UCLA Football Offensive Preview

If you thought the last minute switch was going to stop me from cranking out an article, well, then you're sorely mistaken there, buddy.

In a surprising twist of fate, it turns out that UCLA is back on the menu this year. If you read my Arizona State preview, you can just picture that team, but worse. Both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks, run-heavy offenses, and a lot of young talent. The difference, of course, is coaching: while ASU has been maximizing their potential, UCLA has been squandering theirs. UCLA is considered a young team because of Chip Kelly’s insistence on developing and playing only “his guys.” Kelly is in his 3rd year as head coach (7-18 at UCLA), and many of the freshmen and sophomores he insisted on playing are now entering their 3rd year. Ostensibly, this should be their break-out year, but after seeing their ugly play last week against a rebuilding Colorado team… I think they may need a few more years.

Prior to Colorado, UCLA’s last opponent was… Cal. As the Berkeley graduate I am, I was very tempted to recycle all of my clips from last year, because I only have one game’s worth of new material since then (and we all know how important it is to recycle). It turns out that one game was probably plenty enough for me to point out that UCLA still suffers from many of the same issues as last season.

Quarterback

UCLA is still inexplicably led by Dorian Thompson-Robinson. I spent a lot of time in my article last year breaking down Thompson-Robinson’s poor decision-making and ball security issues, and I still recommend taking a look at some of the clips, mainly because it brings me joy to watch UCLA struggle. But you’re here for new material, I get that. So let’s take a look and see how much he’s developed since two games ago.

Unfortunately for UCLA, Thompson-Robinson has been a turnover machine, and it’s difficult to win games when you’re constantly coughing up the ball. Last year, Thompson-Robinson was tied for 1st in the FBS in turnovers. (UCLA was 1st place in something though! Go UCLA!) Thompson-Robinson was 2nd in the FBS in fumbles (11), and 9th in the FBS in interceptions (12), showing that UCLA likes to mix it up in how they turn the ball over.

A lot of these turnovers simply come from poor decision-making.

QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson locks onto his first read, stares down his receiver, and doesn’t see LB Carson Wells sitting there, as Wells nearly gets the pick-6.

This is Thompson-Robinson’s 3rd year as a starting quarterback, and he hasn’t shown the kind of development you really want to see in a quarterback. This was the type of mistake you expect a freshman QB to make, not a 3-year starter.

Thompson-Robinson had very slippery hands last year, and you’d imagine it would be a point of focus to hang onto the bell better, but he still has fumbling issues:

This also looks like a mistake due to indecisiveness. The safety is showing a blitz off the edge, so you have to either hand the ball off or pull it and run it yourself. This type of zone-read is fundamental to Chip Kelly offenses, and why he likes having a mobile quarterback. Thompson-Robinson probably should have handed the ball off, but he has the athleticism to have turned it into a positive play even when he makes the “wrong” decision. Instead, he put the ball on the ground, and there’s no recovering from that.

Thompson-Robinson also has mechanical issues with his throws which negatively affect his accuracy. Sometimes he throws off his back foot, sometimes he doesn’t set his feet, doesn’t step into his throw, etc. Again, not something that should be happening to a third year starter.

This throw should have been an interception, but both defensive backs misplay the ball. WR Chase Cota runs a nice route and actually gets open to the outside. A well-placed ball to the outside of the wide receiver and this goes for a touchdown. The corner has inside leverage on Cota, but pressure rushes Thompson-Robinson’s throw, which is then underthrown to the inside (where the corner also has help from the safety over the top). This was a terrible decision to try to make this throw.

It seems that pressure is a factor in coercing Thompson-Robinson into making poor throws. Here’s Thompson-Robinson and Chase Cota again, but this time, Thompson-Robinson has fantastic protection:

Again, this probably wasn’t the correct read again (he had a receiver open on a crossing route for a first down), but with good protection, he makes an absolutely perfect throw just over the outstretched hands of the safety. Thompson-Robinson can be forgiven for this one here (as they were in the middle of a furious comeback from a huge deficit), but this sort of throw happens a lot, where he’s looking for the homerun throw even when it’s not there.

Conversely, here’s another throw where pressure forces Thompson-Robinson into poor mechanics, as he throws off his back foot and consequently underthrows his receiver:

This throw was still a success as a result of some impressive arm strength on the throw. Good protection alone doesn’t guarantee a good throw, though:

This could be a miscommunication with his receiver, but I’m erring on the side of a bad throw, because UCLA ran this play successfully a few times before this (as you can see, Colorado didn’t have an answer for this). Dulcich looks over his right shoulder on the inside seam, and Thompson-Robinson throws behind his left shoulder. This should have been another easy touchdown.

Thompson-Robinson is a bit of a boom-or-bust quarterback, always looking for the big play, but it’s still important to remember that it’s his ability to run the ball himself that allows him to keep drives alive:

A quarterback that can turn nothing into something will always be dangerous, and Thompson-Robinson will be difficult to contain for a Cal defensive line that may be a bit out of shape after being stuck in quarantine.

Running back

With UCLA’s leading rusher in 2019, Joshua Kelley, now starting for the Los Angeles Chargers, the RB position this year is a little less established. UCLA’s leading rusher in the Colorado game? This guy:

It might be cheating to sneak another Thompson-Robinson clip here, but the starting running back is actually Demetric Felton, an incredibly versatile player who lines up at both running back and wide receiver. Felton has good speed, vision, and pass-catching ability (obviously), and his speed and versatility may help him develop into a late round NFL Draft pick.

Here, Felton makes a nice cut and uses his speed to run for a touchdown on the very first play of the drive.

Here, Felton runs a nice route out of the backfield, and also turns it into a touchdown:

Once Felton found his way into the open field, no one was able to chase him down— he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. However, he’s not an every-down back the way Joshua Kelley was last year. For that, they have grad transfer RB Brittain Brown, from Duke. I have not seen him play before, but he looks like a power back that would rather run through you than around you:

We can expect to see more of him Sunday.

Receivers

UCLA actually has a number of very talented receivers, and the WR corps is probably their strongest positional group. A new surprise for UCLA this year was TE Greg Dulcich, who quickly became Thompson-Robinson’s favorite target in the Colorado game (and Colorado didn’t seem too prepared for him either). Dulcich ran good routes and frequently found himself open, and he was also tough to bring down.

WR Kyle Philips is probably my favorite UCLA receiver. He has fantastic hands, catching anything remotely thrown in his vicinity (and he frequently bails out some poor Thompson-Robinson throws), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t reuse this clip from last year:

QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson escapes pressure, underthrows WR Kyle Philips deep, but he comes back to the ball for a ridiculous catch despite the pass interference.

Philips is also a dangerous return man, and his 69-yard punt return touchdown was critical in their ridiculous 32-point 2nd half comeback last year against Washington State.

WR Chase Cota is a big 6’4” target, and he’s the high-pointing specialist; doing a great job coming down with the catch when Thompson-Robinson throws him jump balls. I’ve also been impressed with WR Jaylen Erwin, a receiver with a ton of speed and explosiveness. He’s played both inside and outside receiver, runs good routes, but I think he’s most dangerous as a deep threat. Overall, a very talented group of receivers.

Conclusion

It’s really hard to make any definitive conclusions in these crazy times. Making QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson uncomfortable in the pocket will be a key factor in this game— remember, Cal had 6 sacks on Thompson-Robinson last year and kept him uncomfortable all game. UCLA has a very young offensive line, but Cal’s defensive line has been locked inside the past two weeks, so it’s hard to predict a winner in this battle. UCLA also has a redshirt freshman kicker, but Chip Kelly likes to go for it on 4th down no matter how unreasonable the situation (and also because UCLA likes to play from 30+ behind). UCLA’s secondary makes a ton of mistakes, and I would not be surprised to see some blown coverages being taken advantage of by Chase Garbers. The long layoff and lack of practice gives UCLA a better chance of winning than they’d have otherwise, so this should hopefully be a good game.

Go Bears!