UCLA football is sitting at 1-5 halfway through coach Chip Kelly’s second season at the helm. With injuries, suspensions and comebacks defining the season so far, it’s time to take a look at how each position group is performing at the season midpoint. First up, the offense.
Sophomore Dorian Thompson-Robinson posted the best single-game performance in program history earlier this season, but the mediocrity at the position in the other five games has defined the season.
Thompson-Robinson has played 19 full quarters in 2019 before missing UCLA’s game against Oregon State and the fourth quarter of its matchup with Arizona. He threw 322 of his 1,243 passing yards in the second half against Washington State, meaning 26% of his production came in 11% of his playing time.
Without his final two quarters in Pullman, Washington, Thompson-Robinson owns a 119.3 passer rating, about three points lower than his 2018 mark. His ceiling is obviously still high – just look at his 507 yards and five passing touchdowns against the Cougars – but Thompson-Robinson’s arm has not progressed as anticipated in 2019.
His legs, on the other hand, have vastly improved. The sophomore posted back-to-back games with 50-plus rushing yards before going down with a leg injury, evading pressure with elusiveness and awareness he didn’t possess last season.
Thompson-Robinson’s replacement, redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Burton, has also impressed on the ground. Burton is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 16 attempts despite entering college as a pro-style quarterback.
Through the air, however, Burton has not been a step up from Thompson-Robinson. The backup has yet to throw an interception and his 64% completion percentage is 7.7% higher than Thompson-Robinson’s, but Burton’s 5.7 average yards per attempt is a far cry from the starter’s mark of 7.9.
Regardless of who has started, UCLA has struggled to consistently string together long drives. That starts with the passing game, which has been middling at best when the Bruins aren’t playing at 10 p.m. in Pullman, Washington.
Running backs: B-
Redshirt senior Joshua Kelley entered the season as one of the nation’s most trusted tailbacks, but he has been anything but that so far in 2019.
That isn’t to say he’s been bad, but after averaging 135.1 rushing yards per game during Pac-12 play in 2018, 395 yards at the halfway point of the season is well below expectations. Kelley has regularly been stuffed on third-and-short situations, and he only started breaking out 20-plus yard runs against Arizona.
Kelley has slowly gotten better after missing the season opener and carrying the ball just 15 times in game two, but he is still not producing as consistently as he was toward the end of last season.
The backfield has stayed afloat, however, due to the breakout of a former receiver – redshirt junior Demetric Felton.
Felton is not a between-the-tackles, every-down back, which was evident when he posted 3.1 yards per carry as the primary ball-carrier against Cincinnati. So far this season, he has rushed for 307 yards on 59 carries in addition to racking up 397 receiving yards on 31 catches.
The receiver-turned-running back is still at his best as a pass-catcher, or at least as a dynamic, dual-threat back that can break out 75-yard touchdown runs like he did against Oregon State.
The depth behind the workhorse and wild card is a concern, with running backs sophomore Martell Irby getting just three carries due to injury and sophomore Kazmeir Allen not playing at all due to an internal academic suspension.
There are potential and talent waiting in the backfield, but Kelly needs to split snaps more efficiently if the Bruins’ running game is going to maximize production.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C+
UCLA’s most reliable hands have been stuck on the sidelines, leaving the Bruins with a spotty group of receivers on the field.
Senior wideout Theo Howard has made just one appearance in 2019, with a hand injury limiting him to zero catches this year after he went 51-for-51 on targets last season. In his place, redshirt freshman Kyle Philips and junior Jaylen Erwin have become the team’s top two receivers.
Only three wideouts have caught a pass in 2019 – Philips, Erwin and sophomore Chase Cota – and they have combined for just 43.8% of UCLA’s receptions. Philips and Erwin have each accounted for 242 yards on 21 and 20 catches, respectively, while Cota has caught 12 passes for 207 yards.
The lack of receivers contributing isn’t due to a lack of talent at the position, however. Sophomore receiver Michael Ezeike reeled in 12 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns in 2018, but he has failed to record a catch in three games played this season.
Redshirt junior Dymond Lee recorded 61 yards off eight catches in 2018, but he is also yet to reel in a pass this season.
The tight ends have accounted for about one quarter of the receptions with redshirt junior Devin Asiasi leading the way with 16 receptions and 223 yards. He has picked up some poorly timed penalties and his hands haven’t always been perfect, but Asiasi has remained a good veteran leader for the unit – especially as a blocker.
The rest of the tight ends – redshirt freshman Greg Dulcich, freshman Mike Martinez and redshirt junior Matt Lynch – have primarily been used as role players or gimmicks, but they have been nice targets to change in and out.
Philips, Erwin and Asiasi have vastly improved their consistency and production this year, but the lack of sure-fire threats like Howard has definitely limited UCLA’s air attack this year.
Offensive line: D+
When redshirt junior guard Michael Alves was missing from pregame warmups for the season opener in Cincinnati, the writing was on the wall.
Alves has missed every game so far in 2019, so combined with the losses of Justin Murphy and Andre James in the offseason, UCLA’s offensive line looks very different than it did toward the end of 2018. That unit helped Kelley effortlessly plow through opposing defenses and kept former UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight’s jersey relatively clean.
Redshirt freshmen Alec Anderson and Jon Gaines II, as well as true freshman Sean Rhyan, have gotten significant playing time so far this season. The unit allowed 8 sacks in three nonconference games.
The pass rush numbers have dropped recently, but mostly due to the fact that Thompson-Robinson and Burton have become better scramblers outside the pocket.
There is room to grow since there is certainly raw talent and youth up front, but so far, the Bruins’ offensive line has been one of UCLA’s weakest links.