Bruins have faith in Kevin Prince
UCLA's success rests on the arm of its quarterback, and expectations are high
LOS ANGELES -- He feels it without anyone mentioning it to him. Inside, at the gut level, where that kind of motivation should spring from.
If this UCLA football team is going anywhere this season beyond what has been a semipermanent state of mediocrity, quarterback Kevin Prince must lead it there, and he knows it.
"It's my third year here and my second year playing," Prince said. "I personally have high expectations for myself."
Prince is still young, of course, a redshirt sophomore who started 11 games last season after sitting out the previous two years due to a knee injury suffered in his senior year of high school.
But he doesn't seem young. He doesn't like to hear that word anywhere near his name. He wants the ball in his hands, not a ready-made excuse.
All these intangibles are why UCLA's coaches chose him to start as a freshman last season ahead of the more experienced senior Kevin Craft. Prince responded with 2,050 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
These intangibles also are why both coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow hold little back when discussing their expectations for him this season.
"It's Year 3; we have to do it," Chow said. "For the last two years, we've played with guys that had not played before. Kevin's played before, so we expect a lot from him.
"He had the one freshman year after he hadn't played for a couple years. ... But there's no more excuses now. He's got to do it."
Chow has always been a guy who says exactly what he's thinking or nothing at all. He was not born with the ability to spin a wobbly line to a reporter asking uncomfortable questions.
That's generally the head coach's job. It's a skill Neuheisel has had to be a master of the past two seasons at UCLA. That's not a cheap "Slick Rick" shot.
Neuheisel has spun his relentless positivity out of necessity because the talent and depth he inherited when he took over in 2008 were threadbare. His job was to protect and cautiously nurture any and all young talent he found around Westwood.
Last year that included Prince.
This year it does not.
"With the caliber of teams in this conference," Neuheisel said, "we have to have great play from our quarterback. I think we're on schedule with that. We played with a freshman quarterback last year. He had growing pains, which we lived with. But the upside of that is he's a sophomore now."
Neuheisel left the end of that sentence dangling, but it wasn't hard to fill in the blank.
The Bruins will go as far as Kevin Prince can take them this season.
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The more you listen to everyone talk, the more you suspect Neuheisel and Chow have figured out that Prince needs pressure in order to perform.
Chow and Prince are remarkably close for a man in his mid-60s and a young quarterback just entering his 20s. Both are devout Mormons, and talk as often about their faith and family as they do about blitz packages and touch passes.
When Prince was deciding whether to take his Mormon mission a few years ago, he leaned heavily on Chow.
When Chow was weighing whether to join Lane Kiffin's staff at USC this offseason, he reached out to Prince.
"I feel like we're pretty close," Prince said. "We're of the same faith, and that connects us. During the offseason, if we haven't seen each other for a week or so, he'll give me a call just to check in and see how I'm doing.
"I just feel like we're on the same page. When you're with a coach in meetings through three years, you get to know how he talks and you adopt the same type of language."
In other words, Chow knows his quarterback and what he responds to.
Heading into the offseason, Chow and Neuheisel told Prince that this team was his now. It was an instruction, not a suggestion.
In addition to his own strength and conditioning work, Prince organized throwing sessions with his receivers and tight ends three or four times a week.
"If someone didn't show up or someone was late, he'd get on you about it," junior wide receiver Taylor Embree said. "He'd call you and ask where you were or why you were late. We needed that.
"At the end of summer, no one was missing, no one was showing up late. You could just tell that he's leading the team and leading the offense."
Now the question is: Just how far can Kevin Prince take them?
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.