The yellow jerseys have mostly been cleared from the practice wardrobes. The health of the team is comparatively good. Now it is time to stop talking about the lessons learned from a 3-9 season in 2018 and prove it on the field. For the UCLA Bruins the time is now.
UCLA Bruins; The Time Is Now
The upside is the UCLA Bruins have a tough season opener on the road, and we will be able to tell more about them by the time the night is over. The downside is the Bruins have a tough season opener and a loss will cause a lot of eyes to start roll early on from the UCLA faithful.
Cincinnati Is For Real
The Cincinnati Bearcats are the real deal. They were 11-2 in 2018, including a 26-17 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl in the season opener. They are picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference, (AAC), this season behind only Central Florida.
To a significant degree they are same team UCLA faced a year ago. Sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder returns. He made his debut part way into the game last year at the Rose Bowl and threw for 100 yards on 13 of 24 passing. It was good enough to secure the starting spot for the rest of the season. He threw for just under 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. Most importantly he had a 62% completion rate. He loses his top receiver, Kahlil Lewis to the NFL, so it will be committee work for his pass catchers come Thursday.
But he has his top rusher, indeed, one of the more exciting running backs you will see all season, returning. Michael Warren II ran for 1,329 yards last season to go with 19 touchdowns. He had three touchdowns and 142 yards against UCLA last year. Warren will carry the workload on the ground. Fellow runningback Tavion Thomas has been ruled out for this game by head coach Luke Fickell. He missed most of training camp and is not ready for live game action.
The potential point of vulnerability for the Bearcats is the defensive line, where they are having to replace three starters. It is a defense that finished 11th in the country against the rush but are breaking in a new front.
Not The Same Bruins
For all the familiarity of the Bearcats, this is a different UCLA team than the one from the season opener in 2018. How can that be when they returned so many players? Let your mind wander back to September 1st, 2018. Wilton Speight started at quarterback for UCLA. True freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson would make his debut, albeit at a level where he was not quite ready, when Speight got hurt. The offensive line was disjointed as center Boss Tagaloa was serving the first game of a three-week suspension. Christaphany Murray, a true freshman was at center. And the abilities of running back Joshua Kelley had yet to be revealed. He had six carries for 20 yards.
While many of the faces may be the same, it is undeniable this is a different Bruins team than opening weekend of last year. Head coach Chip Kelly routinely said it during Fall practice. The returning experience has been key to any level of success at camp. The players, to a man, have preached that the familiarity with each other, and with Kelly’s system, have made for a different vibe and effectiveness this Summer.
The dings are still there. Linebacker, which was the position of greatest depth, has had some losses. Senior Keisean Lucier-South is out for three weeks with academic issues. Sophomore reserve Bo Calvert has an eight game NCAA suspension. And probable starter Tyree Thompson had foot surgery three weeks ago for an unspecified injury. Starting left tackle Alec Anderson, who was the projected starter, had outpatient knee surgery two weeks ago. He is still listed as active, at number two on the depth chart. The starting spot now goes to freshman Sean Rhyan. At 6-4, 325 pounds, Rhyan has the size to belong, if not the experience. All he has to do, however, is look to his right and see four returning starters for stability.
How much we see of senior receiver Theo Howard is an unknown. He went through all of camp in a yellow jersey with a cast on his right hand. But he was fully participatory in drills, learning to catch with one hand. The usual starter is listed as second on the depth chart for game one.
The biggest tossing of the yellow jersey belonged to Kelley. He spent several weeks of camp out of all drills with an unspecified knee injury. Last week, the brace was gone, and he was in the backfield. While the Bruins are deep at running back, it is no coincidence that their offensive improvement last year coincided with Tagaloa taking over at center and Kelley becoming the prime running back. He finished with 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also had at least one touchdown in every game beginning with week four.
Cincinnati opened the week as a two-and-half point favorite, essentially what you get for having home field advantage. The game is viable for UCLA, but hardly a “need-to-win.” The Bruins have a tough out of conference schedule and 1-2 is just as viable as 2-1. Neither are reflective of the season. While the team feels experienced and has evangelized about how they are working together with familiarity, there is a process to get through to prove your mettle. A season opener against a team with which you have a limited history, in a stadium unfamiliar to everyone on the team is but a mere step in that process.
UCLA (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)
Thursday August 29th
4pm Pacific Time