When you are preparing for a must win season, the fan focus will always start with the guys taking the snaps. Even though Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the ordained starter for 2021, he has yet to make it through a full season without an injury. That adds significance to the Spring camp work that back-up Chase Griffin is getting as UCLA prepares two quarterbacks for 2021.
UCLA Preparing Two QB’s
To get what the work looks like right now, it is important to know some specifics. As of now, Ethan Garbers, the transfer from Washington is still not eligible for the upcoming season. While the NCAA granted one free year transfer year to all players, there are logistics with the calendar, the Garbers letter of intent, and his residency, that allow the University of Washington to continue to block him. The NCAA compliance departments at both schools are working on the specifics. It is possible something could be worked out any week now. Or not. Head coach Chip Kelly said, “I hope we get a positive resolution for the sake of the kid.” He added, “I think it would be really unfair if he was the only kid in the country who had to sit.”
There is a history with Washington keeping restrictions on players who transfer within the conference. Colson Yankoff, a quarterback at Washington and receiver at UCLA, had to sit last year because the Huskies would not grant the waiver.
While the coaching staff does its job of working on the development of all the quarterbacks, everyone else is focused on the two who are most likely to see the field in the Fall.
Thompson-Robinson is in fourth season, but only his second Spring camp. Ok, technically, it is his third, but it is hard to count the handful of days the players got in 2020 prior to the COVID shutdown. Still, he played in 10 games as a freshman and started a handful as he and Wilton Speight both battled injuries that year.
In 2019, the job was all his. He had to be replaced a couple of times because of injures again. Austin Burton started one game when Thompson-Robinson was physically unavailable. Thompson-Robinson threw for 2,700+ yards and improved his completion percentage by two points, but he was still under 60%. And his dozen interceptions to 21 touchdowns was alarming. Far too often, he did not throw the ball away. There were too many forced passes when there was nothing to be picked up on the play.
With 2020 being an oddity for most teams, UCLA was no different, and certainly Thompson-Robinson was not immune to the craziness. He missed two games due to COVID protocols that seemed to get his ire. He publicly proclaimed that he himself had not tested positive. His completion percentage climbed to 65% albeit on only 138 passes over five games. His touchdown to interception ratio improved to 12:4.
It Is DTR’s Offense To Command
The team is his to command right now, health allowing. Last week, Kelly said the quarterback battle right now is, “Dorian versus Dorian.” The implication was it is up to Thompson-Robinson to take the next steps in his improvement. He told us he is ready for the responsibility of this being his team and as he goes, so goes the team. “I’m working every day, and you know working for my guys. I am excited to see where things go and where things take us,” Thompson-Robinson said.
He said he is trying to show leadership, and it is in ways some might find unusual. During the pre-camp workout weeks, he says he was picking up things like water bottles left behind on the field. He said he monitors the locker room to make sure everyone’s stuff is as it should be. In terms of his leadership, he said, “The biggest thing I have worked on so far in the off-season is taking care of everybody by myself.” He called it being a complete teammate.
That’s not to say he has not worked on the finer elements of the game that must improve if the team is going to succeed. He just chose to be vague on those details, when given a couple of opportunities to specify what he had been working on.
Griffin Knows He Can Do The Job
Whether you prefer to label it the spot next to, or behind, Thompson-Robinson, it belongs to junior Chase Griffin. The status of Garbers’ eligibility notwithstanding, Griffin’s earned the heir apparent status. His performance in two starts last year was solid. He played in four games total, and guided the Bruins to one of their three wins on the season.
He isn’t asked to win the game with his arm as much as Thompson-Robinson is. Thompson-Robinson averaged 27 passing attempts per game last season. Griffin was at 15 attempts per game. Still his touchdown to interception ratio is the same 3:1 as is Thompson-Robinson’s. And his completion percentage was a tidy 64.5%.
He says last year’s game time has made him even more ready to compete this season. “I feel more confident and more comfortable with myself and can focus on more specific things when I am behind the center,” Griffin said. “There are certain things I am trying to get cleaned up. As far as coming out here each day, I am just playing at this point and it’s a really free feeling. It makes football more fun and I’m excited to get it each day.”
He said he is using Spring camp to clean up routine parts of being a quarterback like timing with the receivers and his footwork. He also says he has put on weight in terms of strength. Griffin said it is putting more pop on his passes.
A New Learning Curve
Part of the process is working with a new position coach. Both are going through a transition with the retirement of quarterbacks coach Dana Bible and the hiring of Ryan Gunderson from San Jose State. Both quarterbacks gave a lot of credit to Bible for their development to this point. “I think he definitely had an impact on us in working with him every day,” Griffin said. Thompson-Robinson called Gunderson, “A player’s coach; someone you can really go to. I am in his office at all times of the day.” He said Gunderson is bringing a different perspective and he said he thinks all the quarterbacks are learning from it.
One thing both quarterbacks agreed on was their liking of the new Spring camp schedule. UCLA historically has started camp in March. The team takes time off for Spring Break, and then reassembles everyone for the last three weeks of the session. But LA County COVID protocols mandate that if they students leave campus during that break, they have to isolate for a week upon return. That isolation period would have counted against the team’s NCAA mandated numbers on the amount of practice sessions they are allowed to have. Both said they think it is lending to the continuity of camp to have everyone in for consecutive weeks with no breaks.
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