UCLA has an incumbent starting quarterback, but does it have THE quarterback to get the Bruins to the next level? Or is there a quarterback race at UCLA?
First there must be the discussion about what the “next level” is. It can’t be the 3-4 wins per year the Bruins have capped out with each of Chip Kelly’s three seasons. The Bruins 2021 roster is not young, which has been part of the narrative of recent years. Nor is it inexperienced. In fact, including grad transfers, there are multiyear starters at most positions. A tough out of conference notwithstanding, anything shy of seven wins and a second tier bowl game after this season would have to be considered a failure.
Does UCLA Have A Quarterback Race?
That gets us to the next point. Who leads the teams to the seven-plus wins? Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the obvious answer, on paper. His 2020 completion percentage was the best in his three years in Westwood. His touchdown to interception ratio was also the best it has been in three years. But is that enough to carry the team to the next level?
Thompson-Robinson’s passing yards for last season put him 90th in the country. To be fair, most of those ahead of him played more games. The Bruins played seven games in the COVID schedule, and Thompson-Robinson missed two-and-a-half of them due to injury. Want more of a statistical comparison on the national landscape? Get out your calculator. The official NCAA stats overlook Thompson-Robinson is most other quarterback categories.
His 65% completion rate was good enough for 25th in the country. His 224 passing yards per game would put him 44th in the nation.
The stats are the stats. There are not many good looks for UCLA over recent years when it comes to national competitiveness. The stats are not competitive, and the program is not either. Not on a national level. Not even on a conference level. So, does that mean a change is in order at quarterback is the answer to moving upwards and onwards? Or is whatever level of progression we have seen from Thompson-Robinson good enough to project out to a minimum of seven wins in the upcoming season?
The caveat to start with of course is that there currently is no quarterback coach at UCLA. Dana Bible is retiring, and the search is on for a replacement. There is reason to support the idea of moving newly appointed receivers coach Jerry Neuheisel to the open coaching position and moving the job search to looking for a new receiver’s coach. Neuheisel has a relationship with each of the quarterbacks who could viably see action in 2021. And a new quarterback coach from a proven program is likely going to want some shared offensive coordinator role. That is not available at UCLA with Kelly and offensive line coach Justin Frye running the offense. A new receiver’s coach is not going to seek such a title.
The Numbers Versus The Play
That gets us to the players on the field. Outwardly, and from what his teammates tell us, Thompson-Robinson is the leader of the team, certainly with regards to the offense. But that is not enough to guide the team to the next step. Thompson-Robinson was a part-time starter his freshman year, as both he and grad transfer Wilton Speight battled injuries. He missed one game in 2019. His sophomore throwing percentage ticked up a little but was still under the acceptable minimum of 60%. And his 12 interceptions put him in the bottom 10 quarterbacks in the country in the category.
2020 was an outlier for most statistical comparisons. But the raw number that relies less on how many games played is the completion percentage. Sure, if he had played more and thrown more, the percentage could have dropped. But the six-point jump is not to be easily dismissed.
Still, the season saw the two sides of “DTR”. There are the spectacular plays where he keeps a play alive with his feet and delivers a pass you are sure no other quarterback on the roster can make. That is followed by the plays where his scrambling to keep a play alive turn a two-yard sack into an eight-yard loss. There is the taking off for a sizeable run, and there is throwing the pass that you see destined for an interception as soon as he releases it because from up high, you see the drifting linebacker that he missed.
Chase And The Change
So, then what are the options? The UCLA quarterback room is full. Chase Griffin started two games last year and came in halfway through the season finale against Stanford when Thompson-Robinson was injured. He was 1-1 in his starts with a 60% completion rate with two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was the second half of the Stanford game that put thoughts of what could be back in Bruins fans’ heads. With UCLA down by 17 at halftime, Griffin led a furious second half comeback by going 9-11 for 127 yards and four touchdowns. The Bruins would eventually fall in double overtime. But it sparked the conversation again.
Kelly is never going to say the team adjusts the offense based on who the quarterback is, but the recordings of the games say otherwise. Thompson has the stronger downfield arm. The options in the passing game are different when he is in. Griffin runs a faster paced offense that includes the quarterback option which he runs well with his quick decisions and footwork. The challenge is they are both mistake prone. Kelly routinely uses the reminder of a Thompson-Robinson 65-yard touchdown run during the season as the argument that they are equally good runners. But anecdotes do not equal evidence. Griffin is the better option style runner. Thompson-Robinson is the stronger downfield quarterback. Combine them into one quarterback and you might have a top ten in the position in the country.
Are There Other Options?
They both still have their challenges. They are both mistake prone. Griffin was seeing his first real action last year and lacked the big-game decision making success. Thompson-Robinson has most of his come from trying to keep plays alive that are not there. The Bruins keep hoping that as he matures, he will eventually get past that.
Beyond that there is the redshirt freshman Parker McQuarrie. At 6-7 he has a strong arm and the athleticism to play, but his experience is in a pro-style offense. Kelly will always refuse to title or define the UCLA offense, but anyone who watches with any analytical eye can see, at no time has he run a pro-style offense in his three years at UCLA.
They also have the transfer from the University of Washington, Ethan Garbers. His eligibility status is unclear. He has not yet been deemed eligible for the upcoming season. The irony is that the last quarterback transfer from Washington, Colson Yankoff, is now with the receivers.
The Time Is Now
The schedule is foreboding. Hawaii finished 5-4 last year, including a bowl win over Houston. Fresno State was 3-3 last year but has already proven it can beat this UCLA team at the Rose Bowl. And of course, there is the start of the “mega team” schedule; a home and home series with LSU. The Tigers hit hard times after their 2019 title run. But any team that is so good it loses 14 players in one NFL draft is bound to have to rebuild. The Tigers had a top 4 recruiting class each of the last two years. They come to the Rose Bowl this year strong. In the coming years, UCLA will have similar series with Georgia and Auburn.
The program is taking on the stronger opponents. But the ability to compete at that level starts this coming season, with the most veteran team in four years. The inclination is go with the experienced quarterback who has played in the big games. But it is going to require Thompson-Robinson to step up on the field to a level not yet seen. It is one thing to be a leader in the locker room. If Thompson-Robinson can’t do the same on the field in the immediate, it is going to be a long time before this type of veteran roster is available again.