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T.J. SIMERS

UCLA must lean on Kevin Prince, if he doesn't tip over

Bruins' hopes for success, and saving Rick Neuheisel's job, will depend on strong quarterback play, and Prince is the best man for the job. But his injury history, and lackluster practices, do give one pause.

August 16, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince has a troubling injury history and hasn't been practicing well, but he still looks like the Bruins' best hope for success this season.
UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince has a troubling injury history and hasn't… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

I thought I might drop by USC's football practice Tuesday, but the school's sports information director reminded me the Trojans were cheaters.

He said if I hadn't filled out an online practice admission waiver on Monday, which the school's compliance officers were demanding, I could not attend practice the rest of the week.

All this time I thought it was Pete Carroll's friendliness with a known shady character, Reggie Bush's extra benefits and Mike Garrett's arrogance that led to USC's troubles.

I had no idea it was the media who didn't have their papers in order. But I understand now why the Trojans think the NCAA was too tough on them.

I just wanted to stop by and wish the Trojans well in their upcoming exhibition season, but instead I took the drive to UCLA, where the games will actually count.

Now as a rule I almost never talk to college kids because they have no life experiences beyond their most recent fraternity party and don't have much to say other than what they've been trained to say.

But I asked to speak to Kevin Prince since he's probably going to be asked to save Rick Neuheisel's job, which is man-size work.

Prince reportedly is battling Richard Brehaut for the starting quarterback position, the media noting Brehaut has been sharper than Prince so far.

Good for Brehaut, but if Neuheisel wants to remain here, he's going to have to go with the guy who gives him the best chance to win, and that's Prince.

Or so I thought.

I like the way Prince carries himself, like the idea that he weighs 230 pounds this season, the same weight as last year but now more muscle than fat. I like how he's running around as if he never injured his knee.

I like how he has the chance to establish himself as team leader and start drawing interest from NFL scouts before maybe losing his job next year to freshman sensation Brett Hundley.

I also like how Prince laughs when he says he has seen clips of Neuheisel when Neuheisel played quarterback. I like how he says, "Coach doesn't mind showing off his arm, but I definitely have the stronger arm."

And I like how he doesn't seem to get rattled, not everyone faring so well when asked to sit with Page 2.

But he practiced Tuesday like a statue stuck in quicksand on a day when he should have been dancing with authority.

Injury-prone as he seems to be, it wasn't Prince who came to practice in a walking boot to protect a sprained ankle. It was Brehaut. That left the Bruins in Prince's hands, as good a chance as anyone would want to establish himself as the guy.

But Prince just wasn't the same quarterback that I recall watching last year. I liked that guy before he injured his knee and disappeared.

Maybe it was just one of those days, but the first question a reporter asked Neuheisel was, how had Prince bounced back from a bad practice a day earlier?

"Not well," Neuheisel says, and with the Bruins ready to check out the women's soccer team in the hopes of finding a placekicker, they desperately need to find a quarterback who can consistently reach the end zone.

They tell me Prince is still the best on running plays, his first move forcing the defense to blink and react more slowly than it would like. Brehaut lacks such a knack.

But when it came to passing, Brehaut looked so much better — and he wasn't even on the field.

Prince appeared stiff and slow to react after receiving the snap from center. That's not good, because the Bruins' offensive line lacks depth, and if the starting quarterback doesn't get rid of the ball in a hurry, they will be picking up pieces of him in the backfield.

As it is, this offense stinks because it relies heavily on a running quarterback, and do you really want Prince, with his history of being injured, running around the field?

"As a Lakers fan, I can relate to Andrew Bynum," Prince says, adding that he needs no reminder — given UCLA football history — to avoid parking spots for the disabled.

"If I'm going to be completely honest with you, my biggest concern this season is health.

"I need to make a believer out of myself that I can stay on the field. It's just not the fans thinking 'is he going to get up?' but I'm sure my teammates, my coaches, everybody is thinking the same thing.''

Prince admits he's off to a slow start when it comes to accuracy, blaming it on poor footwork. But he says it's something that can be corrected. Close your eyes and he sounds like Neuheisel talking.

Things have to go differently for UCLA this season, or else, which means winning on the road in Houston to start the season, winning a meaningful Pac-12 game, maybe finally beating USC and earning a bowl bid.

"If I was on the outside, I would be skeptical too," Prince says, finally right on target. "Every year there is this buildup why we should all believe in UCLA and there is always a letdown to some extent. I really think we can be good this season, but it's pretty obvious now we have to prove it.''

The Bruins will scrimmage Saturday and again a week from Friday. No matter how they describe the quarterback competition in the coming weeks, it's really Prince's job to lose.

Neuheisel says he will wake up one morning and just know who his starting quarterback is going to be.

He didn't mention anything about being awakened because he was having a nightmare.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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