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UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly have passed tests

Bruins quarterback Hundley's promise was obvious; Sun Devils' Kelly won his job through persistence. But both overcame challenges against Utah en route to a big matchup this weekend.

November 21, 2013|By Chris Foster

UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone saw Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley for the first time two years ago.

Did he look like a future NFL quarterback? "Yes," Mazzone said Wednesday. "He had all the physical attributes."

Different time, different scene, different quarterback, different opinion:

Mazzone had been Arizona State's coordinator in 2010 when he first sized up Taylor Kelly. Was Kelly an NFL possibility?

"No," Mazzone said, smiling. "That's why I'm really proud of him."

UCLA and Arizona State play at the Rose Bowl on Saturday with a lot at stake, including first place in the Pac-12 Conference South Division. Two successful teams, two successful quarterbacks, two very different stories.

Hundley was anointed savior by UCLA fans before he arrived on campus in 2011. Kelly was third-string coming out of spring practice in 2012.

Now they're equals.

"When you have a leader like Taylor, it drives up the play of the people around him," Arizona State Coach Todd Graham said. "Brett is the same way."

Star in waiting

Hundley was the sure thing. He was a redshirt in 2011, then passed for a school-record 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.

"Last year, it was like 'Am I really where I want to be? Am I really the quarterback?'" Hundley said. "This season, I have the understanding that nothing is going to be perfect. I also understand there is nothing you can't fight through."

That was clear when UCLA played at Utah.

Hundley made a horrible decision, tossing a pass on the run that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, tying the score, 24-24, in the fourth quarter.

He came right back, twice completing third-down passes to set up a field goal. Then, late in the game, Hundley recognized a hole in the defense, called a quarterback draw, and sprinted 36 yards for a touchdown.

It was evidence that Hundley has a greater grip on the Bruins offense. Yet he has retained an elusive, improvisational style that allows him to create when plays break down.

"Things don't always work out like I draw them up, so you've just got to go play the game," Mazzone said. "Go run around and make plays. Offense should be fun."

There were losses at Stanford and Oregon, but those were followed by consecutive victories over Arizona and Washington that have the Bruins in the hunt for a spot in the Pac-12 title game.

"I think Brett realizes a lot about himself, and about playing the position," Mazzone said. "After those losses, he understands that to play the position you have to trust those other 10 guys on the field."

That was a part of the growing pains.

"No quarterback is going to walk off the field every time saying, 'Man, I was the best guy out there,'" Mazzone said. "Sometimes you get your butt whupped. That makes you better down the road."

Persistence pays

When he was a high school senior, Kelly was the only player in Idaho to sign a letter of intent with a Football Bowl Subdivision school.

There was not much competition for him when he played for Eagle High, but he has not been in over his head in a bigger pond.

"Taylor is a guy who figures out a way to get it done," Graham said. "Guys buy into him."

Kelly had his own moment against Utah.

The Sun Devils trailed, 19-7, at the start of the fourth quarter, but he capped a 70-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run. He then pushed the offense 81 yards, throwing a touchdown pass for a 20-19 lead with two minutes left.

"A lot of quarterbacks are good when things are going their way," Kelly said. "You have to handle the pressure when things hit the fan."

Persistence got him his job.

Kelly, listed at 6 feet 2, was behind 6-8 Brock Osweiler and 6-5 Steve Threet when Mazzone arrived in 2010.

"He was not your poster-boy quarterback," Mazzone said. "If you were choosing sides, you wouldn't pick him first. But when the game was done, he'd be the best guy on the field."

Mazzone saw that during the scrimmage at the end of spring practice.

"I got T.K. in there so we could keep Mom and Dad happy or whatever," Mazzone said. "Every time we put him in, he would take the team down the field and score. You didn't want to believe it, but that is what he did."

Kelly left Arizona State's 2012 spring practice looking up at Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank on the depth chart but said, "There was no reason to listen to people saying what I could and couldn't do."

He won the job that summer and passed for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Like Hundley, Kelly's ability to improvise makes him a chore for defenses.

"He's kind of like a backyard-football type of guy," UCLA defensive end Cassius Marsh said. "He creates things for his teammates."

That, Kelly said, "is just who I am."

It's who both he and Hundley are.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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