UCLA football's spring practice is right around the corner. When the calendars flip to April, basketball will be pushed aside in favor of Jim Mora's hard-hittin' UCLA Bruins.
And entering spring ball, countless narratives will be fleshed out for preparation. Questions about the running back will be prominent, and eagerness to watch freshmen Kylie Fitts and Eldridge Massington will be immeasurable.
But one narrative that almost will be ignored before spring ball starts? The quarterback position.
Perhaps it should be paid closer attention to.
One of the most impactful decisions UCLA head coach Jim Mora made last year was holding an open competition for every spot. No starters would be named based on previous performances, no player would get preferential treatment because of seniority. When Mora inherited the program, the team was soiled by Rick Neuheisel's favoritism, his sackless decisions to roll with the supposedly-polished seniors despite the freshmen out-performing their counterparts.
That changed, though, obviously. Mora wasn't shy about being entirely objective, ignoring the noise surrounding certain players, taking a wide look at every position. It's largely why the Bruins were so laden with freshman starters in 2012, and it's why this UCLA football team notched nine wins in a season where many had UCLA hanging onto bowl eligibility by a thread.
Perhaps the most important result was the emergence of then-redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley. While Neuheisel had buried Hundley on the depth chart for his more "experienced" upperclassmen in Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, Mora gave Hundley the shot he'd been waiting for, and it paid off.
Hundley captured the hearts of UCLA football fans everywhere, earning 29 passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns last year, while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes and accounting for over 4000 yards. He was billed as the program's "savior" when he was recruited out of high school, and he lived up to the billing in his first year. (Hell, he lived up to the billing in his first snap.)
But that was last year.
Indeed, UCLA football fans should be upset if Hundley is billed as the favorite by the coaching staff to start again in 2013. While the dude was an absolute world-beater all his own last year, that should have zero bearing on whether he wins the title of starter this year. In order for this UCLA team to progress, out-perform their 2012 version, to reach another gear and find itself in contention for a BCS bowl — the last opportunity to do so before college football moves to a playoff system in 2014 — the coaching staff, so brilliant with its personnel last year, needs to hold yet another open QB competition.
Because we've seen complacency being a bitch, countless times. If you want a prime example, look no further than Washington quarterback Keith Price, who had a breakout season in his first year as starter, throwing for 33 touchdowns, rushing for three, completing 67 percent of his passes and passing for over 3000 yards. By the end of the season, Price was considered to be a Heisman candidate in 2012.
Price didn't find himself in any competition in the spring of 2012, and was not to be touched during the Huskies' spring practice. Essentially, he was automatically given the starting position based upon his performance in 2011.
What resulted was a disastrously disappointing 2012 season for Price, who threw for just 19 touchdowns (to 13 interceptions), and completing only 61 percent of his passes while accumulating just 2700 yards. Not horrible numbers, but nowhere near what was expected of him, and probably not what he was capable of.
While we might be able to chalk that up to injuries or just bad luck, it's possible that this occurred due to preferential treatment. Indeed, it's difficult to work hard when there's no added pressure of competition.
Brett Hundley will need to be subjected to extreme criticism again this upcoming April. He'll need to be on a level playing field with the lanky, prototypical Noel Mazzone QB, T.J. Millweard. He'll need to be evaluated through the same lens that speedy Devin Fuller was evaluated, and examined the same way Jerry Neuheisel will be. He'll need to scrap his way for the starting position in 2013 because that's what made him so damn good in 2012.
The Bruins can't afford their star QB to get complacent, and Jim Mora's new "culture of winning" can't afford to lose credibility by preemptively naming Hundley "the guy" again before he even sets foot on Spaulding Field.
If this team is to be as good as it was last year, they're going to need Hundley to be great. Again.
And for him to be great again, he'll need to start from square one. Again.