An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. We start with No. 10, UCLA sophomore Brett Hundley.
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In a matter of seconds, with one run on the first weekend of the season, you could sense the collective relief of UCLA fans. One run -- especially against Rice -- doesn't make a career, but Brett Hundley instantly put himself on the national radar as a game-changer for the Bruins. It was a rare sight.
Certain jobs appear perpetually cursed. Just as signing to play running back at Iowa has seemingly guaranteed a torn ACL, playing quarterback under Rick Neuheisel at UCLA meant subjecting oneself to injuries, instability, inconsistency, inaccuracy -- every negative i-word, basically. Neuheisel was forced out late in 2011 for Jim Mora, and all it took was one play in 2012 for Hundley to start changing the perception of the Bruins' quarterback job, one 72-yard touchdown run on the first snap of a college career to assuage concerns.
Yes, we can say it: Hundley is the answer to UCLA's problems. There is no curse. After the home run against lowly Rice, he proved he could pass just fine, too, setting a school record by throwing for 300 yards in three straight games -- against Nebraska, Houston and Oregon State -- all before October. In one month he essentially wrapped up UCLA's best passing season since Drew Olson in 2005, and he ultimately surpassed Cade McNown for the school's single-season passing record, finishing with 3,704 yards in 14 games.
This is exactly what UCLA fans were waiting for, a savior of the program to pull them out of a decade-plus funk laden with mediocrity, the eight seasons of .500 ball or worse out of 13 since McNown took them to the Rose Bowl. Only in 2005 did the Bruins wake up to go 10-2; otherwise, they watched helplessly as the balance of power in Los Angeles swung heavily in favor of crosstown rival USC.
Now, with USC battling scholarship restrictions in the tumultuous Lane Kiffin era, Hundley appears to have arrived at the perfect time.
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Let's compare Hundley's first year as starter to UCLA's leading passer in each season of the Neuheisel era:
|Year||Yards||Comp %||TD||INT||Pass Offense||Rushing Yards|
If Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God has relatives, there must be a cousin who targeted Neuheisel's UCLA quarterbacks. While Neuheisel was supposed to be an offensive guru -- remember, he won 10 games twice at Colorado and a Rose Bowl at Washington -- his offenses fell flat in Westwood, as the Bruins rung up a 21-29 record under him, with QBs plagued by injuries and ineffective play, resulting in his firing before the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
So the best quarterback ever on Neuheisel's UCLA roster never actually took a snap for him; in fact, Neuheisel was adamant that Hundley was not ready as a true freshman in 2011. A year later, all that's left was a proud former recruiter who lost his job in part because of UCLA's total inability to find a reliable quarterback. Neuheisel's players, Jim Mora's success. Neuheisel's declaration of eventual supremacy over USC in Los Angeles, Mora's realization of that vision. Such is life in college coaching.
How much of last year's nine-win turnaround season can be credited to Mora and his staff is impossible to determine after only one season, but what we do know is that Hundley, a redshirt freshman in a new system, had one of the most productive seasons a quarterback has ever had at UCLA, setting school records in completions, passing yards and total yards. He did this despite sharing the backfield with Johnathan Franklin, a 1,700-yard rusher. He did this despite the fact that no single quarterback in America was driven into the ground in 2012 more than he was.
UCLA gave up the second-most sacks in the country, and Hundley took all 52 of them. That includes six by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl -- while Baylor's defense improved greatly late in the season, the Bears had a total of 13 in their first 12 games -- and it also included six by Cal, which owned the nation's 104th ranked pass defense. There's no way to spin the numbers positively.
Hundley was only a 19-year-old freshman last year, and there were certainly times where he held onto the ball too long, a common occurrence for mobile quarterbacks who can use their feet to stay alive longer than traditional pocket passers. So he's not blameless. But neither is UCLA's offensive line, which may have helped pave the way for Franklin to average 6.1 yards per carry but was often brutal in blitz pickup.
The ridiculous number of sacks only makes the rest of Hundley's game look even better. At times he looked like a younger Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, using his size (6-foot-3, now 227 pounds) and nimble feet to hang in there and avoid the rush. While he was sacked more than anyone, he showed uncommon poise and still put up eye-popping numbers for a freshman, numbers that were overshadowed by the even better seasons posted by a couple other freshman quarterbacks, Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota. When you see that he finished with 355 net rushing yards, remember that he lost 347 yards on sacks, meaning he actually gained 702 as a runner and scored nine touchdowns.
A high number of sacks was to be expected, really. No matter how much talent is there, the Bruins broke in a new quarterback, three freshmen starters on the offensive line (plus a star in guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, who had missed two years for a mission trip) and a new coaching staff led by Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Things will get better, and that's on top of a situation that was already pretty good by UCLA standards.
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The narrative's familiar, and maybe we'll see it again this fall: star freshman falls into sophomore slump, then bounces back as an upperclassman. While Hundley isn't going to get sacked 50 times again, he does have to deal with the loss of Franklin and receivers Joseph Fauria (12 touchdowns) and Jerry Johnson, although leading target Shaq Evans returns. UCLA's schedule won't do Hundley any favors either, as the Bruins draw five road games in the nine-game Pac-12 schedule, including back-to-back cross-division road trips to national title contenders Stanford and Oregon, plus a nonconference return trip to Nebraska.
In 2012, Franklin was a full and equal partner in UCLA's offensive success. He's gone now, which puts the future of the Bruins' offense fully in the hands of their capable sophomore quarterback, the former five-star recruit who can move UCLA forward for good after it spent more than a decade wallowing in mediocrity as its crosstown rival achieved glory. There are negatives, yes, but the positives appear to outweigh them: a year under his belt in Mazzone's spread system, a more seasoned offensive line, natural passing ability matched by few other college quarterbacks. Hundley showed uncommon poise and command of the offense as a freshman, so there's no reason he can't build on that.
The Bruins may not win the Pac-12 South again this year, but they are a threat. So, yes, the football monopoly in Los Angeles is actually over. UCLA had myriad problems, but it all started at quarterback. A resurgence starts there too.
Thanks to Hundley, UCLA can finally breathe easy.
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