Mountain West Football: First Look at the UCLA Bruins
Two Mountain West teams will visit the Rose Bowl to face the UCLA Bruins in their 2021 non-conference schedule.
Are the Bruins finally back?
In each Mountain West football season, there always tends to be a little overlap in common non-conference opponents. BYU and New Mexico State often play two or three teams from the conference, but it isn’t that often a Power 5 program does the same thing. In 2021, however, that happens to be the case for the UCLA Bruins, who play both Hawaii and Fresno State.
UCLA hasn’t had the best of luck in the last few years against the Mountain West, losing to Fresno State in 2018 and to San Diego State in 2019, but is there a chance the Bruins have finally turned the corner toward being a Pac-12 contender?
Location: Westwood, California
Mascot: Joe and Josephine Bruin
2020 Record: 3-4 (3-4 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (fourth year; 10-21 at UCLA, 56-28 overall). For a few years, it looks like the shine had come off of Kelly’s reputation as an offensive guru. After his remarkable run at Oregon from 2009 to 2012, his three-year tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles hadn’t panned out and the early return on investment at UCLA looked tepid after finishing with a combined seven wins in 2018 and 2019. Last year, however, the Bruins finally showed signs of life.
By offensive SP+, UCLA jumped from 71st in 2019 to 23rd last fall. And while the defense didn’t see quite as much improvement by that same measure, it jumped nine spots to 81st. That the Bruins’ four losses all came by fewer than seven points is an indicator that a little more luck could make them a pleasant surprise… but there’s a lot to prove.
QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson
The incumbent starting quarterback has always had the talent to be one of the Pac-12’s most impactful players, but applying them consistently has been a challenge for the past three years. In games that he’s started which UCLA has won, Thompson-Robinson has completed 67.9% of his passes, averaged 8.8 yards per attempt, and sported a 16-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In losses, that completion rate drops by ten percentage points and the YPA figure drops by two full yards.
Last fall, though, things started to come together. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, Thompson-Robinson’s 156.29 passer rating was bested in the Pac-12 only by Oregon’s Tyler Shough and he did it despite often being harried by defenders. Additionally, he also began to make more plays with his legs by averaging 5.5 yards per carry (without adjusting for sacks) and scoring three touchdowns on the ground. Overall, it’s safe to say that as DTR goes, the Bruins will go.
Who is the only Bruin EVER to throw for 300+ yards and run for 100+ in the same game?
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) November 14, 2020
TE Greg Dulcich
Outside of Kyle Pitts, the redshirt junior had one of the best seasons by a tight end anywhere in the country last fall. He was one of just nine FBS players at the position with at least nine catches of 20 or more yards and finished the year with 26 catches for 517 yards and six touchdowns. In averaging nearly twenty yards per catch, the 6-foot-4 and 242-pound Dulcich proved himself a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties alike.
RB Zach Charbonnet
There’ll be an opportunity for someone to pick up the mantle left behind by Demetric Felton, who picked up second-team all-Pac 12 honors last season and then got picked up by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Draft earlier this year, and the transfer from Michigan could be the one to do it. At the very least, Chip Kelly has already given Charbonnet high praise for his work in spring practice and The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman has tabbed him as a potential breakout candidate. No pressure, right?
The former four-star recruit from Westlake Village ran for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Wolverines back in 2019 but saw his playing time diminished last season, which prompted the move back to southern California.
LB Caleb Johnson
If there’s one Bruins defender who could blow up plays in a hurry, look no further than Johnson. He looks like the one disruptive force that UCLA can count upon in 2021 after leading the Bruins with 5.5 sacks and contribution seven tackles for loss in all. Somehow, that production merited only an all-Pac 12 honorable mention nod, but both the Warriors and Bulldogs will need to account for him in their attempts to stay balanced on offense.
S Qwuantrezz Knight and Stephan Blaylock
The defense may have a few questions to answer, but its last line appears to be on solid footing. Both safeties earned honorable mentions from the Pac-12 last fall after finishing the year with a combined 81 tackles. Knight led the Bruins secondary with 4.5 tackles for loss while Blaylock, a two-year starter, ended up as one of three UCLA defenders with two interceptions.
If Thompson-Robinson is able to take another developmental step forward and the running game can adequately replace Felton, the Bruins offense could pretty easily become the best iteration we’ve seen in the Chip Kelly era. That’s why bringing in quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson, who helped develop Josh Love and Nick Starkel at San Jose State, could be one of the Pac-12’s most crucial position coach hires.
Overall, though, the Bruins’ nine returning starters make for one of the most experienced offenses in the Pac-12. For example, the offensive line, headlined by junior center Sam Marrazzo, returns all five starters from 2020. Dulcich may be the biggest name among the pass catchers, too, but wide receiver Kyle Phillips (who had a team-high 38 catches last season) and Chase Cota are also back. And if Charbonnet isn’t able to seize the lion’s share of the running responsibilities, Brittain Brown (82 carries, 543 yards, four TDs) could do it instead. This could be an offense in which the sum is greater than its parts.
For as problematic as the defense has been during Kelly’s tenure, they enter 2021 as the most experienced unit in the Pac-12 and could be primed to take a big step forward. Much will depend on how much havoc the defensive line can create in front of Johnson because Osa Odighizuwa has moved on to the NFL and no one returning had more than 2.5 tackles for loss in 2020. Even better would be the continued development of sophomore Bo Calvert, one of Kelly’s top recruits from the 2018 class who figures to line up next to Johnson at linebacker. With ten starters coming back and reasonable depth all around, there really aren’t a lot of excuses for Jerry Azzinaro’s bunch not to improve.
The Bruins may not be anyone’s idea of a Pac-12 title contender, but after dealing with COVID-19 and looking much improved despite the pandemic, it’d be a shock if UCLA couldn’t at least make a push back toward bowl eligibility.
That said, the offense looks like it will lead the way, which means that both Fresno State and Hawaii will need to find ways to keep up. The Warriors may have a slight advantage on defense, but the Bulldogs have the better offense on paper. Ultimately, that could be the difference between a close win and a close loss.
UCLA 31, Hawaii 28
Fresno State 34, UCLA 31