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Daily Bruin Sports grades UCLA football’s first half of the season

Redshirt senior punter Stefan Flintoft is leading the Pac-12 with an average of 47 yards per punt this season. Flintoft was on the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy punter of the year award. (Liz Ketcham/Assistant Photo editor)

By Ryan Smith

Oct. 26, 2018 3:38 a.m.

With UCLA football beginning the back half of its 2018 schedule, Daily Bruin Sports decided to grade each position group based on their performances though the first seven games of the season.

Offensive line
Grade: B-

UCLA’s offensive line is difficult to evaluate because it has been solid in the run game, but subpar in the passing game.

The Bruins are second to last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed this year, with 21. Within the conference, only Oregon State has surrendered more sacks this season.

In the run game, however, the offensive line has found its groove, paving the way to over 150 rushing yards per contest. The ground attack for UCLA has been the backbone of its success in the past two games, with 102 of the Bruins’ last 152 offensive plays being rushes.

Wide receivers and tight ends
Grade: C-

Junior wideout Theo Howard is the only receiver on the roster who is on pace to record more than 500 receiving yards this season for UCLA. Last year, the Bruins had three receivers finish with over 500 yards, including Jordan Lasley, who ended the season with 1,264.

Howard is also the only receiver averaging more than 20 yards per game this season. At 53 yards per contest, Howard is racking up nearly 34 yards more per game than any other receiver on the roster.

However, redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson has been a bright spot in the passing game for UCLA, and is the reason this group did not receive an “F.” Wilson is averaging 40 yards less per game in 2018 than he was in 2017, but he is still the team’s leader in receiving yards this season with 417.

UCLA no longer has the talent of Josh Rosen at quarterback, but the production from the receiver position has to be higher to succeed in a Power Five conference.

Running Backs
Grade: A-

UCLA entered the season with five running backs fighting for playing time, but through injuries and evaluation, redshirt junior Joshua Kelley and freshman Kazmeir Allen have emerged as the top two guys in the rotation.

Kelley burst onto the scene with a 124-yard performance in Colorado on Sept. 28 and has not looked back since. The UC Davis transfer has run for over 100 yards in each of the past four games and is the first Bruin running back to do so since Tyler Ebell went for over 100 yards in six straight contests back in 2002.

As for Allen, the speed back introduced himself to Bruins fans with a 74-yard touchdown run in the season opener against Cincinnati, but has been relatively quiet since. He caught a touchdown pass in UCLA’s victory over Arizona on Saturday, but his pure speed and potential in the pass game is undeniable.

Grade: B-

Graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight earned the starting job out of fall camp, but he injured his back in the first half of the season-opener against Cincinnati – paving the way for Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The true freshman has started each of the past six games for UCLA, but is yet to surpass the 300-passing yard threshold in a single game. Of the 11 quarterbacks in the Pac-12 who have 150 or more passing attempts, Thompson-Robinson ranks dead last in touchdowns, but he has thrown the second-fewest interceptions.

While he may not stand out on the stat sheet, coach Chip Kelly has said that Thompson-Robinson is doing the things he and his coaching staff have asked of him. It is unknown whether they have opened up the entire playbook, but Thompson-Robinson has still managed to complete over 60 percent of his passes and retain the starting job week in and week out.

Defensive line
Grade: C+

UCLA ranked dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rush defense a season ago, but there has been a slight improvement in 2018.

The Bruins are currently ranked No. 101 out of 129 schools, allowing 4.32 yards per carry and 192.7 yards per game this season.

The Bruins are also starting underclassmen sophomore Martin Andrus Jr. and freshman Atonio Mafi at two of the three-down lineman positions, meaning the pair has plenty more time to develop.

Grade: B

UCLA’s linebacking core took a massive hit when senior Josh Woods went down with a season-ending knee injury during fall camp, but the group has done a solid job recovering.

Junior linebacker Krys Barnes took over play-calling duties and is currently second on the team in total tackles with 51.

Redshirt junior Tyree Thompson and junior Lokeni Toailoa have been splitting time at the second middle linebacker spot in Woods’ absence. The two have combined for 46 tackles this season.

At the outside spots, sophomore Jaelan Phillips and redshirt junior Keisean Lucier-South were off to a strong start in their new roles within the 3-4 defense.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, however, Phillips was lost for the season with a concussion after just four games, although he recorded 20 tackles and a sack in that time.

Lucier-South has been wreaking havoc as of late, including a quarter against California in which he recorded an interception and a scoop-and-score.

Defensive backs
Grade: B

Led by redshirt senior defensive back Adarius Pickett – who ranks third in the Pac-12 with 11 tackles per game – the Bruins’ secondary has been one of UCLA’s bright spots this season.

Sophomore Darnay Holmes also picked up where he left off last season. The cornerback is fifth on the team in tackling, has six pass breakups and has forced three turnovers.

Sophomore Quentin Lake has also fit in nicely alongside Pickett at the safety position where he has racked up 41 tackles. He also recorded his first career interception during the first half of UCLA’s victory over Arizona on Saturday.

Special Teams
Grade: A+

Junior kicker JJ Molson and redshirt senior punter Stefan Flintoft have been outstanding in 2018.

Molson is 9-of-10 on field goals, with his only miss coming on a 47-yard attempt against Washington. His 90 percent conversion rate has UCLA leading the Pac-12 in field goal percentage.

Molson has also made all 19 of his extra point attempts.

As for Flintoft, the punter leads the Pac-12 in yards per punt at a 47. He also has 16 punts of 50 or more yards this season.

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Ryan Smith | Alumnus
Smith joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2016 and contributed until he graduated in 2020. He was the Sports editor for the 2018-2019 academic year, an assistant Sports editor for the 2017-2018 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, women's basketball, men's water polo, baseball, men's golf and women's golf beats.
Smith joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2016 and contributed until he graduated in 2020. He was the Sports editor for the 2018-2019 academic year, an assistant Sports editor for the 2017-2018 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, women's basketball, men's water polo, baseball, men's golf and women's golf beats.
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