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2020 UCLA Football Season Preview: A more-experienced Dorian Thompson-Robinson is poised to lead the quarterbacks

Junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has played in 20 games for UCLA football over the past two seasons, making him the most experienced signal-caller in the Pac-12 this season. (Amy Dixon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sam Connon

Oct. 6, 2020 5:53 p.m.

UCLA football finally has a schedule for its 2020 season, so Sports editor Jack Perez and senior staff writer Sam Connon 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.

Depth Chart

Dorian Thompson-Robinson is safely sitting atop the quarterback battle at the start of training camp, and that won’t change anytime soon.

As a returning starter with 20 career appearances under his belt, the junior has far more experience than any other signal-caller in the quarterbacks’ room. In fact, Thompson-Robinson is now the most experienced quarterback in the entire Pac-12 in terms of games played, with seven teams losing their 2019 starter in the offseason and most of the others leaning on underclassmen.

Experience doesn’t always equate to being the starter, but coach Chip Kelly has shown enough confidence in Thompson-Robinson over the last two years to make him a near-lock heading into the season.

The fight for the backup gig should be an interesting one, especially with Austin Burton’s transferring to Purdue in April.

Burton stepped in for Thompson-Robinson when the latter went down in the Arizona game, and he wound up making the start against Oregon State the following week. As secure as Thompson-Robinson’s job is, he has suffered multiple injuries over the past two seasons, meaning his next backup could very likely see the field at some point in 2020.

The favorite for the job is redshirt sophomore Colson Yankoff, who transferred to UCLA from Washington in 2019 and was forced to sit out last season because of transfer eligibility rules. The Idaho native was the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class, and his 6-foot-3 frame gives him a physical dimension that Thompson-Robinson lacks.

Yankoff has a high enough ceiling where he could have made a serious push for the starting job last season had he been eligible, but Thompson-Robinson built up enough of a lead over the past 14 months where a true preseason quarterback battle isn’t really in the cards, especially with no spring football or full training camp.

Behind Yankoff, there is a three-man battle between redshirt freshman Chase Griffin, true freshman Parker McQuarrie and redshirt freshman Chase Artopoeus for the third-string position. The former walk-on Artopoeus outplayed and eventually leapfrogged Griffin in practice last year, and McQuarrie is a 6-foot-7, four-star unicorn who is probably a couple of years away from being game-ready.

If Thompson-Robinson goes down again, Yankoff is expected to be the one to replace him. If that doesn’t go as planned, Griffin and Artopoeus are left to fight for scraps at the bottom of the depth chart.

Scheme Breakdown

People have been clamoring for a return to Kelly’s Oregon spread offense for two years now, and it still probably won’t happen.

With a more experienced Thompson-Robinson locked in at quarterback, Kelly will likely give him more leeway to improvise and tap into a more dynamic playbook this fall. Still, Kelly hasn’t shown a desire to use multiple backs, call creative option plays and run up the score in two campaigns at UCLA.

Thompson-Robinson was mediocre at read options in 2019, even with his improved running ability. He racked up 550 sack-adjusted rushing yards in 11 games after going for 218 in nine games the year prior. A lot of those yards came on scrambles rather than designed runs, so he still has room to grow in terms of making the most out of designed quarterback runs the way Marcus Mariota and Darron Thomas did for Kelly at Oregon.

Any improvements on the offensive side of the ball will likely come down to improved execution and volume from Thompson-Robinson, both as a passer and runner.

Thompson-Robinson saw his passer rating, completion percentage and passing yards per attempt all increase from 2018 to 2019, but his interception percentage went up from 2.1% to 3.3%, and he led the country in turnovers with 12 picks and seven fumbles. The plays are there, but Thompson-Robinson just has to stop giving the ball away and start finishing off drives as planned.

With no Joshua Kelley as a crutch in the backfield, Thompson-Robinson could certainly play a larger role in the running game on a week-to-week basis. However, the increased volume probably won’t come alongside an overhaul of the playbook in regards to Thompson-Robinson’s role in it.

Even if Kelly wanted to establish a new scheme, this offseason certainly wouldn’t be the one to install it with severely limited spring and fall camps.

Predictions

It’s do-or-die for Thompson-Robinson in 2020.

With such a short season on the books, he won’t play poorly enough to lose the starting job to Yankoff this fall. Injuries aside, 2020 is the year of Thompson-Robinson, but any kind of regression or continued turnover troubles could cost him his job in 2021.

On the other end of the spectrum, the path is there for Thompson-Robinson to become one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. With Colorado’s Steven Montez, Washington’s Jacob Eason, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington State’s Anthony Gordon and others now gone, the throne has been abandoned, and Thompson-Robinson is left to fight USC’s Kedon Slovis and Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels for it.

Thompson-Robinson has the talent and skill to make the major leap one would expect from an upperclassman going into his second year as a full-time starter. Projecting statistics in a seven-game season is going to be an interesting task over the next few weeks, so the numbers will undoubtedly look odd moving forward.

The former four-star recruit could very easily approach 1,850 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air in 2020, which would put him on pace to record 3,200 yards and 26 touchdowns in a full season. On the ground, Thompson-Robinson should finish somewhere in the ballpark of 400 net yards and three touchdowns, equal to a 700-yard, five-touchdown 12-game pace.

The real question left for Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins to answer is turnovers.

Besides the fact Thompson-Robinson only has a half-season ahead of him, his giveaways should get cut down compared to 2019 – mostly since it’s difficult to do any worse than 1.7 turnovers per game.

A turnover-per-game season for Thompson-Robinson wouldn’t secure him the title of best quarterback in the conference, but it would give his team a chance to squeeze out a .500 record this fall.

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Sam Connon | Sports senior staff
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
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