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Former UCLA quarterback Neuheisel embracing Japanese challenge

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

American quarterback Jerry Neuheisel made his debut with the Obic Seagulls, a powerhouse Japanese football squad, on Saturday in a Pearl Bowl spring tournament game against the All-Mitsubishi Lions.

Neuheisel, a former UCLA Bruin, threw a 67-yard touchdown pass on his very first play, but threw a pair of interceptions afterward. Overall, he struggled to get on the same page as his receivers and completed just six passes in 14 attempts for 116 yards in a 43-3 win for the Seagulls, the eight-time X League champions, at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki.

Playing for a new team in a new country, Neuheisel, whose father Rick was the head coach for the University of Colorado (1995-98), University of Washington (1999-2002) and UCLA (2008-11), admitted he’s got plenty of room for improvement. Yet he kept his head high, saying, “I’m excited to get back to practice and get to work, I know it will never happen again if I get it corrected for the next game.”

Before the arrival of the 185-cm quarterback, who signed with the Seagulls earlier this year, there had been a few former UCLA players in the Japanese league, including IBM Big Blue quarterback Kevin Craft and Obic offensive lineman Kealakai Maiava. They gave Neuheisel an idea of what to expect in Japan.

“The Seagulls organization and ‘Kai were instrumental in helping me kind of realize this dream playing for the Seagulls,” Neuheisel said. “So I’m incredibly thrilled to be here. And it’s kind of worked out perfectly for me and now it’s time for me to prove it on the field.”

On the gridiron, Neuheisel has been impressed with the talent level in Japanese football.

“In America, most people think that (international) football is not as good,” he said. “But the talent level in Japan is second to none. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Seagulls offensive coordinator Daniel Lynds said that Neuheisel had practiced with the team for a couple of weeks and his performance on Saturday didn’t really concern him.

“I’m more worried about the whole team, not about him,” Lynds said. “I’m worried about the drops and missed blocking assignments. He’s going to be fine. He’s a great player. He’s got great experience.”

Said Obic defensive lineman Byron Beatty Jr.: “He just played his first game in a long time. He’ll be all right. He knows what he needs to do.”

Seagulls wideout Ryoma Hagiyama said that Neuheisel has a phenomenal passing touch, something that Japanese QBs don’t really have.

“You can throw line drives and you can throw long balls, but he can toss passes that have good arc on them, and that’s something Japanese quarterbacks aren’t really good at.”

So far, Neuheisel has cherished the new challenge of playing football in Japan with his new teammates and staff.

“They are so great,” Neuheisel, who arrived in Japan in late February, said of his teammates. “They’ve helped me learn Japanese, helped me assimilate into the Japanese culture and made me feel like one of their family. I’m just thankful to be part of the team and part of the family and happy to be a Seagull.”

Lynds said Neuheisel hasn’t been guaranteed the team’s starting quarterback position for the main season, which comes in the fall, and is going to have to compete for it with Shun Sugawara and Takushiro Hata.

Neuheisel is excited to continue playing the game he loves. At UCLA, he served mostly as a backup QB and has always strived for more opportunities.

“I loved it,” Neuheisel said of his time at the Pac-12 Conference school. “I wish I would’ve played a little bit more. Most people asked me why I didn’t transfer to another school. But I (am) loyal to UCLA ’til the day I die. I would never play for another school. I couldn’t imagine myself playing in anything but in the Bruin blue and gold. So the chance to continue to play over here and learn Japanese culture and be a part of the Obic family was a dream come true.

“I know there’s UCLA people who are watching and very proud that I’m over here, spreading the UCLA name. It’s kind of a perfect scenario.”

At UCLA, Neuheisel, who appeared in seven games for the Bruins, played with Japanese center Gyo Shojima, who joined the Bruins last year. He said Shojima taught him how to count in Japanese.

“Gyo was instrumental and helped me learn numbers before I came over here, so I have to thank him,” Neuheisel said. “Hopefully, after playing in the NFL, one day I convince him to come back (to Japan) to play for the Seagulls.”

Neuheisel said his father was excited about his move to Japan. He hinted that the elder Neuheisel might visit the Asian country to see him play, something he was able to do at UCLA.

“It’s very, very exciting when your child goes in, whether it’s a football game or a piano concert, if your child is on stage, you get involved needless to say,” the elder Neuheisel said on “The Dan Patrick Show” in 2014 after watching Jerry complete 23 of 30 passes for 178 yard and two TDs in a 20-17 win over Texas.

“He’s busy with his TV contract, he’s with CBS,” Jerry Neuheisel said of his dad, who coached Washington to a 34-24 win over Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl. “So he’s busy, but I know as soon as he gets some free time, he’ll be over here.”