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The “Eye Test”: Progress is the Name of the Game for Bruins Against Oklahoma

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UCLA took a step in the right direction in Norman.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn’t clear by now, let me lay it out in very basic terms: this is a rebuilding year.

Rebuilding years aren’t that uncommon in sports. Professional teams certainly use them all the time, giving their younger players more opportunities to see if there is anyone they can build around, while helping their development curve at the same time. Think about all the young players you see in September playing in baseball games, or the Lakers the last few years. Even NFL teams like the Browns do this (though they tend to sabotage by also hiring coaches who have no idea how to develop talent, but that’s a whole different story).

In college, rebuilding works a little differently. You only have players for 5 years at most, which tends to shorten the development window to maximize the useability of players. Top talent will play as true freshmen, but even projects are brought in with the hope they can contribute as a rotation player by their redshirt sophomore year. And with the constant turnover, sustainability relies more on the ability to recognize and deploy talent in a consistently positive way; a few bad recruiting classes in a row, for example, can completely torpedo a coaching regime. Oh yeah, and you can’t leave out the fact that the personnel for any program are still just 18-22, still developing both physically and mentally.

Because of that short turn-around time, rebuilding at the college level tends to look like a 3-step process:

  1. Culture change, scheme change, buckets full of youth.
  2. Noticeable improvement and development, increased competitiveness
  3. Increased winning, profit

Obviously, this rebuilding plan doesn’t fit everyone, and many rebuilds stall out at stage 2, but this is what UCLA is looking at going forward and, right now, we are squarely in stage 1. That means a lot less playable depth and a lot of growing pains as the young guys figure things out.

The good news is that, despite the blowout, the Bruins showed notable progress in multiple facets. In stage 1, that’s the goal, and to get it that early in the season is a good sign. There are (obviously) still major problems, but some of those can’t be corrected on a week-by-week basis.

Anyway, let’s get into this.

Offense

Quarterback - There’s been a lot of breathless praise of Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the aftermath of the game, proclaiming him to be destined for greatness. If you were hoping I’d come in and throw a bucket of cold water onto that appraisal, well, I’m sorry to disappoint because there was a lot to like from him in this game.

Let’s start with the basic positives and work our way through this performance. For starters, Thompson-Robinson did not throw every pass like he was attempting to put the football through his receiver’s chest, which is a definite improvement. There was better touch on passes, better accuracy on the throws, and better reads in general. This was all the more impressive considering Oklahoma’s defensive line had essentially bought property and was developing a small suburb in the backfield. Even MORE impressive is that these improvements came in one week. One of the big questions about Thompson-Robinson was how he would perform his first year, given that he had only started at QB for one year at the varsity high school level, but this was the game that showed exactly why so many top programs were willing to offer him a scholarship despite that lack of experience. Thompson-Robinson possesses enough raw ability to make a coach daydream, but he showed a growth pattern in this game that has to make other Pac-12 coaches wary. Should this continue, he is well on his way to being one of the premiere passers in the conference as early as next year.

There were still issues, of course. One of the early traits we’ve seen is his propensity for making bad throws to start his game time, but, at least this week, he was able to corral that in much earlier. Decision-making in the zone-read game could use some work as well, as there were multiple times where he had a big lane but either read the crashing D-end wrong or handed the ball off as designed. I’m starting to think there isn’t as much RPO in this offense as we’ve been led to believe, as he really hasn’t kept the ball enough times to make that a threatening option. And for as bad as the pass protection was in this game, there were a few sacks where DTR moved into a defender rather than take the open lane and running. And, yes, he missed on some throws in general.

Despite those issues, my main takeaway is going to be that long pass down the sideline to Theo Howard. It was like looking into the future and seeing what can be. The negatives are going to bring the grade down to a B, but considering the vast improvement we saw from him compared to week 1, you have to be thrilled.

Running Backs - Bolu Olorunfunmi is what he is at this point. He doesn’t have game-breaking speed and he lacks vision to hit holes consistently and pick up chunk yardage, but he is good for short yardage and is maybe the best blocker amongst the RB group. Joshua Kelley, while a great story, is along the same lines as Bolu, with him being a little better at getting upfield but not as good of a blocker.

If this team is going to truly get the rebuild going in earnest (and I’ll get into this idea more in the coaching section) then Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby are going to need to take over the lion’s share of the RB touches going forward. I sang Allen’s praises last week, but this week had more of the same, just without the long TD run. Allen again led the team in YPC with 4.2 and had the longest run of the team on a 14 yard carry that Allen was so close to breaking for an even longer gain. He has some room to grow (his blocking in particular isn’t great at the moment, which you should expect from a true freshman speedster tailback), but the potential is just so tantalizing.

I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t expect to see much of Martell Irby this year, thinking that he’d take something of a true redshirt year, but what he showed against Oklahoma (with the caveat of it mostly being against the second string) was incredibly encouraging for the RB group going forward. Irby had some tough, tough runs, gaining 3.7 YPC, and he showed a propensity for running between the tackles. If Allen is the star of this group, Irby proved that he could be an effective complement and I’d love to see UCLA utilize the 2-back sets with Irby and Allen on the field at the same time going forward.

As a group, the running backs again surpassed 100 yards, which wasn’t going to be an easy feat considering the talent gap between Oklahoma’s defensive line and UCLA’s offensive line. Still, if this is a rebuilding year and a youth movement, it might be time to have the more talented guys get more of the touches and there wasn’t a huge standout performance, so I’ll go C+ here.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - The receiver group is weird because it’s the only group on offense that really has some older talent that should be featured. Case in point: Caleb Wilson, who continues to look like a 1st round talent and, possibly, the best tight end in CFB this year. Wilson was able to take an early pass, break a tackle, and scamper for 65 yards before eventually getting dragged out of bounds. While his catch and target numbers aren’t going to reach last year’s high, it’s clear that Thompson-Robinson trusts him and wants to get him the ball, as he still led the team with 7 targets.

On the opposite end, it still really feels like Theo Howard is getting lost in the shuffle. Even with the influx of talent to the position, Howard remains the most talented outside receiver on the team, as his highlight-reel grab on a long pass from Thompson-Robinson showed. There were plays run where Christian Pabico took the ball on a jet sweep that made me wonder why Howard wasn’t the one running it instead. Basically, Howard should probably be more involved in the offense earlier.

It was nice to see the talented true freshmen again make an impact. Chase Cota has a nice bounce-back after dropping a few passes against Cincinnati, as he tied for the team lead with 4 receptions (on 4 targets) including one nice grab that he kept control of while the defender was tackling him to the ground. Michael Ezeike got his first taste of collegiate action and he made it count, as his only catch also happened to be Thompson-Robinson’s first collegiate touchdown pass. It certainly wasn’t a bad way to introduce yourself.

Yet again, it’s hard to really judge this group because so much of what they do is dependent on getting the ball thrown to them, but they were consistently good when called upon, so I feel fine giving them an A-. My hangups have more to do with rotations and offensive focus, but that’s two things that are out of the players’ hands.

Offensive Line - Hmmmm.

There’s two trains of thought for me here. The first is that, given the talent and experience gap between UCLA’s offensive line and Oklahoma’s defensive line, and given the performance we saw against Cincinnati, I was expecting a lot worse. UCLA actually wasn’t awful when it came to run-blocking? There were certainly holes that were formed, and the running game (outside of Thompson-Robinson) was able to gain a solid 3.4 YPC. It’s not the best performance, but, considering the increase in competition level, it was an encouraging sign.

The second train of thought, and the one that is going to affect this grade more, is the one that is going to try and edit a movie featuring UCLA’s adventures in pass protection and try and sell it as a horror movie, because this was an awful performance. Even taking into consideration the opposing talent, this was just uniformly bad. It’s hard to have anything resembling a passing game if your quarterback is under duress almost immediately after snapping the ball, and the six sacks UCLA gave up speaks to that fact. Twelve TFLs also don’t help. It speaks to how much Thompson-Robinson grew up in this game that he was able to put on such an encouraging performance in the first place.

The grade for the line is a D- (if only because the run blocking wasn’t as bad as it could have been) but I’m thinking it may be time to try something new on the offensive line. What the line needs more than anything is stability, and the best move I can see is putting Andre James back at his natural position of right tackle. Yes, that means the blindside may be even more open, but James hasn’t exactly been great after the move, while he and Michael Alves (who was also moved to the left side and has struggled) were a relative strength on the right side last year. Just given how the offensive line has played up to this point, and that having (something resembling) stable offensive line play may be the key to seeing this offense grow, doing a shift like this may be in everyone’s best interests.

Overall - I’ll be honest: if UCLA had this type of performance on offense last week against Cincinnati, they would have won that game, perhaps even comfortably. Even despite the offensive line issues (which are going to bring the grade down a good amount) the UCLA offense was able to string together a few successful drives on the road against one of the best defenses they’ll see all year. Thompson-Robinson showed promise and poise, the wide receivers bounced back, and the running back group showcased a future thunder-and-lightning pairing.

The downside is, of course, the offensive line, and the amount of potentially promising drives they killed by their poor play is so numerous that I don’t want to go back and count. If things ever stabilize on the line, you can see the flashes of talent in the other position groups that could make for a dynamic offense. But, for now, they’re stuck trying to string together positive plays in between offensive line miscues, so for that, I have to give the offense in total a C+.

Y’ALL WE GOT GRAPHS NOW!



Defense

Defensive Line - There’s going to be this weird strain throughout the defensive section where I’m going to talk very positively about a defense that just gave up 49 points and 485 yards, but the realities are this group as a whole did a solid job given the circumstances. It’s a benefit to the Eye Test, I guess.

The defensive line group played reasonably well, given the circumstances. Again, you’d love to see your defensive line get more of a push in the run game, but as long as they’re occupying blockers and allowing the linebackers to (try to) make plays, they’re accomplishing their job. The line did get some reinforcements this week, as Osa Odighizuwa came back from suspension and came up big on a 4th down stop near the end of the 2nd quarter. If there was a downside, it’s that this group really could not generate anything resembling a pass rush on a consistent basis, which did not help the secondary trying to match up against NFL-level wide receivers.

I think my main takeaway, like last week, is that this group should be very good in the coming years. Outside of Rick Wade, who is a stalwart upperclassman in this unit, the defensive line features a lot of younger guys playing a large amount of reps, which should pay off down the line. The grade for this week, a B, doesn’t necessarily reflect that situation, but I just wanted you all to know it and not be mad at me.

Linebackers - It was a better week for the inside linebackers? Or at least a better week for Krys Barnes, who played much more within himself and made a handful of smart plays, and did not really pop on the screen in a negative way. The inside linebacker issues appear to stem opposite of Barnes, where Tyree Thompson has continued to struggle. It is more than a bit concerning that Thompson, a juco transfer brought in by Kelly’s staff, has looked this out of place this early, as Thompson has routinely missed tackles and assignments in the run game. I’m not sure what the fix here is beyond getting some more talent into the system. Perhaps Je’Vari Anderson can come back from injury and provide a better level of consistency or Bo Calvert can come in and make an immediate impact while learning to play at the collegiate level, but Thompson’s play thus far has not inspired much in the way of confidence.

On the outside, Jaelan Phillips played well while he was in the game. There were a few plays that broke for longer because Phillips overpursued, but I’d lean on that more being Phillips learning a new system and role on the fly, and perhaps trusting too much in his insane athleticism than he should at times. That should go away as he becomes more comfortable (let’s not forget he missed a good chunk of last year with a hand injury as well). Keisean Lucier-South played well in addition and seems to understand the most out of the linebacker unit what he needs to do on each play. That can lead to some frustrations when he is in the correct position but another linebacker misses their read, leading to a big gain, but the positive is that Lucier-South is providing a steady presence for the unit.

Improved play, still a lot to fix, C again feels good here.

Secondary - This is just a hard group to grade this week, for a few reasons.

Let’s start with the cornerbacks, where Darnay Holmes and Nate Meadors were stuck defending two NFL-level receivers in CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown without the aid of a consistent pass rush. Holmes had an early pass breakup as well as an interception, but, after a few drives, it became clear that Oklahoma was going to instead attack Meadors by lining up Lamb opposite him. This is not to say Meadors played bad. Sometimes, good defense is beaten by better offense and, for the majority of this game, Meadors was in the right position to make a play, but Lamb was just a bit better. Had Meadors been playing against a WR with a lesser skillset, Meadors probably wins this battle repeatedly.

The safeties are a different story, because UCLA’s goal on defense was to stop the run, so the safeties were routinely in the box helping in run defense. It’s probably not the best sign in the world that the two leading tacklers for the team were Adarius Pickett and Quentin Lake, but it does speak to their versatility that they can be counted on to fill multiple roles.

Like I said earlier, this group did not have the benefit of a strong pass rush, which definitely raised the difficulty of what was required and, for the first half, they mostly held up. In the second half, the long stretches on the field and talent at WR finally took their toll, but what I saw was again encouraging, so I’m ok with a B- here.

Overall - Just to reiterate, I do recognize how weird it is to feel so positive about the defensive performance when Oklahoma put up those kinds of numbers, but, again, it has to do with recognizing just how talented Oklahoma is on offense. Given that, it was a clear sign of exactly where UCLA needs to grow as a defense going forward,and where the strengths and weaknesses of the defense lie. The grade is going to be lower than last week, if only because I can’t just reward the defense for giving up that many yards, but a B- is still a good sign for the team moving forward.



Special Teams

Overall - J.J. Molson made every kick he was asked to make, which was good. Stefan Flintoft was fine in his kicks.

The problem for UCLA was in the coverage units, which were awful. CeeDee Lamb had a 66-yard punt return. Tre Brown had two kickoff returns, one for 86 yards and the other for 35 yards. Oklahoma was able to completely flip this game just based on field position allowed by the coverage units. Even considering talent, this was just flat unacceptable. Coverage has been something of a bugaboo in recent years. So, it’s on the new coaching staff to fix these mistakes going forward. This game, the special teams got a D-. Let’s do better next week.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - I’m going to start out this section by giving a shout out to Orz (Chris Osgood, former writer at sister site Bolts from the Blue, so he’s also a fellow Chargers fan) who has been releasing these amazing offensive breakdowns and charting data for each game. Stop reading this and head over and read that this instant. I’ll wait.

...

Ok, good?

I can admit upfront that I don’t have the deepest football mind around. Sure, I’ve watched football for a long time, studied greater trends in college, and understand what is and is not good play and sound strategies, but I don’t have the patience to sit down and break down each and every play to this level of detail. Seriously, when I first took over this column two years ago, I would take detailed notes breaking down individual plays, and I hated it. So, to have this resource freely available is such a gift and I really hope you guys go over to that article and give orz a thanks for his hard work.

Looking at the data from the past two weeks, you can actually see some changes being implemented or, at the very least, a different focus this week. UCLA actually mixed their playcalling up a bit more in this game, calling more runs on second and third down. Part of this has to do with down and distance, as UCLA would run on a 3rd and long to stay conservative and fight another day (and the 7.2 YPP averaged by runs on third down speak to that), but there was at least a recognition that they should try to run in short yardage situations, at the very least to give the offensive line the experience against a top tier opponent.

What Orz’s breakdown helped solidify to me, however, is that UCLA’s personnel usage probably needs to change going forward. Bolu Olorunfunmi was on the field for 24 snaps (the most of any RB in non-garbage time) and ran the ball 15 times. That’s just a hilariously large amount for a RB who isn’t going to feature in UCLA’s future plans, especially compared to a RB like Kazmeir Allen. Getting Martell Irby a lot of run late in the game was a positive development, but it then leads to the question of: what is the purpose of this season.

If Dorian Thompson-Robinson is going to start every game in an effort to help ramp up his development, which I believe is the correct decision, then that concept should probably trickle down to some of the other skill positions. That means more Allen and Irby and less Olorunfunmi and Kelley (and Jamabo when he comes back). That means more Cota and Ezeike and Phillips and less Pabico. Let the young guys play meaningful snaps early in the game and grow.

As I said, with the offensive line, it may be time to switch James and Alves back over to provide some level of stability. Christaphany Murray getting a lot of the playing time at center should help down the line and fits into the “get the young guys meaningful snaps to help development” idea, but getting stable play should be the primary concern on the line, just to help the entire offense grow.

I’m also still not super thrilled with some of the more conservative playcalls being made, such as the decision to run out the clock with timeouts remaining at the end of the first half, but, considering the opponent and location, I’m willing to let it slide this week. Hopefully things open up or the offense gets more aggressive against Fresno State. Otherwise, there may be a problem. But I’ll give a C+ for this game. Things were better, but could definitely be improved in one form or the other.

Defensive Gameplan - The defensive gameplan for this game was simple: focus on stopping the run and make Kyler Murray beat you in the air. Just on a conceptual level, this makes sense. UCLA’s secondary is their strength, while the run defense is a weakness, so throwing extra bodies to shore up that weakness is the smart plan.

I can’t even fault the gameplan for not working out perfectly. Oklahoma’s offense really is that good. So, the decision to try to stop one aspect or the other is like picking which gun you’re going to get shot with. Kyler Murray made all of the smart decisions in the passing game and even showed off his running ability with a few keepers that completely fooled the UCLA defense (the more things change....) for some easy scores, but that’s the benefit to having a high-level QB who’s been in the system for a few years and is such a talented athlete that he was a 1st round pick in this year’s MLB draft. Again, the pass defense was routinely in the correct position, but Oklahoma’s skill players are just at another level. So, they were able to make plays that lesser players just aren’t able to.

With all of that said, the defensive gameplan was fine, even good. I’ll give them a B+ for this game, if only because you’d have liked to see some more aggressive formations thrown at Oklahoma on obvious passing downs just to help the secondary out a bit, but I’m not sure how much Phillips’s injury (he’s good to go for this week) affected things. There are lots of good things to build on, though.

Overall - I took a lot of heat last week for taking the coaching staff to task on what was an uninspiring performance to open the season, but I still stand by that. The youth argument rings hollow when you’re hosting a team that is even younger than you and Cincinnati played a much-more disciplined game.

So, the people angry with me should feel a little better that I’m much more positive on the coaching staff after this game and I think the perceptions of how this game would go are helping this. Oklahoma is a legitimate playoff contender again this year. This is not a game UCLA should realistically be competitive in at this point of the development cycle. As I said at the very top, the main goal for this game was to show some level of growth from week 1, and, on that level, the Bruins succeeded. There were new wrinkles on offense, along with growth shown from multiple players, while the defense had a good showing against what should be the best offense they face all season. As mentioned, there are still some issues to address, but, again, this was a much better performance, so a B+ actually feels like a good grade for the staff.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the overall coaching grade can be at a B+ when the offensive side got a C+, it’s because these grades are arbitrary and based on my whims at any given moment, so there.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - The defense is still suffering from execution issues, specifically the linebackers in being in the correct spot to stop a play. Tyree Thompson was the biggest offender here, but Jaelan Phillips did not help fix this issue on a few plays. The missed tackles seemed to come later in the game, which speaks more to getting tired against a top offense over time, but they’re still happening.

The penalty issues from last year reared their heads a bit, particularly on a 3rd quarter unsportsmanlike conduct by Demetric Felton. There were multiple pass interference penalties as well, though at least no one in the secondary committed more than 1, which I guess is a blessing. But penalties did not really decide this game - outside of a Meadors PI in the first quarter, played clean football in the first half. OU was just better, so hats off to them.

Still, that unsportsmanlike penalty, along with the execution issues, are going to keep this grade down, though not as down as last week. C for the week, and hopefully things continue to look better against Fresno State.

Final Composite

Offense grade: C+ (2.3)

Defensive grade: B- (2.7)

Special Teams grade: D- (0.7)

Coaching grade: B+ (3.3)

Discipline grade: C (2.0)

Final grade for Oklahoma: (2.2)

And to recap, he is UCLA’s grades so far this season (along with handy links to the Eye Test for those games):

Cincinnati: C (2.12)

Comparing the grades from last week, 3 of the sections actually saw increases, with the defense seeing only a small drop. Unfortunately, the special teams were bad enough to bring the grade closer to Cincinnati than seems fair, but considering how this game went I’d probably lean more towards the Cincinnati grade being too high in spots.

This upcoming game against Fresno State represents a chance for UCLA to show enough progress to get into the win column. The Bulldogs aren’t going to be a pushover. Their last game required Minnesota to make a defensive stop at home to hold on, but, if the Bruins are able to improve on their performance from this game, they should be able to pick up the victory.


Go Bruins!