The 2020 college football season was too sporadic for too many teams and fans alike. Now, a clean Spring camp is in the books for UCLA. New Nike Jumpman logo uniforms have been delivered. Summer workouts are done. Now, with hopes that the new Covid variants can be held at bay, Fall camp starts for UCLA’s fresh season.
Conference media days are always the calendar cue that training camp is here and the regular season is four weeks away.
UCLA’s Fresh Season
The current plan is that UCLA and the Rose Bowl are allowing for full fan attendance at the Bruins home games. Things of course are fluid as the Delta variant spreads through the county. The University of California system has mandated that all students/staff be vaccinated prior to returning to campus for the Fall, religious or health exemptions notwithstanding. So the players and coaches will be ready. Will the fans be?
The team opens camp in sound health. It was a potential concern as Spring camp started a month later than normal because of the calendar and how it flowed with NCAA rules and Covid protocols. But the Bruins came out healthy. Starting senior quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson, one of the ordained leaders of this veteran team, says he has recovered from camp and off-season workouts. “I’m feeling great,” Thompson-Robinson said earlier this week. “I’m back 100%. The body is feeling good. I’m mentally all good, and I’m ready to rock and roll. So, I am ready for camp to get here and let’s do this thing.”
At Pac-12 Media Days earlier in the week, head coach Chip Kelly said the later start to Spring camp was like OTA’s when he was coaching in the NFL. He said the retention on the things the team worked on will be better with the players. “That was the design of going as late as we went. I think it’s going to pay off for us.”
Kelly is optimistic because he says he has depth across the positions for the first time in his four year tenure at UCLA. “I think we had 115 kids for spring ball,” Kelly said. My first season here we had about 65 for Spring ball. So our numbers have changed drastically, and our classes are now a little more evenly distributed. We have a group of juniors and seniors that have been around, played a lot of football.”
Sixth year senior defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight says UCLA being one of the most veteran teams in the country means the Bruins need to be more a player-led team. “You don’t want to be on a team where the coach has to say everything and do everything. At the end of the day the coach is not on the field with you,” Knight said earlier this week. “We’ve got players that can actually be coaches as well. The players are holding each other accountable. We’re trying to take pressure off the coaches.”
It’s Now Or Never For Thompson-Robinson
Despite the experience at every position, none is going to be more in the spotlight than the quarterback, Thompson-Robinson. Statistically, he has cut down on the errors each year. Now, the mental acuity is needed more than ever. During Spring camp, first year quarterback coach Ryan Gunderson said he saw things out of Thompson-Robinson physically that he had never seen other quarterbacks do. The work, Gunderson said, was between the ears, with the decision making process.
Kelly said he sees Thompson-Robinson becoming more of a student of the game. “I think the one thing that I love about Dorian is his thirst for knowledge. He constantly is working on his game, whether it’s the physical stuff, whether it be the weight room, speed work, film watching, decision making, how to become a better leader. Those are questions where he’s like, ‘Coach, you got 10 minutes?’ I’ll pop up, he has a notebook out, a list of questions he’s rattles off. He’s always trying to improve. That’s the one thing I love about him, he never stands pat on what he is,” Kelly said.
Mo Money Mo Problems?
The off-season has also provided UCLA with many of the same topics all programs are grappling with like the new Name/Image/Likeness rules, or NIL. Thompson-Robinson has turned over the handling of his social media-based apparel and marketing efforts from his mother, Melva, to a professional marketing firm.
As is the case with any team, there are going to be the haves and the have-nots. There is inherent value for many firms in a young, well-thought-out quarterback who has a high-profile public image. The back-up left tackle? Not so much. Is a split in the locker room inevitable when some players are able to financially capitalize on the game more than others? “I think the biggest thing is keeping the main thing, the main thing, which is football” Thompson-Robinson said. “That’s what is going to provide all your money for you. So, I tell everybody, and all the guys in there, It’s not what you do off the field, it’s what you do on the field. Nobody’s going to pay you if you’re not playing.”
That sentiment was echoed by Kelly later the same day. “We have a mature team. I really don’t think — first and foremost they know part of their image is they have to be doing the right things in the classroom and on the football field.”
Gotta Look Sharp
The other news, specific to UCLA, was the introduction of the Jordan-brand Nike Apparel. The players got their first look at it earlier in the week, and the reviews have come back very positive, not just in the appearance but the practicality of the new design. Kelly says it pays dividends in a couple of ways. “I always have been such a big fan of the product. And I think sometimes that gets glossed over, what a good product it is,” he said. “I had a chance to be in the office yesterday. Spent a little time with our equipment guy, checking all the new stuff that came in.” And the second advantage? “It’s going to be help us with recruiting, because everybody wants to be associated with it.”
As for the players wearing the new brand of Nike, well they have made their crosstown rivals, who don the traditional Nike gear take notice of what is new in Westwood. “I make sure the USC guys see it,” Knight said with a committed laugh.
And for the fans who like the alternative uniforms that get used by schools occasionally during a season? Kelly said that will not be happening with the new Jordan look. “There’s a couple football programs in football that have iconic football uniforms, UCLA is one of them. I call it the airport test. If you walk in an airport, you look out the corner of your eye, you can tell who’s playing. You know when Alabama is playing, Penn State, UCLA is playing. That’s working really well for this program and I’m not going to change that.”
Main Image: UCLA head coach Chip Kelly at Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood, CA.