UCLA's version of the spread uses many of the core concepts that Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, ECU, and Marshall exhibited against the Hokies this season. The running game features a big dose of read option and quarterback draw. On the outside, the Bruins use fairly standard post-wheel routes, four verticals, and curl route concepts. Their skill position talent is mundane, and their offensive line is dreadful. So, what makes the Bruins so dangerous for the Hokies in their New Year's Eve matchup? Unlike those other opponents, UCLA has a legitimate NFL talent in Brett Hundley who is as dangerous when running the football as he is throwing it. Of all the players the Hokies defense has faced this season, no player other than maybe Andre Williams is more important to the success of the offense than UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley.
The NFL Quarterback
Hundley is a 6-3, 222 pound redshirt sophomore with a strong arm and a unique combination of speed and strength as a runner. Unlike most of the quarterbacks that the Hokies have faced, he has legitimate NFL-arm strength, as demonstrated here by completing the 15 yard deep out to the wide side of the field.
Despite the arm strength, Hundley feels most comfortable on the quick comeback routes and crossing routes. Those are the same routes that have helped settle Logan Thomas into a rhythm this season. From the film I've watched, he's most consistent on 5-7 yard curl routes to the short side of the field.
Those short curls are tempting to try and jump as a defender, but Hundley's arm strength makes it easy to beat a high risk effort for an interception. Also, his arm strength makes deeper routes and double moves much more effective options, and that usually results in more of a cushion for those short routes that the Bruins seem to prefer.
Hundley compliments that arm strength with terrific athleticism that serves to both slow down the pass rush and provide escapability when protection from his young offensive line breaks down. This is the part of his game that can give the Hokies the most fits. You absolutely can't get pushed past the pocket like the Hokies defensive ends did against Maryland and expect Hundley not to kill you with controlled quarterback scrambles. Here, UCLA has a narrow lead in the 3rd quarter on a drive following a USC touchdown. UCLA is in USC territory, but they face a third down passing situation to keep the drive alive. A stop here helps build the momentum the Trojans generated on their touchdown. The Bruins receivers run a drag-deep out combination to the right, but nobody is open. However, the right defensive end for the Trojans runs past Hundley's plant foot which opens a seam between him and the tackle. Hundley immediately recognizes the gap and man coverage and takes off.
Hundley gets a nice gain on the play, but he is very sharp at avoiding taking a big hit. This run kept the drive alive, and UCLA hammered the nail in the coffin touchdown into the endzone a few plays later. The Hokies defensive line was awful at staying in their proper pass rush-contain posture against C.J. Brown, and those Brown scrambles (coupled with quarterback draws) were the downfall of the Hokies against Maryland. Hundley is bigger, stronger, and faster than Brown, and he is a more dangerous passing threat. If the Hokies do get pressure on Hundley, they have to get him on the ground. The Virginia Tech DB's will likely be in quarters or man coverage all game long, and they will be late to come up and support if Hundley breaks contain.
With UCLA's offensive line being so porous, Jim Mora uses Hundley's speed to also neutralize the pass rush with a variety of quarterback draws. The draw is a designed play where the defensive ends are baited up field, and then a center and guard double team the defensive tackle to create a seam for a quarterback run. Hundley's size and speed against a linebacker one on one is no different than the defender trying to tackle a good tailback in space once he pulls the ball down.
UCLA has given up 34.0 sacks on the season, and with three freshmen starting often down the stretch, I expect Bud Foster to blitz early and often to make Hundley tentative. The Hokies will get pressure with a four man rush, but I think those linebackers will join in the party to try to take away escape lanes for Hundley. It is critical that they keep him contained in the pocket and pressured. As we will discuss later, his mechanics do break down under pressure and he often holds onto the football way too long trying to make plays. If they Hokies can keep him boxed in, the UCLA offense becomes relatively mediocre. While the Hokies struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season, Foster's scheme has bedeviled many mobile quarterbacks (including Russell Wilson and EJ Manuel.)
Hundley in the Option Game
NFL scouts salivate over Hundley's measurables, athleticism in the pocket, and arm strength, but the first thing that stood out to me was how well Hundley hides the football into the mesh point on read option and then reads the play. Hundley is outstanding at hiding the football and freezing the defense. This has two positive effects. First, it allows more time for the unblocked defender to commit to the dive or quarterback while keeping the linebackers reading instead of flowing to the football. Second, it prevents those linebackers from dropping back into underneath zones when the play is a fake read option with a one man pass route downfield. The defense truly has to defend three options (quarterback, dive, and the pass) which puts tremendous pressure on corners and safeties to time their run support without committing too soon.
The only quarterback we have seen this season that is as sharp on running the read option was Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, but Boone didn't have the arm strength to threaten down the field off the fake. Hundley has a much stronger arm. Let's take a look at how Hundley uses the fake to open up both the triple option and the passing lane down field.
Here is a basic UCLA triple option concept.
The UCLA tailback gets the dive. Hundley buries the ball in his belly. He can give to the dive, keep and run off the left end, or he can run towards the left end and hit the receiver in the left flat on a screen.
Second, Hundley can keep on the option. Note, the screen action still sets up on the right between the trips receivers.
Now, let's take a look at how Hundley incorporates that mesh with his tailback and can use his arm to attack downfield. Here against Nebraska, UCLA merges their triple option with a post-wheel combination downfield.
The play design is simple. All of the elements of the triple option (a dive, a quarterback keep, and the wide receiver available to take the throw at the line of scrimmage) are used to first freeze the linebackers, and then those linebackers run to the sideline to take away the quick screen option.
The receiver at the line of scrimmage fakes an option stalk, and the slot receiver delays slightly and then releases to the outside. The delay allows the deep zone guys to go deep, while the threat of the screen forces the inside linebackers to run flat down the line of scrimmage instead of dropping back into the short zone. As result, there is a huge gap between the deep zone defenders and the shallow zone. The receiver's delay allows perfect timing for the gap to open, and Hundley hits him in stride. Hundley's arm strength forces the defense to account for the deep receiver, creating additional space for the wheel route. The scheme combined with Hundley's running threat and great fake results in a huge play.
Hundley's play fakes really screw up a defensive concept in short yardage. Here again, the Bruins use a triple option concept with the dive, quarterback keep, and the screen. But, the tight end sneaks behind the Nebraska linebacker.
The replay shows the Husker linebacker biting hard on Hundley's dive fake, and he lobs the ball right over the backer's head.
Hundley isn't a perfect player. Schematically, UCLA's offense is pretty much the same offense that the Hokies run with the exception of the screen being available on the read option. Hundley's offensive is green and vulnerable, and he does the guys up front no favors by holding onto the football and take some unnecessary sacks. Also, like Logan Thomas, he can be very erratic on short wide open throws. But, unlike Thomas, Hundley is a very sharp option quarterback and is much smoother reading plays off option and play action. Hundley's athleticism and slight-of-hand in the option game will make it very difficult for Bud Foster to blitz except for clear passing situations. For the Hokies to win this game, their defensive line must get multiple players to the quarterback at the same time and gang tackle in the pocket. If they can take Hundley out of his comfort zone with those options and play action off the option backfield movement, he becomes a much less dangerous player.