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2019 UCLA Football Fall Preview: Building a More Consistent QB Core

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Chip Kelly’s first year was marked by injury and inconsistency at the QB spot, can he and the Bruins steady the ship?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at UCLA
Dorian Thompson-Robinson will look to improve his accuracy after a rough freshman season.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Chip Kelly’s first year in Los Angeles pitted graduate transfer Wilson Speight against true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a competition for the starting quarterback job. As expected, Speight—who had notched 21 starts across three years at Michigan—won out over the untested Thompson-Robinson. Unfortunately, Speight was injured in the second quarter of the season opener against Cincinnati, derailing his season and ruining UCLA’s chances at any sort of stability at the position. Thompson-Robinson, although showing flashes of his athleticism, struggled to adjust to D1 competition across seven starts before suffering a shoulder injury against Arizona. It was then Speight who rode out the rest of a mostly forgettable season outside of a much-needed victory against Southern Cal.

With Speight now in the NFL, the quarterback competition in Westwood has calmed with Thompson-Robinson sitting safely at the top of the depth chart and redshirt sophomore Austin Burton as his backup. Barring any injuries, Kelly can now focus on using Thompson-Robinson’s elite athleticism to kickstart an offensive attack reminiscent of Kelly’s historic stretch at Oregon. But, as Bruin fans saw last year, using two or three quarterbacks to survive a season is common. We already know about Thompson-Robinson, but now is the time to take stock of his skills, as well as those of the rest of the Bruin quarterbacks. After all, UCLA might need them.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Sophomore

Watching Thompson-Robinson last year was frustrating. As a true freshman, the highly-touted DTR displayed incredible potential, particularly as a play-action passer. Per Pro Football Focus, Thompson-Robinson averaged 10.5 yards per attempt on play-action passes, leading all returning Pac-12 QBs. However, he struggled with his accuracy, completing only 57% of his passes as compared to Speight’s more steady 61%. Perhaps where he faltered most was in the running game, racking up only 68 yards across 50 rushes. As a redshirt freshman in 2012 under Chip Kelly, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota rushed for 754 yards on 107 attempts.

Despite these early disappointments, Thompson-Robinson should not bear too much blame. He was a nineteen-year-old, who was tossed the reigns of a decidedly below average roster. Consider that the year prior—his senior year at Bishop Gorman High School—was only his first as a starting QB. He gained 3,275 yards through the air and 426 yards on the ground as he led Bishop Gorman to its ninth straight state championship. But more than raw numbers alone, DTR showed patience as both a passer and a runner, hitting deep targets in play-action at a 68% clip and slipping through the pocket on delayed runs. Hopefully, with more time—and with increased familiarity with Coach Kelly’s offensive attack—he can make a leap forward and string together the sort of performances he was known for at Bishop Gorman. If he does, Pac-12 defenses will be off-balance every Saturday this season.

Austin Burton, Redshirt Sophomore

Despite a strong showing last spring, sophomore QB Austin Burton did not log a single snap in 2018 due to UCLA’s logjam at the position. The Bruins’ QB depth now dramatically thinned, Burton finds himself in a position for serious playing time if DTR goes down again. A three-star recruit, Burton threw for over 8,900 yards across three high school seasons—two in Massachusetts, one in Florida. Burton is longer and leaner than Thompson-Robinson and his skill set is more suited for a pro-style offense than DTR’s run-and-gun tendencies. Despite that, Burton is agile enough to tuck the ball on options and run in open space. At this point, it remains to be seen if Burton will see in-game action in 2019 and how exactly he will respond to it.

Chase Griffin, Freshman

The reigning Texas Gatorade Player of the Year freshman Chase Griffin might be the UCLA Bruins’ biggest wild card. As a senior at Hutto High school, Griffin passed for 4,051 yards and 51 touchdowns and rushed for another 415 yards and eight touchdowns. Despite Griffin’s video game numbers, Griffin was lightly recruited as a three-star recruit, only receiving offers from four Ivy League programs, North Texas, and UCLA. This is probably in part to Griffin’s smaller stature—he stands at 5’11’’, weighing 183 pounds. But the FBS has seen its share of undersized QBs succeed in recent years from Russell Wilson to Kyler Murray. Although Griffin is not likely to see the field in 2019, he shows incredible promise as a dual-threat QB that can develop under Chip Kelly in the years to come.

The End of the Bench

Chase Artopoeus from Orcutt, CA and Blake Kirshner from Santa Clarita, CA join the Bruins as walk-ons. Last on the list is former four-star recruit Colson Yankoff, who transferred to Westwood from the University of Washington after one season. The Bruins are still waiting to see if the redshirt freshman has to sit out this upcoming season due to transfer rules or if he will receive an eligibility waiver from the NCAA.

That wraps up our look at the Bruin quarterbacks heading into the fall.