In the final four weeks leading up to the kickoff of UCLA football’s 2019 season, Sports editor Sam Connon and staff writer Jack Perez will be taking a look at the Bruins’ outlook at each position. From award favorites to comeback stories, Daily Bruin Sports will analyze each position’s depth chart and make predictions for how their seasons could unfold. First up – quarterbacks.
Chip Kelly was tight-lipped about the quarterback battle for the entirety of the 2018 season.
But for once, the coach may have already tipped his hand.
Sophomore Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the early favorite for the role and – after Kelly’s glowing praise at the Pac-12 Football Media Day – it’s all but confirmed he’ll be the starter. There are other names to keep an eye on in the quarterback room, but Thompson-Robinson is widely considered to be the day-one starter.
Redshirt sophomore Austin Burton boasted a standout performance in April’s Spring Game for the second straight year. He has yet to take a snap for the Bruins in a regular season game, but he was UCLA’s scout team quarterback for the duration of last season with Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight struggling with injuries.
Burton earned the team’s Nick Pasquale Award for Scout Team Excellence and is firmly in the mix for the backup gig in 2019.
The Bruins’ top recruit at quarterback is freshman Chase Griffin, last year’s Gatorade Texas state Player of the Year. Griffin posted over 11,000 yards through the air along with 123 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in his three seasons as a starter in high school, despite measuring in at 5 feet, 11 inches.
Griffin’s size and inexperience will probably keep him from making any starts, but his well-documented high school success could justify some time as the primary backup for the freshman this fall.
Recent transfer Colson Yankoff enrolled at UCLA in June, but he is expected to sit out the season to satisfy transfer rules. Yankoff was the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018 – two spots behind Thompson-Robinson – before enrolling at Washington, but he did not take a single snap with the Huskies last season.
Freshmen Chase Artopoeus and Blake Kirshner walked onto the team in June, giving Kelly six quarterbacks to work with this season.
Kelly was always known for his spread offense and running quarterbacks.
But the Bruins’ offense in 2018 did not resemble a classic Chip Kelly offense.
Kelly’s Oregon teams were routinely among the most high-powered offenses in the country. And although then-redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley got things rolling on the ground toward the end of 2018, UCLA’s passing game was lackluster at best, ranking 61st in the nation.
Thompson-Robinson and Speight split starts and, with the former being a freshman dual-threat and the latter being a graduate transfer pro-style passer, Kelly was unable to integrate his playbook right away.
But with Thompson-Robinson being expected to hold the keys to the offense from day one, Kelly has a much better shot at installing the playbook that earned Marcus Mariota a Heisman Trophy in 2014.
Thompson-Robinson rarely kept the ball for himself in run-pass options last season, a pattern heightened by a constantly changing offensive line in the first half of the season. Now the line in front of Thompson-Robinson is more secure, with senior Boss Tagaloa preparing to play a full season at center this time around.
Kelley will no doubt be the premier ball carrier for all 12 games – barring injury – giving the young quarterback a reliable element of deception he lacked early last season. Kelley said at the Pac-12 Football Media Day that he and sophomore halfback Martell Irby had been working on pass-catching and -blocking this offseason, adding another new element to the offense that should work in Thompson-Robinson’s favor.
With Kelley and Irby potentially joining sophomore Kazmeir Allen as pass-catching backs, Kelly and Thompson-Robinson will have ample weapons to spread the backfield wide and open up the middle of the field.
A full year of Kelly’s playbook in Westwood should help the quarterback option be significantly more effective this year, and more vintage Kelly creativity is bound to follow. Thompson-Robinson, Burton and Griffin can all contribute to the ground game and protect the ball, meaning this year’s Bruins could resemble the fast-paced Ducks of the early 2010s – albeit not as star-studded or nationally relevant.
Thompson-Robinson committed to UCLA before he even made a varsity high school start. He was a top-ranked recruit and national phenomenon prior to stepping foot in Westwood.
But in year one, the then-true freshman lost out on the starting job to Speight before the Michigan transfer went down with several injuries. Thompson-Robinson made seven starts – despite Kelly not naming him the day-one starter – and the offense he headed was relatively simple compared to his coach’s Oregon days.
That doesn’t mean Thompson-Robinson didn’t show flashes of his potential, however. He was the only quarterback in the Pac-12 with over 11.5 yards per completion and 6.5 yards per sack-adjusted rushing attempt.
With a simplified playbook catering to his inexperience in 2018, Thompson-Robinson already showed he was one of the best dual-threats on the West Coast. With a full year of practice, game experience and mental training under his belt, it’s easy to project a big leap for the Las Vegas native.
Thompson-Robinson is regarded as a middle-to-lower tier passer in the Pac-12 heading into the season, but considering his freshman completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating marks were all within 10% of Josh Rosen’s, it is far too early to label him a failure.
Instead, Thompson-Robinson could approach 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards this season, assuming he stays healthy – think of a smaller, less confident Brett Hundley with a less prominent deep ball. His turnovers should be limited, much like they were last year, but his scoring numbers will undoubtedly go up with Kelly likely trusting the former top recruit in third-and-long and goal line scenarios more than he did in 2018.
With a better knowledge of Kelly’s system and the run-pass option at his disposal, expect Thompson-Robinson to make a difference through the air and on the ground this fall.