In a fall camp where there really wasn't much drama in terms of starting spots (there has been the offensive guard competition, and a mild competition at strongside linebacker and safety), the competition for the starting quarterback position really has the majority of the drama.
So, who should be the starter?
First, we anticipate that whomever is the starter will have to perform and execute from the outset or the coaches won't hesitate to go with the other quarterback. Both Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut have developed into capable quarterbacks, and the one element left in evaluating them is how they actually do in games. The one designated by Neuheisel as the starter will get enough time to prove himself, but not too long, to the point where it's detrimental to the offense, with another quarterback potentially more capable standing on the sideline. It's not a case where you have one quarterback who clearly has distinguished himself as the capable one, and the back-up is a bit questionable. Both, in fact, are pretty even in their fall camp performances, so it would be remiss to continue to insist to go with the "starter" if he wasn't effective.
Kevin Prince – Pluses and Negatives
When Prince emerged from the summer in 2010 and started 2010 fall camp, for that first week he was very impressive. He showed an arm strength, accuracy and command of the offense that hadn't been seen on Spaulding Field in many years. It was very promising – that UCLA had finally found its quarterback. Prince's story since has been disappointing, for fans and for Prince himself. He had a shaky season, up until the time he suffered the knee injury that ended his 2010 season, and then he underwent surgery in October. He returned surprisingly strong, physically, from the surgery, and came into 2011 fall camp fully healthy. But he hasn't regained the form he had in fall 2010. It's not that he's poor, in fact we're told he has a much better command of the offense now than he did a year ago, but he just has faltered a bit here and there, in both throwing the ball and decision-making.
The biggest positive that Prince brings to the table is the fact that he's smart, he's good in the film room and in meetings, and he understands the concepts of the offense very well. In that aspect he's much better than Brehaut, at least from what we've heard. He's particularly better at the zone read, determining when to hand the ball to the tailback or tuck and run, and he's a much better ball carrier, with exceptional speed for a quarterback. In an offense like UCLA's, which utilizes the zone read and a running quarterback extensively as it's bread-and-butter, that's a huge factor.
In fall camp, overall, Prince, though has thrown the ball inconsistently, and a bit surprisingly, hasn't been stellar at decision-making, which was supposed to be one of his advantages over Brehaut. His ball hasn't always been strong, floating and wobbling at times, and has been inconsistently accurate. At the beginning of fall camp, it appeared his timing was off, throwing behind receivers quite often. He also has seemed to be less accurate when throwing on the run, something this offense is doing more and more. Then, in terms of the decision-making, there was a big emphasis by the coaches, Neuheisel in particular, to not take sacks, and get the ball off quickly. Prince has improved through fall camp in this regard, but he appeared to struggle with it more than you would have anticipated – given that he was the quarterback who was supposed to be better at decision-making.
To his credit, Prince went through a "slump" (his words) early last week, and since has put together a string of better practices. He hasn't been incredible, to the point where he has clearly distinguished himself as being better than Brehaut, but he has stepped it up and essentially come out of his slump. He's thrown the ball better, made less poor decisions, particularly in holding onto the ball too long, and looks even stronger in the zone read.
Richard Brehaut – Pluses and Negatives
Brehaut has always been the underdog in the competition, from the time he and Prince first started competing for the starting spot in 2009. And it was understandable since Brehaut, from the time he was a true freshman through last season, was probably not as good as Prince in just about every category – smarts, decision-making, knowledge of the offense, arm strength and accuracy, zone read and running the ball. So, really, it was pretty easy last season to make the call that Prince was the starting quarterback.
There was also the baseball factor. While perhaps the coaches won't admit it publicly, or even privately, the fact that Brehaut opted to play baseball last spring and also this summer, and not dedicate himself completely to football, had to be a factor. Even if it didn't hurt Brehaut's development, with the way coaches think it had to be a negative for Brehaut.
But Brehaut has drastically narrowed Prince's advantage this fall, and it wouldn't be tough to assert that he surpassed Prince. The one thing that Prince still does better than Brehaut is run the ball, being much quicker and faster getting upfield. Prince probably, too, still executes the zone read better, even though Brehaut has improved considerably. Brehaut's footwork has always been a bit rough, and Prince always had an advantage in that regard. And the coaches emphasize how footwork is so key to execution in this offense. But Brehaut's footwork has now improved, to the point where the coaches are confident in him doing it properly. Much of that can be attributed to, first, more experience, Brehaut putting in some work, but also the influence and coaching of Jim Mastro. So, even though Brehaut won't ever be the ball-carrier that Prince is, and that's a big factor, he has minimized Prince's margin in execution of the running game.
When it comes to throwing the ball, Brehaut has been superior this fall, far more consistent and accurate. He has shown some good arm strength, which seems to have come not only with maturity and confidence but with the improved footwork. What has set him apart has been his accuracy. From rep to rep this fall, he has put the ball where it's supposed to be, and far more consistently than Prince. He has been very good at making the short throws, the bread-and-butter of the passing game. He has, too, always been good at throwing the longer ball, and has been good at it this fall. Where he's really made progress in the passing game is getting the ball off quickly, that is, being able to see the field and recognize if he has a receiver and, if not, getting rid of the ball safely to not take a sack.
What's perhaps one of the biggest factors in the competition is the quarterbacks being able to make reads, getting lined up and reading the defense and checking out of a bad play and into a good one. Prince has always been much better at it, but Brehaut this fall has made huge strides.
In other words, it's a tough call. Brehaut's progress this fall has made it a tough one, and one we think the coaches didn't anticipate. To be candid, Prince has been the guy the coaches, particularly Neuheisel, favored coming into fall camp and it's understandable, if you base it on past performance. But Prince has faltered a bit, and Brehaut has come on; Brehaut has improved in some aspects in which Prince was clearly superior, and he's been consistently better in other elements of the position.
What Will Neuheisel Decide?
We said earlier in the week that, if Prince had a good week, more than likely Neuheisel would go with him. Neuheisel has confidence in Prince in so many aspects of the offense, but we think the coach needed to see it this week – the week before game prep – to make himself feel good about naming Prince. So far, on Monday and Tuesday, Prince has accomplished that. He'll have to continue with that today and Thursday, and in the team's closed scrimmage at the Rose Bowl on Friday. If he does, we're pretty confident Neuheisel will name Prince the starter.
The way the reps are going in practice – with Prince getting the bulk with the 1s -- that certainly seems like a very strong indication.
But, as we said earlier in this piece, the one last factor that the coaches don't have as a piece of evidence in their decision is how Prince and Brehaut will do in the games. If you go by past history, Prince has under-performed a bit, seemingly not making that transition from practice to a real game very effectively. Brehaut, on the other hand, as we've said in the past, is a gamer. He seems to rise to the challenge of the game, actually performed better in games last season than in practice, and has that kind of in-game swagger that is needed, particulary for a quarterback. It wouldn't be far-fetched to foresee Prince being named the starter against Houston, but if Brehaut gets an opportunity it will be interesting to see if that gamer element might ultimately be the deciding factor in who is the #1 quarterback for the season.