Ryan Gunderson has only been on staff at UCLA for a few months, yet his pupils will be the most closely watched and critiqued on the team. UCLA’s Gunderson is on the learning curve as the new quarterback coach. He inherits a stable of players with talent and experience. Just not a lot of wins. And with this being UCLA’s most veteran team in many years, and win-now expectations, his group will be at the forefront of the season’s outcome.
UCLA’s Gunderson Is On The Learning Curve
Gunderson and UCLA head coach Chip Kelly have history. Gunderson was on the staff at Oregon State when Kelly’s Oregon Ducks were running roughshod through the Pac 12. “We don’t have much that we can say about the games that we played against Coach Kelly’s team. We didn’t win,” Gunderson said Wednesday. At 36 years old, Gunderson, along with new receiver’s coach Jerry Neuheisel, (age 29), significantly brings down the average age of what was a venerable coaching staff. He was a quarterback in Corvallis from 2004 through 2007. His peak year in terms of activity was his sophomore season where he was 54 for 102 passing. He finished his career with a 53% completion rate and had two touchdowns against four interceptions. His new pupils will need to outperform their new mentor by a lot.
He spent two years as a grad assistant at Oregon State. He followed Mike Riley to Nebraska for one year as director of player personnel, before moving on to San Jose State as the quarterbacks coach in 2017. The Spartans were 19th in the country in passing offense in 2020, with just under 300 yards per game through the air. UCLA was 68th in the country at 224 yards per game. He has his work cut out for him in Westwood.
Teacher Meets Students
That work started with doing homework on each of his new quarterbacks. “There was a lot of walk-through time. There were a lot of learning opportunities during that time,” Gunderson said. But he added the biggest factor was getting to know not so much what he was working with, but who he was working with. “To really do a good job of coaching, I think, you kind of have to have a personal relationship. It can’t just be football all the time. I had them all in to talk, and kind of get to know them a little bit better. My goals are my players’ goals. If everybody’s got the same goal of being the starter, I can’t necessarily help you all be the starter. But I want to move everybody in the direction of what their goals are.”
Kelly made it clear weeks ago that as a starter for two-and-a-half years, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the ordained starter going into 2021. He said the incumbent’s biggest competition was with himself in terms of the need to improve.
“Dorian’s base of football knowledge is really, really good,” Gunderson said. “He’s bright. He sees stuff. His vision is really good. He really wants to learn. And he wants to know the bad. He doesn’t just want to be told what he’s doing right. We’ve had an awesome experience so far. I’m not naïve enough to think it’s just going to be like that. There are no real bullets flying yet. Stuff’s going to get real here in the Fall.”
Two weeks ago, Thompson-Robinson referred to Gunderson as, “A player’s coach; someone I can go to, and I am in his office at all times of the day.” Gunderson attributes that relationship to the natural maturation process from a young athlete into a mature leader. “Once you get older and you start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it becomes more real. And they’re a lot more accepting of the hard coaching.”
The Learning Process
Gunderson willfully acknowledges that his playing days pale in comparison to the talent he is coaching now. He said when he watches his quarterbacks, he knows he did not have the ability to make some of the plays they do. That puts his emphasis more on what is in the head than what is in the arm. “I’m trying to coach the decision making.” He said it is about calling the right play against the right coverage. “Let’s make sure we are doing this thing exactly right, and putting this team, this offense, in the best situation possible to move the ball down the field and score points.”
Gunderson tends to get outwardly excited about what he calls learning opportunities, at one point calling them, “Awesome learning opportunities.” He never came right out and gave the Chip Kelly line about, “So what, now what?” But he does have his own version. “It doesn’t necessarily matter what happened previously. Where you are is where you are. What are you going to do about it going forward?”
While he is new to the coaching position, he is not completely new to the personnel at his disposal. Gunderson says San Jose State was the first to offer Ethan Garbers a scholarship. Garbers of course went to Washington instead, before transferring in this off-season to UCLA. His eligibility status is still being held hostage by Washington, using a loophole to defy new NCAA transfer guidelines. “I’d like to say I knew who he was first,” Gunderson says with a wry grin. He called Garbers’ throwing motion and arm strength, “Fun to watch.”
As for last year’s backup quarterback, Chase Griffin, Gunderson said, “He’s really football smart. He’s done a good job. I use the term, ‘Drive the bus.’ You don’t necessarily gotta drive a sports car, but you’ve got to get all the kids to school. He does a good job of operating the offense.”
Beyond all that comes with taking a new job at a Power 5 school, there is the personal part that comes with a coach’s travails. Gunderson chronicled the journey he and his wife have experienced. Hillary is from the city of Astoria, Oregon, with a population of all of 9,000 people. The two met at Oregon State, which has an undergrad population of about 30,000. The coaching jobs eventually took them to Lincoln, Nebraska, which on game day is the second biggest population center in the entire state. At San Jose State, they lived in a city of just over one million people. Now they are in Los Angeles. “When I told her we were moving to LA, I said, ‘Hillary, this is as big as it’s going to get.’”
As for that other partner in life…the professional one…Gunderson said it was an easy decision to come work for Chip Kelly and learn his offenses. “You wanted to learn, and you wanted to kind of know the secret sauce.” He called it a great opportunity to learn something different. “It’s the only way you are going to grow.” He stopped just short of reverting to his theme of, “Awesome learning opportunities.”
Main image courtesy San Jose State Athletics