Going into last season, Rick Neuheisel had the opportunity of playing Brett Hundley, a talented true freshman out of Arizona, at quarterback in the hopes that he would beat out two vanilla options in Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut. Hundley battled minor injuries in camp and it was decided that he would be redshirted as the Bruins opted to save his freshman season for 2012. A year and some change later, new head coach Jim Mora couldn’t be more pleased and Neuheisel might regret playing Prince for so long.
If it wasn’t for an unlucky year in which peers Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota are going to run away, literally, with a ton of Freshman All-America honors and any award that Collin Klein doesn’t win, Hundley could have been the best freshman in the country.
Through 10 games, Hundley is second or third in the Pac-12 in most passing categories, while boasting a touchdowns to interception ratio of 24 to 9, second only to Oregon’s Mariota. He’s led the Bruins to eight wins and has put the Bruins in contention to make a BCS Bowl for the first time 14 years.
Then, senior Cade McNown was slinging the ball to Danny Farmer. Now, Hundley is playing in a revolutionized UCLA offense predicated on running an up-tempo spread offense through heavy use of backs and tight ends as receivers.
While he is athletic and mobile, Lane Kiffin asserted that Hundley is a pocket passer who has the ability to run, as opposed to a Mariota, who is a scrambler with the ability to pass. Given UCLA’s offense, it’s Hundley’s mobility that allows him to be a difference maker, as seen with his 72-yard touchdown run on his first collegiate snap against Rice, back in August.
Behind Hundley may be the best combo-back in the nation not named Kenjon Barner, as Johnathan Franklin is closing out his UCLA career in style. Franklin is averaging 127 yards per game and should finish surpassing the 1,500-yard mark with ease. Should he cross that plateau, he would become just the second Bruin to ever rush for that many yards in a season, as Karim Abdul-Jabbar set a school record with 1,571 yards in 1995.
Throughout the season, Franklin has been able to turn short runs into breakouts and he’s really evolved as an elusive runner in space, as opposed to a more vision-based runner as seen in seasons past. That’s also more prevalent this season due to UCLA’s new offensive system that has taken a significant amount of the passing game out of the hands of wide receivers and into the hands of their playmakers, like Franklin and running back/receiver-combo extraordinaire, Steven Manfro.
Manfro is an x-factor in a few different ways, as he’s the Bruins’ slot receiver in addition to seeing time on special teams. He’s a shifty character that plays with a resemblance to a very raw Maurice Jones-Drew, and like Franklin, he’s being used in the slot and out of the back field, giving the Bruins several options in the passing game.
The versatility of formations this year has limited the number of rushing touchdowns for Franklin, but it’s vastly improving the rate at which the Bruins are scoring. Once in the redzone, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone likes to go to tight end Joseph Fauria. The big Notre Dame transfer is NFL-ready and just another solid Pac-12 tight end, in addition to being one of the conference’s most efficient playmakers inside the redzone. Being 6-foot-7 with the mobility of a wide receiver is pivotal for creating mismatches, and so far in 2012, Fauria has seven touchdowns in the redzone on just eight catches .
Other than Franklin, Manfro and Fauria, wide receiver Shaq Evans is Hundley’s favorite target, as the 6-foot-1 junior flanker leads the team in receptions with 39, and is the Bruins’ deep threat. Senior split-end Jerry Johnson serves as UCLA’s possession receiver, while freshman Kenneth Walker is seeing time in the slot along with Manfro. Re-entering the fray could be Devin Lucien, who broke his clavicle back in September. Lucien’s status is up-in-the-air, but according to reports on twitter from Lucien himself, his timetable includes being able to play against SC.
While the Bruins have all of the pieces for a solid offense, evident with a yardage output that ranks 13th in the nation, as been the trend with the Bruins over the last decade, the offensive line has plenty of question marks. The Bruins are 111th in sacks allowed and if they want to keep a rthymn going against the Trojans, they’ll have to find a way to protect Hundley USC’s talented defensive line.
Senior right guard Jeff Baca is the best and most experienced of the bunch, but the line is vastly green, with three freshmen starters, including 6-foot-7, 324 pound right tackle Simon Goines. Goines however, has been battling an undisclosed injury this week in practice, leaving his status for the game in question, per Mora’s stringent injury policy. If he can’t go, senior Brett Downey could start in his place, bringing more inexperience, as he was primarily used on placekicking packages last season.
Overall, UCLA has their most prolific offense since 2005 and their most talented since the beginning of the Bob Toledo era. The scary part? They’re extremely young, as they roll with six underclassmen starters on offense, including freshmen Hundley and Manfro.
UCLA’s Projected Offensive Starters
WR Jerry Johnson #9
LT Torian White #77
LG Xavier Su’a Filo #56
C Jake Brendel #54
RG Jeff Baca #60
RT Simon Goines #70
TE Joseph Fauria #8
WR Steven Manfro #33
QB Brett Hundley #17
FB David Allen #41
TB Johnathan Franklin #23
WR Shaq Evans #1
Note: UCLA denotes their depth chart as to having four receivers, giving them 12 listed starters.