The first play of Brett Hundley’s college career was a 73-yard touchdown run. The redshirt freshman came to UCLA as a four-star recruit with offers from programs like LSU, Oregon, and Texas A&M.
“It was like OK, we have our quarterback,” remembers former USC coach and current Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, who also coaches prep quarterbacks as part of the Elite 11 program.
“Teammates loved him. They rallied around him. He carried himself the way a quarterback should ... Even in Los Angeles he was always really grounded.”
Hundley’s initiation into the NFL didn’t go the same way. His first meaningful pass as a pro, taking over for an injured future Hall of Famer, wound up in the hands of Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes after bouncing off another Minnesota defender.
Green Bay’s offense sputtered with Hundley at the helm, with its only touchdown drive coming off a long fumble return by Clay Matthews.
But this is the former UCLA star’s third year learning at the feet of Aaron Rodgers under the tutelage of Mike McCarthy. Roth referred to Hundley post-college schooling as getting his Ph.D from Rodgers and company.
Meanwhile, McCarthy bristled at the notion that anyone but Hundley was the best choice to fill in for Rodgers for what is likely the rest of the season.
Former Packer and NFL scout Bucky Brooks, who now works for NFL Media as an analyst, believes Hundley has a chance to succeed with time to prepare.
“He’ll be a lot better than people think because Coach McCarthy is going to set him up,” Brooks says.
“He’ll look much better in a starting role (than he did) just coming in cold ... Obviously, you don’t like to see the turnovers, but I think some of those can be alleviated and avoided just based on when he goes on, the plan will be much different than with Aaron Rodgers.”
Recently at APC, Jason Hirschhorn broke down what Hundley is and isn’t in broad strokes, so what does that mean for the offense as a whole?
The run game
Minnesota defended Hundley with a loaded box and a single-high safety for nearly the entire game until it was a two-score contest late in the fourth quarter.
Teams are likely going to drop a safety down to stop the run, forcing Hundley to beat them. Luckily for the Packers, no team left on the schedule (except obviously for the second matchup with the Vikings) has a versatile, playmaking safety like Harrison Smith, which makes life much easier.
But as Jason pointed out, Hundley won’t be as adept as Rodgers getting Green Bay into the perfect plays, which means the offensive line is going to have to execute, particularly in the run game to keep the offense on schedule.
“They’ll never be a 50/50 team, but I think if they can skew that to more of a 55/45 ratio, I think they’ll be working the right kind of plan. You don’t want him to throw too much,” Brooks says, putting the danger number at anything over 30 attempts.
One wrinkle in particular to point out: Green Bay runs an RPO look out of shotgun where the quarterback fakes to the running back and fires in a slant behind the linebackers.
There isn’t an actual read there, as the give action is a fake only. But since Green Bay already runs a zone blocking scheme, McCarthy could easily turn that play into a true run/pass option where Hundley can give or make the throw.
Roth suggests Green Bay could also adapt it into a zone read with Hundley as well.
“It’s almost better (to start from no option)” Roth explains.
“I don’t think you have to change up any of the blocking schemes, you just have to give him the read. Nothing really changes and as the weeks go on, maybe you take your frontside tackle to sift out to the second level.”
Green Bay tried this a number of times against the Vikings to hit deep shots, but their pet two-man route with Adams and Nelson never produced an opportunity.
But then McCarthy added a run fake to some more traditional route concepts to give Hundley more time as the linebackers step up. Even just the threat of the run game can freeze linebackers and safeties for that extra split second to generate space.
On this play, the Packers show the run fake and give Hundley the kind of outside-the-numbers throw where he really thrives.
Particularly if Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari and Lane Taylor struggle with health, expect Green Bay to move the pocket to take advantage of Hundley’s athleticism.
We haven’t yet seen the wheels from a player who runs 4.6 and was a mega-run threat in college, but Green Bay has a number of go-to run fake playcalls off boot action to get Hundley on the edge and simplify his reads.
From the pocket
Hundley’s ability to drive throws outside the numbers opens up McCarthy’s playbook more than it would with most backups in the league. A big, strong-armed quarterback, Hundley shows particularly proficiency with outs, comebacks, and has an emerging touch on deep throws down the sidelines.
With Green Bay likely to see single coverage outside with teams playing single-high defense, that means Hundley has the luxury of making some simple reads on throws in his wheelhouse.
Nelson, in particular, might be the best boundary receiver in football in the way he can set up corners, use the sideline to his advantage and contort his body to make catches.
When Rodgers was healthy, the Rodgers-to-Nelson comeback was the most reliable tool in this offense, allowing Green Bay to pick up first downs essentially at will.
Hundley may not have the chemistry with Nelson, but one hint from Sunday suggests there’s some level of trust.
The backshoulder throw isn’t called. It’s simply an understanding between quarterback and receiver that if the corner stays on top, the ball stays short.
It requires timing, precision, and a strong, accurate throw. That we could see this on no prep portends good things for this offense.
But let’s go a step further here.
When Nelson was in his prime, Green Bay also never saw single-high safeties because Nelson was such a threat over the top. He’s no longer that player and the Packers see much more two-deep coverage to prevent big plays and mitigate the damage Aaron Rodgers can do.
If teams do drop that safety down, the Packers have to test teams deep. On the third series of the game, Green Bay did just that and Hundley made a beautiful throw to the sideline that was just a step too far for Nelson.
Hundley can make that throw and we saw him do it a few times into tight windows this preseason.
If he can get those throws into Jeff Janis, imagine how successful he can be throwing to legitimate top-tier receivers like Nelson and Davante Adams.
And speaking of Adams, few players in the NFC are as effective on in-breaking routes as Adams.
The slant-flat combo is a staple of this offense and while Hundley doesn’t have a wealth of middle-of-the-field throws on tape, we saw him hit Cobb several times on beautiful drive throws against the Vikings.
Here’s an example from Hundley’s rookie season on the slant-flat throw. This is picture perfect timing, accuracy, and arm strength.
The mental side
This is where Hundley has the biggest learning curve. Can he get the offense into the right play? Can he set the protections? Can he make full-field reads to get to the right place?
Roth believes Hundley has the ability to adapt and grow.
“You have to be able to know where your answers are,” Roth says.
“I think in spread and up-tempo teams, I think most QBs are really narrow. Now, when you get the plays brought into (an NFL) playbook, (Hundley) has the ability to see everything.”
That’s not to say it won’t take time.
Here’s an example from the preseason game against Washington.
Hundley doesn’t identify the extra rusher to the left, then doesn’t feel him coming and instead of reversing out to avoid the sack — something we’ve seen Rodgers for years — he steps into the sack.
Brooks suggests the Packers will likely spread the game out more, playing out of empty sets to force defenses to declare and simplify the reads before the snap for Hundley.
“For a young quarterback, empty takes away a lot of the pre-snap disguising teams can do,” he points out.
“What it prevents him from doing is overthinking. You can tell pretty quickly if they’re blitzing or playing coverage.”
This isn’t just a way to bridge the gap between college offenses and those in the NFL. The spread, perhaps counteractively, makes the defense easier for quarterbacks to read.
Outside the offense
Rodgers’ preternatural ability to extend plays and create dynamically outside the confines of the offense won’t translate to Hundley, but we’ve seen glimpses of Hundley’s ability to make second-reaction plays.
He made a number of them against the Vikings where he appeared to be in tune with his receivers on the scramble drill.
Hundley’s first touchdown as a starter came on such a play.
Hundley doesn’t panic in the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield, and finds a receiver uncovered.
Considering the health of the offensive line and the inconsistency of Green Bay’s receivers to beat man coverage, Hundley will have to rely on this ability to extend plays to be successful in this offense. And Green Bay can’t be afraid to let Hundley use his legs to make plays.
“I think you have to coach him up and let him be himself,” Brooks insists.
“You don’t restrict Aaron Rodgers from running around. You can’t restrict Brett Hundley from running around. I think the message needs to be get what you can do, go down, or go out of bounds.”
Mike McCarthy will have to be even better scheming receivers open and giving Hundley clean windows to fit in throws.
That said, the tools are there and Hundley knows this offense well enough to function in it at a much higher level than the quarterbacks whom Packers fans saw in 2013.
Particularly after the bye week, when Green Bay can add some wrinkles for Hundley’s running ability and hopefully get the offensive line healthy, this could be a solid to good offense with its backup under center.
And given Hundley’s skill sets, it may not have to change all that much to get there.