TEMPE, Ariz. -- Franchise quarterbacks must display the mental and physical toughness to perform when they are not at full strength. The physical punishment of playing the position in the NFL makes it unreasonable to expect a quarterback to enter every game completely healthy, but the standard remains the same for elite quarterbacks whenever they take the field.
Thus, I thought it was important for me to make the trip to Sun Devil Stadium to see how UCLAQB Brent Hundley would play in a marquee matchup against Arizona State on the road while battling through an elbow injury that sidelined him more than half of the Texas game on Sept. 13.
Although it wasn't a given that Hundley would suit up for the Arizona State game, I wanted to see if the UCLA star would attempt to gut it out to give his team the best chance to win a key game in the Pac-12 South race.
After taking it all in from my press-box seat, the 6-foot-3, 226-pound junior didn't disappoint in leading the Bruins to an impressive 62-27 win over the Sun Devils. Hundley connected on 18 of 23 passes for 355 yards with four touchdowns, while adding 72 rushing yards on eight attempts.
The performance showcased Hundley's toughness, grit, athleticism and playmaking ability as the director of the Bruins' potent offense. Although Hundley's passing numbers are slightly skewed by the terrific "catch and run" touchdowns of Eldridge Massington (80 yards) and Jordan Payton (80 yards), the junior standout made a handful of splash plays from the pocket that suggested he's more than capable of succeeding in a traditional pro-style offense built around a quick-rhythm passing game.
Hundley efficiently picked apart the Sun Devils' defense with pinpoint throws on short and intermediate routes delivered on time. He distributed the ball to seven different receivers and tossed the ball to every area of the field to stress the coverage. While the Bruins' scheme features a repetitive mix of simple pass concepts, the fact that Hundley consistently delivered the ball to the open receivers speaks volumes about his mastery of the system.
From an athletic standpoint, I thought this was one of Hundley's best performances as a dual-threat playmaker. He attacked open lanes as a runner and his willingness to put his body on the line despite his elbow injury suggests that he possesses the requisite toughness and courage to play the position at the next level. Although he wisely opted to slide a few times in traffic, the fact that he took a couple of shots near the sideline and didn't flinch convinced me that he wasn't afraid to take on a little contact in a big game.
If I had to cite a flaw in Hundley's performance, I would continue to harp on his inconsistency as a deep-ball thrower. The junior standout struggled in this area a season ago and he continues to miss open receivers on vertical routes down the boundary. While he has made several strides as a pocket passer (improved judgment, accuracy and anticipation), Hundley must clean up his deep-ball accuracy to convince teams he can be effective in a vertical-based passing game.
Overall, I thought Hundley put on a B-plus performance that will eliminate any questions about his durability, toughness and grit. Although he must continue to improve as a pocket passer, Hundley has made significant strides and he can make a big jump up the charts with big-time performances in the marquee games that remain on the Bruins' schedule.
Here are my observations on other prospects that caught my eye Thursday night:
» Arizona State RB D.J. Foster might wait until 2016 to enter the draft, but NFL offensive coordinators are going to quickly fall in love with his athleticism, versatility and big-play ability. The 5-11, 205-pounder is a hybrid backfield player capable of playing running back or slot receiver at the next level.
Against UCLA, he showcased his versatility by aligning as a traditional running back on early downs before moving into the slot in passing situations. I was impressed with his natural route-running skills and soft hands. He looks like a polished receiver on the perimeter, leading me to believe that he could develop into a Dexter McCluster-like playmaker as a pro. Given another season to refine his skills as an inside runner, Foster could be the premier all-purpose back in the 2016 class.
» UCLA LB Eric Kendricks was already on the radar of NFL scouts due to his legacy (older brother Mychal is a starting linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles) and spectacular production as a junior, but the 6-0, 230-pound linebacker is flying up the charts due to his continued dominance as an interior defender for the Bruins. Kendricks finished the game with 9 tackles, 2 for loss, while exhibiting the kind of disruptive skills that defensive coordinators covet in linebackers. From his anticipation and awareness against the pass to his sturdy presence in the hole, Kendricks was unquestionably the Bruins' most dominant defender. Considering the presence of LB Myles Jack and DT Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the lineup, the compliment speaks volumes about Kendricks' ability and potential as a pro.
» UCLA CB Ishmael Adams certainly raised his profile Thursday as one of the most explosive playmakers in college football. The junior defensive back scored a pair of touchdowns (95-yard interception return; 100-yard kickoff return) and displayed the kind of game-changing skills that jump off the screen.
As a defensive back, Adams is a gritty competitor with solid instincts, awareness and cover skills. He quickly diagnoses pass concepts and shows the confidence to aggressively jump routes when he senses the ball is on the way. Those natural instincts are imperative to succeeding on the island as a pro and Adams' skills will certainly intrigue scouts looking for a pure cover corner on the perimeter. In the return game, Adams is an explosive runner with the vision, quickness and burst to squirt through creases in traffic. Given the enhanced value of multi-purpose playmakers, Adams' spectacular performance will pique the interest of scouts searching for difference makers in the 2016 class.
» Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong has been touted as one of the top receivers in the 2015 class, but NFL scouts aren't completely convinced the 6-3, 215-pound redshirt junior is blue-chip prospect.
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An AFC scout I talked to at the game voiced concerns about Strong's speed, concentration and route-running savvy. Although the big-bodied pass-catcher has thrived in the Pac-12, the scout suggested that Strong is at his best snagging back-shoulder fades down the boundary. The Sun Devils' standout excels at using his body to create separation from defenders on deep sideline throws, which is why his superior size advantage pays huge dividends in the passing game.
Against UCLA, I did see some of Strong's perceived flaws show up when the Bruins elected to play press coverage on him. Despite his sturdy size and frame, Strong was unable to overpower defenders on the perimeter and lacked the speed to run away out of the break. Additionally, he appeared to flinch a bit when attacking balls on in-breaking routes, which leads to concerns about his concentration and focus in traffic.
While the issues cited by the evaluator aren't enough for me to completely dismiss his intriguing physical traits, it will be interesting to track how Strong fares the rest of the season against elite opponents.