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BILL PLASCHKE

Bruins think they've found their Prince

The quarterback's unlikely ascent comes from an 'it' factor spotted by his coaches.

August 21, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

His name is Kevin Prince, he is the new UCLA quarterback, and he grew up in a famously swanky neighborhood near campus.

Do we really need to hammer you over the head with this?

Meet the real Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who sits on a bench after practice Thursday and shakes his head.

"Yeah, to think it's going to happen like this, it's pretty amazing," he says.

Only with college football's version of Siegfried and Roy could it happen like this, with Neuheisel and Chow pulling their new leader out of the thinnest of airs.

"That's what makes this sport so special -- every four years, you can find another great story," says Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator.

This one has the potential to be a doozy.

Just as soon as Prince takes his first snap in more than two years.

"This is fun, isn't it?" says Rick Neuheisel, the coach.

Just hang on.

Prince, a former Crespi High star, hasn't played since injuring his knee on the sixth play of the first game of his senior season in 2007.

He became a Bruin only after Neuheisel's teenage son Jerry recommended him from a high school football camp.

Prince had committed to Washington and was days from signing the official letter when Neuheisel found himself killing time at Crespi while chasing someone else and remembered his son's tout.

"I asked for film, saw about 10 minutes, and said, 'Hey, can you get bring this kid to me?" Neuheisel said.

He became a starter this spring only after Chow spotted his intangibles on that same film, and if that story sounds familiar, then you remember Chow's discovery of Matt Leinart.

He will take the field this fall as not only a redshirt freshman, but the most inexperienced UCLA starting quarterback in 20 years.

"Sometimes you just see something," says Chow. "In this kid, I see it."

Chow sees strength -- Prince throws the ball so hard, one of his tight spirals once broke a backyard chair, and another one sent his father to the sporting goods store for protection.

"I became the oldest man in history to buy receiver gloves . . . for himself," says Steve Prince.

Chow sees leadership -- Prince is so intent on controlling the huddle, on Sunday he will host the offensive line for dinner at his family home.

At least nobody will get lost, as Prince lives just 10 minutes away, having grown up on Pauley Pavilion pickup basketball games and Pasadena Saturday afternoons.

"I feel like I've spent a big part of my life here," Prince says. "I've always been a Bruin."

Chow sees such potential in all of it, this season he will make a major change in his famed game routine, coming down from the press box to call plays on the sideline.

"We have the kind of coaching staff this year where the change will be better suited for all of us," Chow says.

He won't say anything more, but it's obvious that he is coming down to have more face time with his new face, and perhaps serve as a buffer when the emotional Neuheisel wants to jump in that face.

Remember Neuheisel's sideline rants against his struggling quarterbacks last season, particularly Kevin Craft? Remember how the television cameras focused on little else?

"I'm working on it," says Neuheisel with a smile. "We are who we are, but I'm trying to get better."

Chow will never say it, but the guess is that his presence should make the sideline a calmer and safe place for the Fresh Prince.

Considering injuries have already turned UCLA's offensive line into a mishmash of inexperience and indecision, the kid will need that haven.

Says Prince: "I understand criticism, I know it's because they care about me, I'll be fine."

Says Chow: "There's something there, it's just going to take time. We just need to have patience."

There must be something there, because Chow gestures it and screams it and, for 15 minutes after practice Thursday, he sits on the ground at midfield and talks it over with Prince.

The wide-eyed kid, soaking in a world he never thought he would see.

The aging guru, grabbing one more opportunity to create greatness.

Says Chow: "Sometimes he gets a little aggressive, tries to do too much, that's what we were talking about."

Says Prince: "Right now I just feel very blessed."

The guru and the pupil have become so close, Chow practices his faith at Prince's church and fixes his teeth with Prince's father. Yeah, of course, Dr. Steve Prince is a UCLA graduate whose dental practice is three blocks from campus.

"When Norm comes in, we schedule a little extra time to talk football," says Steve.

They might talk about how last season, UCLA ranked 111th in the nation in total offense. They might talk about Chow's three Heisman Trophy winners and six first-round NFL picks.

But together, before the drilling, they probably just dream, and is there any bigger whopper on our college football landscape than this dream?

"Our ultimate goal with our quarterback?" asks Neuheisel in his best fairy-tale smile. "To get a swan."

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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