Last, but maybe not least, here comes UCLA football Spring camp. The Bruins open camp, as every team does, with renewed hope and optimism this Friday. Chip Kelly’s squad is the last Power Five conference in the country to start Spring practice. In fact, after this this coming weekend, most teams will have already had their final scrimmage of the Spring and will have wrapped up camp.
UCLA has relied on saying it is working with county health officials and with COVID protocols. Of course, that could cause some to infer that the school a dozen miles up the road is not. USC is in the same county but has gotten through its camp and hosted 5,000 fans for its scrimmage. As of the writing of this piece, UCLA has yet to announce if, or how, the media will be granted any access to Spring camp. But going into the week here are some things we should all be looking for.
UCLA Football Spring Camp; What Should We Expect?
The 2021 recruiting class was significant, and it has added much needed depth to the roster. But the calendar is working against the Bruins. They play in Week 0 against Hawaii. That means starting Fall camp a little sooner. And with pushing Spring camp back by a month, the compressed calendar gives a shorter recovery and turnaround time for anyone who comes out of this camp with an injury.
Injuries happen in every camp. It is football, after all. But after all the work Kelly and his staff did to add depth to the roster in the off-season, it can easily be undone by the nature of the game and the calendar.
The New Quarterback Battle
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the starting quarterback. Period. Full stop. He has been the on-again, off-again starter for two-and-a-half years. Even when facing criticisms from the outside for mistakes all the way through his junior season, Kelly is immediately Thompson-Robinson’s quickest advocate. The soon-to-be senior is still far from a finished product on the field. But if you point out to Kelly something you think someone else does better than Thompson-Robinson, he will find the one play in the last three years to prove you wrong.
That seems to make Spring a new battle for the back-up spot, while remembering that Thompson-Robinson has yet to make it through a season uninjured.
The obvious choice for the back-up spot is Chase Griffin. He performed quite well in spot play as a freshman last year when Thompson-Robinson was out of the lineup. Kelly will argue that the offense is the same, regardless of who the signal caller is. Even if that is true, the plays called within the offense are dramatically different. Griffin is more adept at the quarterback option, and Thompson-Robinson throws downfield with better strength. Changing the schemes depending upon who is in should be an obvious.
But…and this is big…there is a new contestant coming. Ethan Garbers is going to be eligible to play this season, despite efforts from the University of Washington to make him sit. Garbers transferred after one year in Seattle. Within Pac 12 guidance, UW did not grant him exemption to the rule that forces him to sit out a year with the transfer. However, this month the NCAA ruled that ALL student athletes can have one transfer without having to sit out a season. With his hand being forced, outgoing Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott is expected to sign an edict next month that ends players having to sit in exchange for an intraconference transfer. Since Garbers will be eligible to play in the Fall, expect him to get a heavy dose of snaps during Spring camp.
New quarterback coach Ryan Gunderson has a lot of work to do right away.
Lots Of Bodies, Not A Lot Of Snaps
UCLA is only losing one key player from last year on defense, and it is on the line. Osa Odighizuwa will not be easy to replace while he is enjoying the NFL lifestyle on Sundays. He was the anchor of a defensive line that made moderate progress from previous years. The UCLA defense, as a whole, finished 114th in the country in pass yards given up. That means while the defensive backs need to do a better job in the secondary, the defensive line needs to do a better job putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
For now, the Bruins have nine defensive linemen on the roster. They have the bodies. What is lacking to point is the level of production from any of them to even approach Odighizuwa status. Otito Ogbonnia, Odua Isibor, Datona Jackson, and Martin Andrus have the most snaps over the years. What is needed is a leader defined by on-field production. Isibor, Ogbonnia, and Andrus are the most game experienced out of the group, with Andrus’ time being limited by injuries. Ogbonnia has the most total tackles of the group over three years with 49. Odighizuwa had 105 in his last three years at UCLA. The gap to fill is large. Highly regarded recruit Quintin Somerville is an early enrollee and could see significant time in the first defensive line group.
Speaking Of Stopping The Pass
The defensive secondary certainly has to share some of the blame for the poor national ranking when it comes to passing yards given up. The position group returns all the players from last year. That is good if you favor experienced leadership. That is less than good if you look at this group as the one that got the 114th national ranking. Still, with sixth-year players Obi Eboh and Qwuantrezz Knight, and multi-year starter Quentin Lake, there can be no excuse to not see dramatic improvement.
Now Or Never
As we indicated earlier this year, with a three-year record of 10-21, this would appear to be a make-it-or-break it year for the Chip Kelly era at UCLA. Kelly has the most experienced, most veteran team he has had in Westwood. All of the bromides from previous years about players learning the system or the youth of the team no longer hold true. He even has the luxury of a three-year starter at quarterback, a rarity in college football.
Not every school gave their coaches a pass for a poor performance during the troubled waters of the COVID year. UCLA did. Athletic director Martin Jarmond is nearing his one-year anniversary on the job. He has shown to be a significant in-person presence with every team under his guidance. That could eventually mean greater scrutiny for any program not succeeding. Maybe the success of Mick Cronin’s basketball team even puts Kelly on the clock to show improvement. Underlying any conversation about changes in the athletic department is a $35 million budget deficit for the athletic department. No changes get made without that number playing a roll.
But for now, finally, Spring camp is starting, and the possibilities are there in front of the football program.