It becomes too easy to say UCLA is one of the most experienced teams in the country so the Bruins should win a lot more this season. Being a year older does not guarantee being a year better. It is time, probably past time, to put the words into action on the field. Many of the Bruins have become avid chess players over the last year. It is about learning discipline, strategy, and thinking several moves ahead. With that in mind, it is time to go from the generic themes of veteran players and accountability to look at specific keys to the UCLA season.
The Health Of The Offensive Line
This subhead is a little misleading because we really mean one position. Center. This will be the second season this offensive line has been intact person for person, position by position. It is a luxury for any offensive coordinator and any quarterback. Sean Rhyan, Paul Grattan, Sam Marrazzo, Duke Clemens, and Alec Anderson have plenty of time together. Rhyan says that puts them in a rhythm together. “You have a bond with the guys to the right, and to the left,” he said. “There’s not too much worry about, ‘oh man, does he know how I work on this block?’ There isn’t too much guessing going on, between the players.”
Rhyan said everyone’s advanced skill sets are growing together. That matters. Injuries happen. Particularly on the offensive line. And UCLA has depth, there is no question about that. Jon Gaines II, Beau Taylor, Atonio Mafi and others are all capable of filling in at various spots on the offensive line. And the starters are capable of moving from position to position.
Head coach Chip Kelly, and his lineman, have all made note of the fact that they get shifted around to learn other positions for that “just in case” moment.
However, some position losses are easier to band-aid over than others. The timing between a center and his quarterback in the shotgun formation is everything. Marrazzo, the starting center, was missing from Spring camp for an undisclosed injury, although anyone could see it was lower leg issue. While others took their turns at center with the starters, there was an array of errant snaps throughout Spring camp. And it was not from one particular fill-in. It was from the bunch of them.
There were low snaps that the quarterbacks had to pull off their shoe tops before going into the play. There were snaps that were wide of the immediate pocket. And there were snaps that just sailed over the quarterbacks’ heads. Any of those throws the entire cadence and timing of the play off kilter. While offensive linemen have to be slightly interchangeable, Spring camp made it clear, the health of Marrazzo is significant for the offense.
DTR Staying On The Field
This doesn’t sound like brain surgery. Your starting quarterback staying on the field is going to be a top priority for most teams. But it hasn’t happened at UCLA during the three years of the Chip Kelly era. And Fall camp is getting off to a rocky start in that category.
Again, this is a position where UCLA has satisfactory depth. In all, the Bruins have an overflowing quarterback room with six of them in camp right now. But the reality is there are three that are viable right now. Chase Griffin acquitted himself well when called upon last year. Had it not been for a completely unnecessary Hail Mary call from the bench at the end of the first half against Oregon, who knows how that game turns out. And Kelly can profess all he wants that he does not change the game when Griffin is in, but the game film says the quarterback option is much more of accessory to the offense. And throughout Spring and the early weeks of Fall camp, redshirt freshman Ethan Garbers has been impressive. The transfer from Washington has a quick release and good accuracy. Kelly said, “He knows how to think like a quarterback.”
So that leaves us with the starter, senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He split time his freshman year with Wilton Speight as they both suffered through minor injuries during the year. He missed one game due to injury in his second season, and then missed two games last season due to Covid protocols. Thompson-Robinson had no positive test but was shut down due to contact tracing. Now he has missed five consecutive days of Fall camp and is not present during the workouts. UCLA has issued its perfunctory “He’s not available,” update on his status.
Kelly indicated last week that whenever Thompson-Robinson comes back, he is not worried about his starting quarterback getting back into a rhythm with the offense. And maybe that is because Kelly has a sense of when Thompson-Robinson will be back. The back-ups are capable. And there are still three weeks before the team goes into game planning for the season opener. Can they beat Hawaii with a quarterback other than Thompson-Robinson? Maybe.
But this isn’t just a regular UCLA season. This team has more experience than any Bruins squad in recent memory. And by any reasonable assessment, Thompson-Robinson is a top three quarterback in the conference. For a program that has been struggling to be relevant for far too many years, this is it. This is the time. This is the year. But you have to have your starting quarterback get through one season standing in the pocket for every game.
The Defensive Secondary
For all the advancement UCLA made last year, going from statistically one of the worst defenses in the country for two years, to the middle of the pack, there were still some glaring deficiencies. The Bruins were 114th in the country in passing yards allowed per game. This of course does not all rest on the secondary. The defensive front seven has to get the opposing quarterback out of the pocket more. But if the front seven is going to apply that kind of pressure then the defensive secondary is going to have to do a better job of maintaining one on one coverage of receivers and tight ends.
It’s a two-sided coin. Pressure coming from the defensive front should help the entire defense. But if they do not get to the quarterback or at least flush them out, the defensive backfield is left on an island. This goes back to the experience factor. There is not a youngster in the group. And this is the brain trust of the defense. Jay Shaw, Stephan Blaylock, Mo Osling III, and Quentin Lake have played in a combined 126 games in their UCLA careers. Throw in super seniors Qwuantrezz Knight and Obi Eboh and you’re getting two guys going into their 6th year of college football, with most of those years as starters.
Eboh and Osling go at each other competitively at the chess board. In fact, the defensive backfield probably has more chess players per capita than any other unit on the team. These guys can see the moves in front of them. But there is no way UCLA gets through a season that includes LSU, USC, and a three week stretch against Washington, Oregon, and Utah, giving up more passing yards than Georgia State and Texas State which is what happened last year.
While Knight is unmistakably the vocal leader of the defensive backfield, Osling says everyone in the unit has a different type of leadership style that lends itself to the group dynamic. “Everybody’s different, so you know, we just bring all of our collective minds together and just make one big mind. Nobody’s bigger than the team though, so as long as we are going in the right direction, we are all leading.”
Eboh said having a full Spring camp and Fall under defensive back coach Brian Norwood is going to make a difference. Spring camp was cancelled after three days last year because of Covid, and the rest of the year was a week-to-week proposition. “I think now that more of the defensive backs are familiar with Coach Norwood and our system, I think it is going to help us exponentially,” Eboh said. He added though, that at the end of the day it is just about making plays.
It should be that simple. And if it is, and UCLA gets there with the critical elements above, the first winning season of the Chip Kelly era is within reach.