The 2018 UCLA Football season has brought the stark realization that life after Josh Rosen has arrived at UCLA. Wait, November 24, 2017, brought that realization into view sooner than expected for UCLA fans when we all watched Rosen slam his helmet to the ground while seated on the bench right before halftime of the Bruins’ regular-season finale against UC Berkeley. This, of course, preceded Rosen being violently slammed to the ground a few plays earlier by UC Berkeley linebacker Alex Funches. Rosen’s reaction was most likely due in part to his realization that he was probably never going to play football as a Bruin again.
Enter backup quarterback Devon Modster on that November night as his audition for UCLA’s starting quarterback position started a little earlier than planned. Modster’s first audition went well that evening as he helped the Bruins drive into position for J.J. Molson’s 37-yard field goal with four seconds left that gave the Bruins a 30-27 victory.
Fast forward to the 2018 UCLA Bruins and no position on the Bruins 2018 roster seems more uncertain than the most important position on the team: quarterback.
So, for the sake of this 2018 UCLA Quarterback Preview article, I will look at it through the lens of why each quarterback will be the starter against Cincinnati and why each quarterback will not be the starter against Cincinnati. With that being said, while UCLA will have six quarterbacks on their roster, the competition will be between five of the quarterbacks, and more likely, it will probably boil down to three guys.
Austin Burton, R-Fr, 6’2”, 196 Pounds
Why Burton Will Start Against Cincinnati
No player seemed to make a bigger jump during the spring than Burton. Burton put up the best numbers during the Spring Game. Burton was 6 of 8 for 116 yards and a touchdown. He seemed comfortable and confident running the UCLA offense. Burton hit freshman wide receiver Chase Cota for a touchdown on a third-and-goal play and ran for a 1-yard touchdown on a read-option play later in the game. The play of the game came courtesy of Burton as well when he completed a 52-yard pass to red-shirt sophomore receiver Damian Alloway down the right sideline.
Burton brings a mix of pocket passing and athletic ability. He has also had time to learn the playbook and prepare for the competition that is ahead of him.
So, Burton’s play has definitely put him in the outer mix to start UCLA’s first game against Cincinnati.
Why Burton Will Not Start Against Cincinnati
Burton is not quite ready to be a starting quarterback at the collegiate level. While Burton’s spring performance seemed to open eyes, if his skill set beats out the other four quarterbacks yet to be mentioned in this article, UCLA football will not be in a good place.
Matt Lynch, R-So, 6’4”, 214 Pounds
Why Lynch Will Start Against Cincinnati
Matt Lynch was roommates with Josh Rosen. That alone will give him the edge to start, right? Matt Lynch also sports the highest college completion percentage of any current UCLA quarterback. Lynch has completed 2 of 3 passes for 11 yards and 1 TD as a UCLA quarterback.
Now, let’s get serious. Lynch is a strong-armed quarterback that really can throw the ball. Lynch seems to have that poise that you want a quarterback to have and when he’s interviewed he answers questions the way you would want your quarterback to answer questions. Lynch is definitely more of a pocket passer, but he is not afraid to tuck the ball and run for yardage. Lynch has had the opportunity to learn the new Chip Kelly offense and competed all spring. So, the repetitions and his ability to get a jump start on the Chip Kelly playbook is a huge advantage for Lynch.
During the Spring Game, Lynch completed 3 of 11 passes for 35 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Those aren’t earth shattering numbers, but it was a chance to play under semi-game conditions. It also showed that Matt Lynch definitely has the ability to pull the ball down and run.
So, Lynch brings a skill set that puts him in the mix to enter Fall Camp and excel and possibly start on September 1st.
Why Lynch Will Not Start Against Cincinnati
Matt Lynch and his skill set are in competition with players that have abilities simply at a higher level than his currently reside. Lynch is in competition with guys that are more athletic than him. He’s in competition with a guys that can sling that ball just as well as he can. And, Lynch is in competition with guys who have won college games against high level competition. With all of those cards stacked against Lynch, I predict that Lynch will backup a Bruins starter.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Fr, 6’1”, 205 Pounds
Why Thompson-Robinson Will Start Against Cincinnati
While not coming to UCLA quite as heralded as a recent UCLA quarterback now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, the fanfare has been quite high for Dorian Thompson-Robinson. While Chip Kelly was not the coach that initially recruited or offered him a scholarship, Chip Kelly made sure to let him know that UCLA still anxiously awaited his arrival.
Thompson-Robinson is coming from Bishop Gorman High School of Las Vegas, a high school powerhouse. He led the Bishop Gorman Gaels to a Nevada state title. Thompson-Robinson passed for 3,275 yards, 38 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions while completing almost 69% of his passes and rushing for 426 yards and 7 touchdowns.
I followed and watched pretty much every single game and highlight from his senior year, and chronicled his senior year for Bruins Nation. So not to toot my own horn, but there are not a lot of writers out there who have studied this guy more than me. So, without writing a book, let’s briefly examine his strengths.
First of all, Thompson-Robinson is the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback. He is not a quarterback that gets the snap and immediately looks to run. Part one of the the dual-threat is his arm strength. His arm is really live and allows him to make any throw on the field. Watching him last year, the one thing that stood out to me was his ability to accurately hit receivers in stride allowing them to gain yards after the catch. That ability, obviously, is seen in his high completion percentage last year.
So, now, part two of the dual-threat. Thompson-Robinson has the ability to extend plays with his legs, which, in turn, often provides big play opportunities. Again, pressure on Thompson-Robinson did not automatically mean that he would run the ball. He would do what quarterbacks are taught. He would keep his eyes downfield and look to make a play.
Thompson-Robinson has been billed as the “perfect fit” for Chip Kelly’s style of offense and his running ability is part of the reason since the read-option is key in Kelly’s offense. While not the fastest runner, he definitely has the ability to hit gaps and pick-up yards past the line of scrimmage.
Lastly, Thompson-Robinson seems to have “it.” That thing we all look for our quarterback to have. Confidence, swagger, the ability and willingness to led and, most of all, having the skill set to back it up so those around you believe in you too.
All of these factors put Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a perfect position to come in to UCLA and grab the starting quarterback position against the Bearcats.
Why Thompson-Robinson Will Not Start Against Cincinnati
Talent vs. experience. That is often a conundrum that coaches encounter at this time of the year and, especially, at the quarterback position. Nothing takes the place of game experience at the most important position in all of sport, quarterback. At least, that’s what many believe.
Thompson-Robinson made waves last year getting a 4-star ranking without having ever started at the varsity level as quarterback. That’s right, his senior season was his first as a starting varsity quarterback. Needless to say, Thompson-Robinson’s senior year 100% validated his 4-star ranking.
However, 15 high school starts at quarterback could be a problem for Thompson-Robinson. Many wanted him to enroll early so he could get a head start at learning Kelly’s system, but he elected to enjoy his senior year of high school.
So, Fall Camp is going to be the proving ground for Thompson-Robinson to see if the lack of experience as a starting quarterback is going to be an obstacle too tall to overcome.
Wilton Speight, Gr. 6’6, 232 Pounds
Why Speight Will Start Against Cincinnati
So, is it true that nothing takes the place of experience? If it is, then you are looking at your 2018 UCLA starting quarterback for game one against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Speight has 21 games of experience at the University of Michigan as their quarterback. Moreover, Michigan won 17 of the games that he has appeared in. Below are his numbers while at Michigan.
Wilton Speight’s Michigan Passing Stats
Speight is definitely not new to a quarterback competition. He won the job twice while at Michigan. First, as a sophomore in 2016, Speight beat out John O’Korn, a transfer from Houston. He completed 61.6% of his passes that season for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His Michigan team won its first nine games in a row finishing 10-3 with a loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Speight spent time in the summer before his senior year training in San Diego with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson as he prepared for that year’s quarterback competition in Michigan. Speight won the battle and started Michigan’s first four games last season before suffering a back injury against Purdue.
Speight is a pro-style quarterback that has the arm and accuracy to make throws at the collegiate level. He’s definitely not the most mobile quarterback, but he is not afraid to scramble out of trouble and move around the pocket.
The theory that Chip Kelly would not start a quarterback that does not fit his “system” is ludicrous in my opinion. Let’s do the hypothetical, if Josh Rosen stayed at UCLA for his senior year do we not think that a person with Chip Kelly’s football intellect would not have fit a “system” around Rosen that would have put both him and the team in the best possible position to succeed? Let’s also not forget the bevy of talent that this team has at the tight end position. Would Speight be the best guy to make sure our TE’s are utilized effectively?
Chip Kelly will do what is needed to make Speight successful and, with a team that is sporting 40-plus new faces, experience could be a major factor in determining the starter, and Speight checks the experience box.
Why Speight Will Not Start Against Cincinnati
In a perfect world, your quarterback fits the system that you have had success implementing in the past as a head coach. The spread offenses look to capitalize on the quarterback’s speed and athleticism. Shotgun formations dominate the spread while also featuring multiple receivers. The main idea is to spread the offensive players to create vertical seams to attack. Speight took the ball from under center at Michigan, for the most part, and often utilized play action with five and seven step drops. That’s the type of football Michigan plays. If Kelly had limited options at quarterback, then I would see Speight as a logical starter for UCLA against the Bearcats.
Limited options is not the case at UCLA this year. With the amount of young talent that Kelly has, why would he not utilize this year as a learning year for one of his younger quarterbacks? If UCLA were coming into the season with an upperclassmen-laden group, then Speight would fit the bill a lot more nicely than he does with this UCLA group.
Devon Modster, R-So. 6’1”, 215 Pounds
Why Modster Will Start Against Cincinnati
Since experience and skill set have been talked about so frequently in this article, let’s look at the one Bruin that brings both to the table. Modster saw action last year in five different games. His major playing time last year came against Washington, California, Utah and Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl.
It was Modster’s performance at the Cactus Bowl that gave UCLA Bruin fans some hope that the current roster might hold the quarterback of the future. Modster played well during this game and he finished completing 21 of 34 passes for a career-high 295 yards and two touchdowns. The play that had UCLA Bruin fans salivating most occurred in the first half when Modster dropped a beautiful pass to Theo Howard resulting in a 70-yard touchdown.
TOUCHDOWN #BRUINS!! Modster on ! Dropping dimes for 70yds at a pop! This time to Theo Howard. #UCLA extends lead in Phoenix to 17-7.— FnA UCLA Bruins (@FnA_UCLABruins) December 27, 2017
You’d think they’re sending new Coach Kelly some audition tapes. We’ll be in good hands when Josh declares for draft. pic.twitter.com/fjyX4TVgaJ
Modster showed Coach Kelly and the rest of college football during this game that he can perform on a big stage. Modster’s skill set fits what many believe Kelly would like to have at UCLA. Modster is your prototypical dual-threat quarterback, Modster is a quarterback that can definitely run, and he can obviously throw the ball.
Modster ran with the first team offense during spring ball. He had the opportunity to definitely get acquainted with Chip’s offense. Modster definitely did not display that acquaintance or cement his standing as the potential starting quarterback with his Spring Game performance. Modster was 7 of 11 for 37 yards and a bad interception thrown in for good measure. But that was “practice” and we all know what Allan Iverson said about “practice.”
Devon Modster will have to win the job during fall camp, but he has the experience and the skills to definitely be the man lining up to lead the Bruins against Cincinnati.
Why Modster Will Not Start Against Cincinnati
Modster does a lot of things well, but he does not seem to excel in any one particular area as a quarterback. Will the strengths of Thompson-Robinson and Speight overshadow Modster’s solid, but so far unspectacular skill set?
I think, for once, when the head coach says that there is a wide-open quarterback competition, it is 100% true in UCLA’s case. Three quarterbacks will have a chance to start that opening game against Cincinnati and Fall Camp will crown the starter. One thing is for sure: the competition sure is exciting to watch unfold.
Who do you see getting the starting nod against Cincinnati? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.