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UCLA, with 'pistol' offense, is being spread thin at quarterback

Kevin Prince has been injured often, and Richard Brehaut is out with a broken leg. Is Bruins' offense, which requires the quarterback to be a running threat and take hits, too risky for their own good?

October 14, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut tries to leap over Washington State defender Damante Horton during a five-yard run in the second quarter Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Brehaut would fracture his lower left leg on the play.
UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut tries to leap over Washington State defender… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince never saw the guy coming. He was making a dash for the sideline in the season opener when Houston's D.J. Hayden sent him head over heels. Prince suffered a concussion and a separated shoulder.

UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut has no idea who landed on him. He cut up the middle for five yards last week and a Washington State player plopped down on his left leg. Brehaut hobbled off with a broken bone in the leg.

The Bruins' "pistol" offense may need a warning label: Can be hazardous to your quarterback's health.

Prince and Brehaut have been dangled like bait, and UCLA's season hangs in the balance. Brehaut is out indefinitely, leaving Prince as the only experienced quarterback. Prince, at this point, may be eligible for two-for-one deals on X-rays.

The Bruins are one hit away from rushing freshman Brett Hundley into the fray to chase their bowl-game dreams.

"There are two competing philosophies," Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "What do you need to do to be successful, and what do you do to stay safe? First and foremost, you have to be successful.

"Kevin is an accomplished runner. It helps everything else go. Now, how much we run him remains the question."

Neuheisel went to the pistol a year ago to juice up the running game. The offense employs a zone-read scheme that uses the quarterback as a running option, which increases the number of hits he takes during a game.

The Bruins are 30th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 194.5 yards a game. Yet, they may be among the national leaders in injured quarterbacks.

Prince missed one game after being injured Sept. 3 against Houston, and two more games after being hurt again Sept. 17 against Texas — this time separating his left shoulder on a pass play.

Brehaut is hoping to return before the season ends.

"You can protect the quarterback some with your play calling," Neuheisel said. "The fact that they may get tackled can't be a hindrance to what we do and our play calling."

UCLA will remain a pistol team. Hundley was recruited because his running ability fits into the offense.

"I don't think we have the team up front to muscle people," UCLA offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said. "Deception is the way to go."

That, Johnson said, "puts the quarterback at some risk. It's unfortunate, but that's what we're up against."

Nevada Coach Chris Ault developed the pistol, in which the quarterback lines up four yards behind center and uses sleight-of-hand techniques to confuse defenses.

But Ault said, "The first premise is the running back has to be the guy carrying the load for you. The quarterback has to be a threat."

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained more than 1,000 yards rushing in each of his final three seasons with Nevada, 2008-2010.

Others are less enamored of the zone-read philosophy, even those who have used quarterbacks as runners.

"I guarantee you there are no plays in the Oklahoma playbook that have Landry Jones running," said former Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, a wishbone proponent.

Switzer said, "My quarterbacks were basically running backs with the ability to make people miss. They were going north and south. These spread offenses go east-west. The quarterback draws a crowd."

Neuheisel said, "There are certainly portions of our offense that are internal quarterback runs. On those, you're asking for trouble. The base of our offense asks quarterbacks to outflank the defense."

Both Prince and Brehaut were injured when hit unexpectedly, Prince after he appeared to have outflanked the defense.

"There are aspects to it that are bad in terms of injuries," Prince said. "You just have to be smart."

Oregon, which runs a zone-read spread offense similar to the pistol, has played smart this season. Prince and Brehaut have combined for 53 carries; Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas has carried the ball 18 times.

"There's a misconception that we call the zone-read a ton," Oregon Coach Chip Kelly said.

Oregon is fifth nationally, averaging 312.6 yards rushing per game.

When Thomas does carry the ball, Kelly said, "Our slogan is, 'First down, touchdown, get down.' And make sure you can get up for the next play."

UCLA massaged its pistol philosophy this season, hiring Nevada assistant Jim Mastro as run-game coordinator. He said the quarterback can be protected to an extent, but "he's going to carry the ball and he's going to get hit. He has to learn to slide and he has to learn to take shots."

Mastro recalled that Kaepernick had 173 yards rushing against Nevada Las Vegas in 2009, and "when we looked at the tape, he got hit only four times."

Kaepernick, though, was running around the Western Athletic Conference. Pacific 12 Conference teams are more physical.

Prince, who sustained a concussion by choosing to go head-first into a Washington linebacker in 2009, has tried to alter his mind-set.

"In the past, I fought hits, tried to stay up," Prince said. "That's when things get twisted and turned. I had one run Saturday where I just took the tackle. You have to pick your battles."

And take your casualties?

"We've got two healthy quarterbacks, both are fast kids and can do things with their legs," Neuheisel said. "We need those legs to make defenses be honest."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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