For returners, draft provides what-ifs

LOS ANGELES -- You did not see UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night. He didn't wrap NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a man hug, didn't pop the stiff, flat-billed hat with the Browns/Vikings/Whomever logo. He didn't join his former teammate, linebacker and No. 9 pick Anthony Barr, for celebratory pics.

Instead, Hundley watched the draft on TV like everyone else, happy to have a break from his statistics textbook, counting the days until the Bruins begin their preseason workouts.

You did not see Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu renounce his last season of eligibility in January and hire an agent. He didn't wear a T-shirt at the combine that identified him with a number and the letters CB. He didn't work out at the Ducks' pro day in March. But he was there, daydreaming just a little.

"I'm watching them from the sidelines knowing I could be doing the same thing," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I mean, it was great cheering on my teammates, but at the same time, I thought about it, of course. Yeah, you always think about the what-ifs."

Said Hundley, "Just to know that if I had left, I could have been out there throwing in the pro day with them, is something. Your mind wanders, obviously."

Hundley and Ekpre-Olomu had the money and the dream within their grasp. There were days when both picked it up and held it. But in the end, they let it go.

"There were some times when I could flip a coin and say whether I could stay or go," Hundley said "Honestly, it was a terrible decision, a hard one, personally. Some days I would wake up and I'd be like, 'All right, I'm out.' But if you count the days where I woke up and said, 'All right, I'm going to stay,' it was a little more than when I said I was gone."

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich thought Ekpre-Olomu would leave.

"If I would have been forced to lay my chips somewhere," Helfrich said, "that's probably where I would have. It was a pleasant surprise."

Both young men wanted to remain in college to polish the skills that NFL teams desire. Hundley spent spring practice working on taking snaps under center, something he has rarely done in UCLA's up-tempo offense. Ekpre-Olomu wanted another year playing for Ducks secondary coach John Neal, one of the best in the game.

But both players made the decision for reasons off the field, as well. Both wanted to graduate. Ekpre-Olomu will walk this spring and finish up later this year. Hundley plans to walk in the fall. Both wanted to have their senior year in college, the combination of the most maturity and the least responsibility that most of us will ever have.

"I'm so happy I made the decision to come back," Hundley said. "I really am. Just to get another year to grow with this team, and to grow as a quarterback, it's a special thing. And college is a special thing. It's not something you should rush past."

UCLA coach Jim L. Mora told Hundley he should stay to mature as a quarterback. But the advice that most resonated with Hundley came from his former Bruins teammate, Green Bay running back Johnathan Franklin.

"We're real close," Hundley said. "He's almost like a big brother to me. And he said, 'College is something you really don't want to rush.' The NFL will always be there; basically, it's not going nowhere. The opportunity will always be there. But the opportunity to play college football and to be in the college atmosphere and to have that kind of bond with your teammates won't always be there. So enjoy it while you can and don't really worry about everything else because it will come."

Added Ekpre-Olomu, "I always look back and realize that where I am now is the best place I can be at this moment in my life. Just all the support, all the resources around me. There are a lot of great things you can do at this school, especially outside of football, too."

In the coming weeks, as the draftees report to their new teams and begin their work at the bottom of the NFL ladder, Hundley and Ekpre-Olomu will sling their backpacks over their shoulders and walk to class. They will lead their teammates in offseason work.

And when Green Bay and Seattle open the NFL season on Sept. 4, UCLA and Oregon already will be wrapping up the game plan for their second game of the college football season. The 2015 NFL draft will be seven months away.