C.L.A. football and we all need to get started on that new course asap. Brett has never taken a snap in a real college football game and there will be growing pains along the way. Hopefully, the attributes that Coach Mora mentioned suggest that Hundley should be able to overcome some of those growing pains. But simply naming Hundley the starter doesn't automatically make him Troy Aikman or Cade McNown. Bret Johnson was once named a starter, too (ouch!, why do I do that to myself?!). We can watch how Brett rises with the expectations that are now squarely focused on his young shoulders. I am confident he will be a great U.C.L.A. quarterback. I am equally confident it will not happen tomorrow. If he is learning from those picks last night, we're all in good shape.
Devin Lucien had a good showing as well making two spectacular catches. He lunged his body in mid air and landed sideways but with the ball in hands. Later he went high upstairs falling back and making a one-handed catch.
When you add in Jerry Rice Jr, and Kenny Walker, along with Fauria and Ian Taubler (whom Mora singled out for praise), we should expect an enormous step up from last season's unit.
And speaking of members of that WR corps, Mora also really spoke highly of Damien Thigpen's emergence as a fantastic pass blocker in the backfield, calling him "courageous" and reminding him of Warrick Dunn. That's not the first time we have heard specific praise for Thigpen this week. Believe me, that sort of skill and sacrifice will get him playing time, and the kid deserves it.
And if there isn't quite enough room in the backfield already, make a little more room. Or a lot, actually. Defensive end turned OLB Keenan Graham is getting some looks as a 3rd down short yardage fullback. He's not quite The Fridge, but a defensive lineman will not be happy trying to tackle another defensive lineman. Whether this idea ever makes it to the field on Saturdays, I am glad to see the coaching staff looking for the best players for specific situations.
Hear more in Coach Mora's post practice interview from Melendez:
The Bruins are back at practice on Sunday at 4 pm. This is a time change from the previous schedule. Hopefully, we'll see Hundley look a bit sharper and relaxed in his new role, as well as a few more Bruins return to the field. It's getting close. Rice is 18 days away.