Saturday, May 25

Out with the old & in with the new


Charlie Wang

Charlie Wang

Freshman Jerry Neuheisel is working to earn snaps at quarterback in UCLA’s spring practice under new coach Jim Mora.

There’s a structure on the side of Spaulding Field. I’m not really sure what to call it.

Work room would be giving it too much credit, but it’s more than a shack. It houses various supplies for the football team and during the spring and fall, it’s cleared out for members of the media to work on their stories.

It’s complete with a makeshift wireless router, a makeshift air conditioner and some makeshift beat reporters.

Last season, it served as a forum for us to break down what we were seeing, free from coach-speak and cliches. We had some good laughs and some engaging conversations there last season, but my favorite memory of that place by far came during the dog days of summer practice.

Under former coach Rick Neuheisel, the team had an annual talent show to break up the monotony. Word had got out that the highlight of the show was a re-enactment of a scene from “The Dark Knight” in which redshirt sophomore tight end Luke Gane played the Joker. Gane was supposedly interrogating Rick Neuheisel, who was played by his son Jerry Neuheisel, a grayshirt on last year’s team.

Players continued to rave about the video and somehow, we persuaded one of them to bring the video clip behind enemy lines and into the shed. One of Jerry Neuheisel’s only lines in the sketch was his dad’s signature salutation, “”˜Preciate cha.” The phrase perfectly summed up Rick Neuheisel’s personality. He would shake your hand and smile as he said it after an interview. Jerry Neuheisel could have won an Oscar for the way he sold it. It could have been his dad for all anyone knew.

“That’s the joke: I didn’t have a mom,” Jerry Neuheisel said with a laugh. “I was just cloned from my dad.”

Jerry Neuheisel was given a scholarship by his dad as part of the 2011 recruiting class, an odd move considering Rick Neuheisel was already pulling down $1.25 million a year from the university.

Rick Neuheisel assured everyone that his son was worthy of it and that other schools were prepared to offer him scholarships if he didn’t. Jerry Neuheisel was grayshirted, delaying his enrollment until January to save room on the roster. He was at all of the practices and games but was merely a spectator.

“Looking back, I’ll say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Jerry Neuheisel said. “But going through it is the worst form of torture they can think up.”

He would never get the chance to play for his dad as Rick Neuheisel was fired in late November, but new coach Jim Mora decided to keep Jerry Neuheisel around and on scholarship, something the freshman quarterback is grateful for.

“(Mora) said I would get a chance to play here, and that’s all I wanted to do,” Jerry Neuheisel said. “As much as people don’t believe me, I did come to be the UCLA quarterback. I didn’t come just to play for my dad.”

“I assured him that we would try to provide an environment for him where it was never negative against anything that his dad had ever done,” Mora said. “I told him if there were things being said or an attitude developing that was negative toward his dad to let me know because that’s not what we’re about.”

Jerry Neuheisel has impressed some folks in the heat of the quarterback battle during spring practice, including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Noel Mazzone.

“He does a nice job of absorbing information and processing it,” Mazzone said. “Sometimes he’s a little too smart for his own good and he’ll outthink things, but I think he’s catching a little rhythm.”

Outthinking was one of Rick Neuheisel’s strong suits as well, but, as Mora alluded to, Jerry Neuheisel’s position on this team has so much more to it than decision-making in the pocket. He finds himself in a precarious situation: Players, coaches and fans alike continue to talk about the dire need for a “culture change” and the heightened degree of accountability that Mora has brought to the program.

They talk about ridding themselves of bad practice habits they learned in Rick Neuheisel’s program. They talk about the previous coaching staff as older and out of touch with college athletes. Even saying the name Neuheisel makes fans cringe as it conjures up memories of halftime brawls and blowout losses.

And there’s Jerry Neuheisel, whose first name is Richard. He walks like his dad, looks like him, talks like him and throws like him. The words and phrasing he used to explain why the Bruins weren’t successful last season could have been taken directly from one of his dad’s press conferences last fall when it all went wrong. Here he is, fighting for playing time on a team that’s trying to run as fast as it can in the opposite direction of the way Rick Neuheisel coached.

“It’s a little weird for me to say that it was wrong, like some people are leaning toward because that is my dad and I know we did see some success,” said Jerry Neuheisel, adding that the coaching switch could be a blessing in disguise as his skill set didn’t fit his dad’s pistol offense. “It just never got put together.”

By just having his name on the roster, Jerry Neuheisel will forever be the reminder of how disastrous his dad’s four years as coach were but if anyone can handle it, it’s him. Apparently the team website still wants to hang on to memories of Rick Neuheisel, as Jerry Neuheisel’s online bio still reads, “Dad is the Bruins’ head football coach.”

Mora and his staff are trying to prevent Jerry Neuheisel from being defined by his last name.

“He’s a UCLA Bruin quarterback,” Mazzone said. “That’s what he is. He’s not anybody’s son or anybody’s uncle or anything. He’s one of us. He’s one of my quarterbacks.”

Rick Neuheisel’s program will forever be seen as one that could never get off the ground, especially if Mora succeeds early, but don’t feel too bad for him. Jerry Neuheisel said his dad’s playing a lot of golf while collecting a buyout check from UCLA. He may even be back on Spaulding Field before too long, as he’s accepted an analyst position with the new Pac-12 Network at a reported salary of $300,000 per year.

All parties have handled the situation with class and maturity and all appear to be moving forward with positive attitudes, just the way Rick Neuheisel would have drawn it up.

“He’s shown true character in just sticking around, having a great attitude, overcoming some bitterness that would be natural for any kid to feel,” Mora said. “I think Jerry is a tremendous leader. He’s just a good kid.”

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