LOS ANGELES — Brett Hundley piloted an offense that averaged 466.5 yards and 34.4 points a game in 2012. The UCLA quarterback helped lead a turnaround season during which the Bruins beat USC for the first time since 2006 and — unlike in 2011 — advanced to the Pac-12 title game by actually finishing first in the South division. Thanks to Hundley and his teammates, the denizens of Westwood won’t spend the fall months scratching dates off the calendar until the first basketball game.
When Hundley looks back on how far UCLA football has come in the past year, he beams with pride. But when he clicks on the video to see exactly how UCLA got there, an entirely different sensation washes over the usually bubbly quarterback from Arizona.
“When we watch film on ourselves after the season — I’m not going to lie — it looks so ugly,” Hundley said. The past month, Hundley has cringed as he has watched receiver after receiver run wide open as he hesitated last fall. In coordinator Noel Mazzone’s fast-break, Air Raid-style offense, the quarterback has a plethora of throwing options on every play. But first-year starters, as Hundley was last year, tend to miss many of those options. “You have no idea,” Hundley said. “I was watching the Baylor film, and it drove me nuts.”
The Bruins’ Holiday Bowl loss to the Bears provided plenty of infuriating material. Hundley had to throw often as the Bruins tried to dig out of a 35-7 second-quarter hole. He wound up completing 26-of-52 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, but he knows those numbers should have been much better. Typically, some short and intermediate routes come open so quickly that an inexperienced signal-caller doesn’t notice the receiver until the window has closed. As quarterbacks grow more experienced in the system, months of haranguing in the meeting room finally click. They finally see the open receivers on the field rather than a day later on video.
That’s why Hundley and Bruins offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo are so excited to get back on the field for spring practice. If the Bruins could make all those offensive strides last year, imagine the numbers they can compile now that they actually have some idea of what they’re doing. “We know pretty much what we’re running,” Su’a-Filo said, “and there shouldn’t be any hesitation.”
Su’a-Filo started 13 games at left tackle as a freshman in 2009, but then he left Los Angeles to serve a Mormon mission. After two years spent spreading the word in Florida’s panhandle, Su’a-Filo returned to find a new head coach (Jim Mora), a radically different offense and a new mentality. He started 14 games at left guard last season, but the 21 year old felt like a freshman again. Considering the line also featured three actual freshmen (two redshirt, one true), senior guard Jeff Baca was left doing a lot of babysitting. “It was tough. We had our bumps,” Su’a-Filo said. “Especially me. I considered myself a young guy because I hadn’t played for two years.”
But Su’a-Filo, who could move back to tackle in 2013 depending on how the linemen develop, fell in love with the offense, which routinely requires guards to pull and allows them to get to the second level and bulldoze linebackers or splatter safeties. At one point during the USC game, Su’a-Filo realized he’d pulled on three consecutive plays. Aside from empathy for the receivers, Su’a-Filo also noticed how well conditioned he had gotten playing in UCLA’s no-huddle offense. As Trojans’ defenders gasped for breath, Su’a-Filo was ready for another play.
With four starting linemen, the quarterback and three starting receivers returning, the Bruins should grasp the offense better. They’ll need to replace the production of tight end Joe Fauria (46 catches, 12 receiving touchdowns) and tailback Johnathan Franklin (1,734 rushing yards, 15 total touchdowns), but an offense that Mazzone joked in 2012 needed permission slips from moms for road trips has become more of an asset than a liability. Hundley believes some of the players waiting in the wings can capably replace the departed stars. Hundley might be a bit biased since he played with redshirt freshman tailback Paul Perkins at Chandler High in suburban Phoenix, but Hundley believes Perkins has the tools to be the next great UCLA back. “He’s under the radar a lot,” Hundley said. “But I promise everybody that he’s going to be a monster.”
The Bruins also should attack this offseason from a better mental place. A year ago, no one on the roster had won more than six games in a season. The veterans couldn’t teach the youngsters a winning mentality because they had never known one themselves. “It’s so much different. It’s crazy,” Hundley said. “From where this team was and what the vibe was two years ago, it’s crazy how much things can change.” Mora and his staff worked to instill a mentality that mimicked an NFL team. Wins were not monumental achievements to be celebrated for weeks. Every game couldn’t be the Super Bowl.
This worked to a point. Though Mora tried to temper the stakes of the USC game, he couldn’t drown out the outside hype. UCLA’s 38-28 win over the Trojans felt like a paradigm shift in the L.A. football landscape. Unfortunately, the Bruins still had three games to play. They lost them all — including two to Stanford — by a combined score of 111-67. This offseason, the Bruins must continue to learn how to expect success. That way, they don’t waste energy celebrating games they should have known they’d win. “We wanted to set a foundation, and we did that,” Hundley said. “But now it’s time to set some standards around here. That’s what we’re getting at. It’s winning championships — not just going to a bowl game and getting your butt kicked.”
Those new standards have shown up in the meeting rooms this offseason. Instead of marveling at all the touchdowns they piled up last year, the Bruins have spent the offseason kicking themselves for yards they could have gained and points they left on the field. “At the end of the day, there’s always one thing open,” Hundley said. “The only thing that can stop us from hitting that is execution.” When UCLA players return to the practice field, they’ll work to keep themselves from being their greatest impediment. “That’s what we’re anxious about,” Su’a-Filo said. “Waiting to get out there and see how explosive this offense can be.”