UCLA Football Offensive Preview
Chip Kelly is in Year 4 of developing "his guys." This is the pinnacle for UCLA, the best UCLA team in recent memory... at 7-4.
I read an article the other day, dated prior to the start of the season, about how UCLA fans think it’s 9 wins or bust this year for Chip Kelly (and although I linked the article for posterity, I can assure you it’s not worth reading). It’s easier just to quote it:
You remember the day when an eight-win season was a disappointment for UCLA? When Jim Mora won eight games in 2015, fans wanted him fired. Eight wins did get Bob Toledo fired in 2002. UCLA football shouldn't just be "getting by."
Fans seem to have had their memories clouded a bit by the losing seasons, but folks, UCLA is traditionally a winning football program. The mindset used to be that an eight-win scenario would only be considered passable if that coach had had some clearly successful nine- or ten-win seasons, too. An eight-win season would have been considered a dip, but maybe an acceptable one if that coach bracketed it with at least nine-win seasons on both sides of it.
And seven wins is definitely not acceptable.
Did you get that? Seven wins is definitely not acceptable. Of course, UCLA is currently sitting at 7 wins, and 9 wins is still mathematically possible with a win over Cal and a win in a bowl game.
The level of entitlement here is off the charts, to the point where I forgot which Los Angeles area-based school I was supposed to preview. Apparently eight wins is not enough, and is only considered “passable” if that coach also has some ten-win seasons to his name. I thought that maybe I was misremembering how often UCLA has had 10+ win seasons, perhaps long before I was born or something, but no. The author cites Bob Toledo and Jim Mora—two of only three coaches to have posted multiple 10-win seasons at UCLA—as disappointments for winning just 8 games, with fans calling for the coach’s head. You know how many UCLA coaches have won more than 10 games in a single season? The answer: zero. So even coaches who lead UCLA to the most wins they’ve ever seen in a single season should still be fired if they start slipping down to a mere eight wins. These coaches did as well as anyone could have possibly expected, and it still isn’t enough for UCLA fans.
Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising from UCLA fans, though: giving it your best and still not being good enough is likely the reason they had to settle for UCLA in first place.
Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting I’m supposed to talk about football here. Chip Kelly went a combined 10-21 in his first three seasons at UCLA, finally giving UCLA the 10 wins they so desperately deserve. This is UCLA’s first winning season, and the first time they’ve qualified for a bowl game, since 2017. While UCLA fans are demanding 9+ wins, only a handful of players on the entire UCLA roster have even been to a bowl game (almost all of them prior to transferring to UCLA).
Unsurprisingly for a Chip Kelly-led team, UCLA is one of the best offenses and worst defenses in the conference. UCLA is 2nd in the conference in total yards per game, and first in points per game (thanks in part due to a big boost from their 62-33 dismantling of USC last week).
The run game is the cornerstone of their offense, and easily the single biggest predictor of their overall success. When UCLA runs the ball well, they win; and when they can’t, they don’t.
They’re led by a great running quarterback, one you’re probably already familiar with if you’ve reading this article.
UCLA is led by senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (colloquially “DTR”). With Thompson-Robinson in his fourth year as the starter, I have certainly written about him in these previews plenty, so I’ll try to focus more on recent history here. Dorian Thompson-Robinson technically has an extra season of eligibility due to the 2020 season no longer counting, but DTR may want to take advantage of a weak NFL Draft class in the hopes that someone drafts him high as a long-term development prospect.
By all accounts, DTR is a fantastic and physically gifted athlete. DTR has been banged up this season, which was probably a big factor in UCLA’s losses this year as nagging injuries prevented him from running the ball himself too much, which is still the best way for him to create plays. Most notably, DTR sat out the game against Utah (and had a bye week the following week) in order to recover, and returned with big games against Colorado and USC.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is, obviously, a dual-threat quarterback. As a runner, he's both fast and elusive, with the ability to quickly change direction to make defenders miss. And did I mention "athletic" enough yet? Just check out the vertical on this jump:
He's shifty in open space:
However, the QB run game is not all roses: throughout Kelly's tenure at UCLA, UCLA has been prone to baffling negative plays:
Although DTR can make some great throws with a clean pocket, he is a noticeably worse decision-maker under pressure, and not just throwing the ball:
Although DTR isn't the most successful pocket passer, he has a big arm and the tools are all there, and hence why I think some NFL teams will be willing to take a flier on him. DTR's passing mechanics are inconsistent, and he has a strong tendency to throw off his back foot (a not so uncommon trait of QBs with strong arms). When given time and/or a clean pocket, he can definitely hit the deep ball if you allow him:
We already know that Stanford’s safeties are nothing to write home about, but DTR punished them too:
UCLA has made a concerted effort to keep DTR in the pocket more often, and consequently, DTR has improved as a pocket passer this year. Here's a nice throw from DTR:
However, DTR is inconsistent at times. Pressure definitely affects his internal clock, and he is prone to bouts of inaccuracy, even on easy throws.
DTR also has a tendency to double-clutch the ball and throw passes a bit late. Here he has WR Kyle Philips open, but he makes the throw late as the window closes:
If he release that ball a split-second earlier, it probably goes for a touchdown. I'm not always sure if bad plays are the result of DTR being overconfident in his throwing abilities (trying to fit throws into very tight windows), or if he simply does not see defenders sometimes.
This one looks like he simply didn't see the safety sitting there, thinking his receiver was open as soon as he got across the face of the corner:
It's cliche, but I don't think that DTR always does a good job of reading defenses. Too frequently he ends up forcing throws where they don't belong:
And of course, how could I not cap this section off without the quintessential boneheaded DTR play:
For the most part, I don't expect UCLA to test the Cal secondary, but instead try to wear the Cal defense down by running the ball, and taking shots down the field if Cal starts committing too many defenders to stopping the run.
As a brief sidenote, UCLA's backup quarterback is Ethan Garbers, Chase Garbers' younger brother. I actually think Ethan Garbers is going to be good. He's got a strong arm and good accuracy, although he is likely to have some freshman growing pains (staring down receivers, locking onto his first read, etc.) even though the talent is clearly there. Perhaps I’ll have a bonus Ethan Garbers section in the comments.
This is going to be the easiest section for me to write, because there’s very little room for nuance here: UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet is the best running back in the conference and it’s not even close. Zach Charbonnet has unbelievable balance, vision, and plenty of power. If you’ve read my articles for a while, you know that I’m always a fan of running backs that can create their own yards, and no one turns should-be negative plays into positive ones like Charbonnet. Charbonnet is the very definition of a wrench in your best laid defensive plans: you can do absolutely everything right as a defense, beat the blocks of the offensive line, get into the backfield, and Charbonnet just shrugs off the potential tackle for loss and turns it into positive yardage.
I have no doubt that Charbonnet will find success at the next-level. In terms of NFL Draft stock, probably the only knock against him is that he lacks the elite speed you often see in the NFL. If Charbonnet were to post an impressive 40 time, I expect he’d be a very high draft pick (as is, he’s still an early-to-mid round selection in my opinion).
Charbonnet is very difficult to tackle. LSU might be struggling, but they have plenty of NFL-caliber talent. Look at the way LSU defenders simply bounce off the incredibly strong Charbonnet, and how he keeps his balance to churn more and more yards:
UCLA has a pretty good offensive line, but suppose your defensive line sheds their blocks and gets into the backfield. You think you’ll tackle Charbonnet in the backfield? Think again:
RB Zach Charbonnet has a nasty stiff arm, which makes him a nightmare for defenders trying to tackle him in open space. So sure, he can stiff arm a safety. But can he stiff arm a defensive end? (Spoiler: yes, yes he can):
Charbonnet clearly has the power to excel at the next level. He runs low to the ground and keeps his balance, making him difficult to bring down, but it’s his power that lets him just plow through defenders:
RB Zach Charbonnet excels in short yardage situations, but here Utah’s stellar defensive line gets too much penetration, and Charbonnet shrugs off their weak tackles to convert a 4th and 1 into a 30-yard touchdown:
These are the sorts of plays I love. Any running back can pick up yards and rack up nice stats when their NFL-caliber offensive line is opening up huge holes for them to run through, but not many running backs can pull off a play like the one above.
Even if Charbonnet doesn’t have breakaway speed, his ability to stay upright and plow through tacklers allow him to break off big runs:
No one else in the Pac-12 turns negative plays into positive ones half as often as Charbonnet does:
Behind Charbonnet is Brittain Brown, another between-the-tackles bruising runner. Charbonnet has excellent vision and cutback ability, while Brown eschews cutting back to avoid a tackle and typically opts to simply run through the defender.
Who expects a run on 1st and 20 to go for a first down?:
Although RB Brittain Brown plays like a much heavier back than he is, he probably has a bit better top-end speed:
The run game is the heart of this offense, and with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet, and Brittain Brown, they’re a very difficult offense to stop.
UCLA’s most talented wide receiver, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s go-to target, is the slot receiver Kyle Philips. Philips is a very technical and crisp route runner, reminiscent of LA Rams’ premier route-runner Cooper Kupp. Philips isn’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest receiver, but his ability to get open, his sure hands, and his elusiveness after the catch have made him a fantastic college receiver:
That’s a soon-to-be 1st round NFL Draft pick that Philips is embarrassing here. Philips regularly creates his own yards after the catch:
Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s other top target is the tight end Greg Dulcich, not coincidentally the only other receiver with very reliable hands. Dulcich is a former walk-on that was converted from a wide receiver to a tight end, so he often functions more like a receiver and less like a blocker.
Dulcich clearly possesses wide receiver abilities:
But he also has plenty of athleticism to make defenders miss and pick up extra yards:
Another receiver with good ball skills (but nowhere near as many targets as Philips or Dulcich) is Kam Brown. Brown, a transfer from Texas A&M, is the son of Super Bowl XXX MVP Larry Brown. Brown is just a tick behind Philips and Dulcich in receptions per target:
In recent weeks, wide receiver Kazmeir Allen has taken on a larger role. Kazmeir Allen started his career as a running back at UCLA, but has since been converted to a wide receiver (albeit one still involved in the run game via jet sweeps, etc). Kaz Allen, the former California state champion in the 100 meter dash, is pure speed:
For whatever reason, Chip Kelly loves pure athletes that he can convert to different positions. Ethan Fernea, a former wide receiver, is now a running back. Why? Who knows. You cannot begin to fathom the infinite wisdom of Chip Kelly.
Because Chip Kelly is the High Wizard of Offensive Wizardry, he often tries to catch opponents off-guard with unusual formations or trick plays to flex his creative offense muscles. Typically, UCLA will complete a play, run uptempo, and show a confusing formation to stress the opponent’s base defense. I’m no Defense Wizard, but it seems like a lot of Chip Kelly’s Super Innovative Offensive Formations® can be thwarted by simple man-defense.
I don’t know if this screen pass would have worked (didn’t look like it would), but Thompson-Robinson’s errant pass probably didn’t help.
Here’s another trick play:
Here, UCLA finally catches an opponent off-guard: too many defenders move to the bottom of the screen, and no one accounts for QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson:
On plays like this, UCLA just needs one guy to miss his assignment; it’s a numbers game here and no one accounts for the QB.
In the following play, UCLA utilizes a late shift to catch Washington’s defense off-guard:
It should probably be apparent at this point, but even if UCLA’s record over the past four years doesn’t reflect it, they have a number of very talented athletes capable of big plays. Although their punter and kicker don’t merit their own section, UCLA has made some big plays in the return game:
Honestly one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen was the following play (technically a defensive clip, but more people read the offensive articles, so…). Just watch the ref:
It’s normal to see receivers lining up near the line of scrimmage, look to the referee on the sideline, and check that they are not offsides (the refs will often give them a thumbs up or something). I have absolutely never seen a referee actively help a player avoid a penalty, in this case, preventing the defensive lineman from lining up over the snapper. I’m used to seeing a pro-USC bias from Pac-12 refs (well, at least stemming from the days where USC was good), but as a neutral third party watching UCLA vs USC last week, I was absolutely shocked at the pro-UCLA slant from the refs. It’s not that I feel bad for UW, it’s just that it’s not like the Pac-12 refs are protecting UCLA’s playoff hopes or something. Just something to keep an eye on.
UCLA under Chip Kelly is just 3-21 when held to less than 200 yards rushing. It’s clear that when teams can stop the powerful UCLA run game, UCLA will struggle big time trying to win through the air. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done, especially given the talent that UCLA has running the ball. Although Cal’s young linebackers have looked very impressive in recent weeks, they will certainly have their hands full this weekend against UCLA.
What do you think, Cal fans? Will Cal be able to slow the UCLA run game? Let me know in the comments.
As always: Go Bears.