Freshmen making an impact for Bruins

Jordan Payton is one of many UCLA freshmen who have stepped up to play well for the Bruins. Andrew Fielding/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- Jordan Payton said he stopped feeling like a freshman after he took his first hit.

Jake Brendel said that moment came for him after his first game. Simon Goines said his came about four games into the season. And Brett Hundley said it happened for him after his first big win over Nebraska.

The UCLA Bruins have had plenty of those "a-ha" moments this season. Coach Jim Mora and his staff have rolled out 25 freshmen so far this season, and nine of them have started, including four who have been starters every game.

Three games ago against Utah, the Bruins started seven -- yes, seven -- freshmen on offense. Yet despite the wet-behind-the-ears lineup, all the young guys have performed at a high enough level to have the Bruins (7-2, 4-2) ranked No. 18 in the BCS standings and in control of the Pac-12 Conference race as they head to Washington State for a Saturday night game.

"We kind of went through our moments early in the season where we wondered if we could coach or not," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "We went through our ups and our downs, but in my mind we don't have any more freshmen on this team."

That's because nine games in, they have been through the ringer enough to know what they are doing. Hundley has started every game at quarterback and plays behind an offensive line featuring Brendel at center, Goines at one tackle and Torian White, another freshman, at the other tackle. UCLA is averaging 37 points a game, which is second in the Pac-12.

Hundley, Brendel and White are redshirt freshmen so they at least had a year of seasoning in practice and on scout teams to adjust. But Goines and Payton, a receiver who has started the past three games, are true freshmen getting a lot of playing time and contributing at a high level.

UCLA has used 12 true freshmen this season after using only one last year.

Last week, Payton caught his first career touchdown against Arizona in a game that featured UCLA touchdowns by four freshmen. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn, also a true freshman, had a field goal and tied a school record with nine extra points in that game.

"There were a couple of games where I was just like, 'Wow,'" said Brendel, who has started every game at center. "It was a different atmosphere, a different speed than I'm used to. But the more you go through it, the more used it you get. It just takes experience to get used to all of it."

Getting used to it happens at different times for different players. Payton, for example, didn't play much early in the season as he adjusted. In Week 4 against Oregon State, he caught his first pass -- a screen for a one-yard gain -- and was immediately leveled by an Oregon State defender.

"I was like 'Oh, yeah, this is different,'" Payton said. "When I first caught it, it was like, boom. I got up, I was like, fix my face mask. Where am I real quick? OK, next play."

The next week against Colorado, Payton said he started playing without thinking and two weeks after that was in the starting lineup.

"I was playing a little here and there early in the season, but I think I really started to understand it at Colorado," Payton said. "I started to understand the offense and started flying around and just playing. I finally said, 'No more thinking. I understand what I'm supposed to do, so let's just do it.'"

Payton was happy to be eased into things, saying "If I had been thrown right into the fire I might have been burned." Others, such as Goines, Brendel and White, didn't have that luxury. They were tabbed starters from the first day and were put in charge of protecting Hundley, the projected franchise quarterback.

It was a decision that didn't come easy for Mazzone, who said he has never played this many freshman in his career, especially on the offensive line.

"I used to get nervous if I had to play one, especially on the O-line," Mazzone said. "I used to get nervous when I had to play a redshirt sophomore in there because that's such a hard position to really master."

Goines said starting right away pushed him to become better than it might have as a reserve.

"Just throwing me in the fire makes me play better," he said. "Putting me on the spot. When I play better people, I play better. When I first got here it was hard. In high school, I didn't have to read too many blocks or make too many calls, and I never got beat. You just have to pick it up and everybody is moving so fast, it takes some adjusting and being in it is the best way to adjust."

The young line has had its struggles at times. UCLA is giving up three sacks a game, but the Bruins are also No. 11 in the nation in total offense and No. 17 in rushing thanks, in large part, to the offensive line play. Senior running back Johnathan Franklin, the nation's fourth-leading rusher, says he is not at all surprised at how the youngsters have performed.

"I knew because they were busting their tail in the offseason even before we started practicing," Franklin said. "You could see these guys were going to be something special. It's a testimony to show no matter who you are or what age you are, if you really want something and really work hard for it, it can happen."

And now that it is happening, Franklin said, he and the other seniors don't even make the UCLA freshmen carry the bags on road trips.

"Nah," Franklin said. "They've paid their dues."