Brett Hundley expressed to reporters last week that he felt “born to play” in marquee matchups coming into the game at No. 8 Stanford. Five days away from playing against another conference powerhouse in No. 2 Oregon, Hundley exuded confidence once more, specifically in his running ability.
“God’s blessed me with some legs, so gotta use ‘em man, gotta use ‘em,” said the redshirt sophomore, who scored a 72-yard touchdown on a quarterback keep on his first snap as a Bruin last season.
Hundley’s improv chops on the ground have proven timely. His evasion of heavy Nebraska pressure on a third-and-12 netted 13 yards that helped sustain No. 12 UCLA’s first touchdown drive in overcoming an 18-point first-half deficit on the road. A 30-yard scramble converted third-and-7, putting UCLA in Stanford territory on an eventual field-goal drive.
Hundley has also been productive on plays with built-in quarterback runs this year. All three of his rushing touchdowns – two of them more than 30 yards – have highlighted the big-play potential when design meets quarterback speed.
The signal caller’s 36-yard score in Utah was the most crucial of these scoring runs as a quarterback draw on third-and-6 gave UCLA its only second-half touchdown in a narrow win.
According to Andrew Grief of The Oregonian, 10 out of Hundley’s 18 first-down rushes this year have come on third down. A 3.99 overall rushing average for Hundley jumps to more than 7 yards per carry in that situation.
Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Payton, who said that third down is the “only down that matters,” claimed that UCLA maintains rhythm on offense whether the quarterback runs or throws.
While highlight reels show plenty of Hundley rushes, throws off of quarterback scrambles have not exactly been a recurring feature for UCLA this year. But a combination of playing against an Oregon defense with the 12th-highest sack total in the country and playing behind an injury-decimated offensive line may force the signal caller to more frequently engage his arm and legs simultaneously.
The Bruins have lost three of their top four left tackles to injury and may start three true freshmen Saturday, with center-turned guard Scott Quessenberry getting looks on the left side for what would be his first start. Hundley recognizes the increased responsibility on his shoulders and legs added by the team’s situation along the offensive line.
“I try to take as much as I can on myself. … Anything I can do, moving around in the pocket, keeping my eyes down the field when a rusher is coming,” Hundley said. “If it’s something where I really need to help my offensive line, I’ll do it. I’ll keep my eyes down the field no matter what is happening.”
Playing under duress is not necessarily a new experience for Hundley. His bookend offensive tackles last year, sophomore Simon Goines and redshirt sophomore Torian White were each freshmen during a campaign that ended with Hundley as the most sacked quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
A better balance of extending plays with eyes down the field, gaining yards on the ground and throwing the ball away or taking a sack has come with time for Hundley, a two-year UCLA starter.
“It’s turned a lot better this year. … I’m starting to get the hang of that. … It’s not really a set-in-stone kind of thing,” Hundley said. “It’s keeping your eyes down the field and knowing it’s a process you go through as a quarterback, and if you can’t get nothing, throw it away, and if you can, take what you can get and just don’t make nothing bad of it.”
While Hundley pointed to the fluidity of becoming familiar with throwing on the run, Noel Mazzone sees no secret to developing that ability. For the offensive coordinator, repetitions in practice and games will promote natural growth.
“It’s doing it so many times that it’s not actually a thought process during a game, it’s a reaction,” Mazzone said. “A quarterback doesn’t think about it. … He’s done it so many times he’s become efficient at it.”
Outside of the 2012 Pac-12 title game, Saturday afternoon’s matchup presents Hundley with a big game against as prolific of an opponent as he has seen yet this season. A UCLA win against a No. 2 Oregon squad may well require a performance from Hundley validating the sentiments he shared heading into the biggest games on the UCLA schedule: that he was born to not only play, but run, on the grand stage.