Few teams will be under a microscope in 2021 more than UCLA. Of course, it will be a “beat reporter’s” microscope, as the national media long ago gave up on the Bruins being relevant across the college football landscape. But being 10-21 after three seasons in the Chip Kelly era has worn old with the local fan base. With the most experienced team he has had during his Westwood tenure, UCLA’s 2021 is now or never for Chip Kelly.
The roster’s youth and inexperience has been a yearly refrain from Kelly, as he has worked to remake the UCLA program into something befitting his philosophies. But the 2021 roster has returning starters at every position. As UCLA closes in on the start of Spring camp in a couple of weeks, it is possible that Kelly will contend that the grad transfers who played such a vital role last season are getting their first Spring practices at UCLA. That would be Kelly-esque. But it simply does not comport with the realities of this roster.
This starts where any analysis of any team starts; the quarterback spot. It is Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s offense to run. He has started for the better part of three-and-a-half seasons. Questions arise as to whether he still has an un-hit ceiling in his game. Or maybe the incremental improvement he has made over three years is all there is. His completion percentage of 65% in 2020 was the highest of his three years at UCLA. He was also asked to throw the ball six fewer times per game than in 2019. Subsequently, the yards passing per game was also down accordingly. Some of the same decision-making issues still haunted Thompson-Robinson in 2020. There is still the tendency to turn a three-yard sack into a seven-yard sack with backwards scrambling, trying to keep a play alive that is just not there.
Chase Griffin has proven to be a viable back-up, while also causing a change in the offense. While he does not have Thompson-Robinson’s downfield arm accuracy, the offense utilizes more quarterback option plays with Griffin. Kelly has denied there is a difference in the schemes depending on the quarterback. But any review of the 2020 games shows that with no refutability there are more designed plays that allow for Griffin to tuck and run.
That pretty much is the depth at quarterback. Freshman Parker McQuarrie has yet to take a snap in a college game. The Bruins have the highly recruited Ethan Garbers. But as we said when he transferred from Washington, the Huskies were not likely to allow for his immediate eligibility, and in recent days they have predictably blocked it.
Ryan Gunderson takes over the tutoring of the quarterbacks, with the retirement of Dana Bible. But regardless of who is working with them, it is still Kelly’s offense to run.
The receiver group is equally experienced. Chase Cota and Kyle Philips lead a group that is productive while lacking the long ball home run threat. Philips has become the most reliable of the receiver group. The current sophomore averaged just under 10 yards per catch last season. The real security blanket for both quarterbacks last season was tight end Greg Dulcich. The former walk-on averaged 20 yards a catch last season and led the team with 517 yards to go with five touchdowns. The receiver group is also adding Texas A&M transfer Kam Brown. He was a four-star recruit going into College Station but was buried on the depth chart in Jimbo Fisher’s offense.
The experience on the offensive line is on the wish list of any coach. Every starter from 2020 is returning, including grad transfer Paul Grattan. He took the NCAA up on its offer of a free year of eligibility and is coming back for a sixth year of college football. With Sean Rhyan, Duke Clemens, Alec Anderson, and Sam Marrazzo, the line is the most experienced it has been since Kelly came to UCLA. Add in Jon Gaines and Atonio Mafi, and the seven-man rotation in Spring is clear.
The running back room is crowded, even with the departure of starter Demetric Felton. Grad transfer Brittain Brown is also coming back for an extra year. He started in the season finale against Stanford last season. He picked up 219 yards on 29 carries. Brown rejoins Keegan Jones, Martel Irby, and Kazmier Allen, all of whom have seen limited action in their UCLA careers, for a variety of reasons. But Kelly is also adding more experience to the room with transfer Zach Charbonnet from Michigan. He ran for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019 in Ann Arbor.
The tools are there for a more significant offense than what the Bruins have been able to show on a consistent basis over the last three years.
UCLA loses only one starter, in defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa, but the loss is significant. He led what pass attack there was from the line. Still, the experience is there for 2021. Otito Ogbonnia, Martin Andrus, Odua Isibor, and Tyler Manoa are back. Manoa has played in 30 of his 31 games at UCLA.
The linebacking spot is the great unknown. Like the rest of the line-up, it has returning starters, and it has players who have logged plenty of snaps. What it lacks is the leader of the group in the model of Barr, Kendricks, Jack, Barnes. By now, it should be Bo Calvert’s group. And theoretically it is. But he has yet to be the player that offenses must scheme against. In his second year as a starter, he has to step his game up to a bigger production level. He has experience around him in Shea Pitts, Carl Jones, and Mitchell Agude. UCLA is adding the much-ballyhooed transfer from Alabama, Ale Kaho. He was a four-star recruit going to Tuscaloosa four years ago, but has averaged about a tackle-and-a-half per game in his college career. If UCLA can get production out of him this season, the expectations must be elevated.
Theoretically the defensive backs should be a strength of the defense. There is both talent and experience. Still, UCLA was 114th in the country in passing yards given up last year. That is not completely on the defensive backs of course. Too many opposing quarterbacks had too much time in the pocket last year. Conversely, what you did not see much of from UCLA’s defense last season was coverage sacks. The defensive secondary has to maintain its coverage longer. Not giving five yards of cushion on the outside would be starting point to that end.
This also has to become Quentin Lake’s unit. Qwuantrezz Knight has become the vocal motivator, as well as high caliber performer on the field. But from a performance standpoint, we have seen what happens when Lake lives up to his ability. His 51 solo tackles, (67 total), in 2018 show what he is capable of when he can stay healthy over 12 games. Again, there is depth and experience with Obi Eboh, Stephan Blaylock, Elijah Gates, Mo Osling, and Jay Shaw all returning. It is also time to get some quality defensive snaps from former 4-star recruit JonJon Vaughns.
The experience is there. The depth is there for the most part. Every Spring camp produces statements from players that this team is working harder than any team they have been on before. That means it is also time to vanquish the excuses. The schedule is the toughest it has been in Chip Kelly’s time here, but so should be his team. It is time.