I’d like to dedicate this article to all the Cal fans that predicted a disastrous end to the season while proclaiming “Chip Kelly is back!”
Has UCLA Football shown signs of life this season? Yes. Is a broken clock right twice a day? Also yes. In my totally speculative and uneducated opinion, it feels to me like Chip Kelly is using UCLA as an experiment to test out different and unique play-calls as he attempts to catch his Oregon “lightning in a bottle” magic twice. Kelly will often debut a completely new play that baffles the opposing team for the first, say, 5 plays before they adjust, and then we never see that play again. You can be sure that anyone talking about how great Kelly’s offense is at UCLA hasn’t been paying any attention whatsoever, because it seems like more than half of UCLA’s explosive plays are totally improvised nonsense where UCLA tries to out-talent the other team (like USC does, but worse). If it turns out that Chip Kelly actually is drawing these Jackson Pollock plays on the whiteboard, I’ll apologize. In the meantime, let’s take a look at their talent.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson (frequently abbreviated “DTR”) is an explosive athlete, and the best analogue for Cal fans would be former Cal QB Brandon McIlwain. Thompson-Robinson is a fast, dangerous runner, and he has considerable arm strength. Like McIlwain, Thompson-Robinson is prone to questionable quarterbacking decisions, and also some serious ball security issues.
Let’s start with the positives. Here we can see Thompson-Robinson show off some serious speed against Utah, a team very tough against the run:
Thompson-Robinson can also fire a rocket downfield, and occasionally these throws are accurate:
For what it’s worth, Thompson-Robinson was unusually accurate in the Colorado game, which was key to defeating them handily.
In terms of accuracy, Thompson-Robinson is quite prone to streaky play. When he’s making throws, he gets into a rhythm and can continue to throw the ball on target— he’s not making difficult throws, but he’s not missing them either. When his receivers can get open (which they often do against poor secondaries), his completion percentage might hover near 70%: he threw 65.8% against Washington State, 69.6% against ASU, and 75% against Colorado. In other games, he struggles to break 50%. He’s not making high-difficulty throws, he’s just flat-out missing easy ones:
One of Thompson-Robinson’s frustrating habits is his tendency to run straight backwards when he’s attempting to avoid pressure. Although he’s very fast, it’s not exactly easy to spin around and start running the wrong way when the defender is already barreling towards you, and so Thompson-Robinson frequently takes huge losses on these sacks:
This is a recurring issue for Thompson-Robinson as he tries to escape pressure, and I could easily take a clip of him doing this in any game:
Despite his athleticism, Thompson-Robinson has 28 sacks on the year, which suggests that he doesn’t always know the best way to avoid pressure in the pocket. UCLA’s offensive line is actually pretty good at run-blocking, and so I think their struggles in pass-protection are typically because it’s difficult to block for your quarterback when you don’t know where he is and where he’s going (and because he changes directions so quickly).
However, Thompson-Robinson’s most serious issue is his propensity to turn the ball over. Thompson-Robinson is second in the FBS with the most fumbles (10, trailing only Tulsa’s QB Zach Smith by 1), and seventh in the FBS in number of interceptions (11 INTs). Those are McIlwain numbers... or worse. At least McIlwain was making tough throws into coverage when he was intercepted. Let’s first examine his slippery hands:
Maybe it’s hard to get a clear look at the fumble, but I assure you, you don’t need to dislodge the ball from Thompson-Robinson’s hands to ‘force’ a fumble:
You might think “well, the ball must have been slippery because it was raining or something,” but it was sunny and 83 degrees Fahrenheit in Cincinnati for the game (and a California-cold 47 degrees in Utah). In fact, none of Thompson-Robinson’s fumbles have occurred during inclement weather. I simply don’t have a good explanation for why DTR has butterfingers. If DTR were playing for that awful private school last week, I may have dubbed Benny Hill over some of these clips.
In general, mental lapses tend to characterize Thompson-Robinson’s play:
Thompson-Robinson likes to improvise (and he’s very similar to Khalil Tate in that regard, which is curiously hard to defend in its own way— as a defense, how do you prepare to stop an offense when the offense doesn’t even know what they’re going to do?), but his quarterback reads are questionable at best:
This is literally the worst interception I saw from any player on any team all year:
Thompson-Robinson was listed as questionable at the time of this writing, and so if he is unable to play, we’ll likely see freshman backup quarterback Austin Burton. I was quite fond of Austin Burton during the spring games, as he showcased a level of accuracy beyond Thompson-Robinson’s. He’s the 2018 Garbers to Cal’s McIlwain: he’s still a mobile dual-threat quarterback, but he’s likely a better passer and far more turnover-averse. The only major playing time he saw this year was when he started a 48-31 loss to Oregon State, a game in which he posted 236 yards passing, 1 TD / 0 INT, and an additional 64 yards rushing and 1 rushing TD. Burton was clearly a more accurate passer, although the game plan kept a tight leash on Burton as he mainly threw safe throws, e.g. screen passes and so forth.
Joshua Kelley is my favorite
UC Davis UC Los Angeles running back since Paul Perkins, and I’ve always graded him higher than ASU’s Eno Benjamin, who received most of the attention last year at RB. Kelley is a tough runner who does well in tight space. He doesn’t possess elite speed, but he has great patience and vision running between the tackles.
ASU was particularly helpless in stopping Kelley, as he ran it straight through their defensive line repeatedly en route to 4 rushing touchdowns, much like this:
While he’s not the fastest, he still possesses enough speed to get to the edge and past the second level of the defense.
A healthy Joshua Kelley is UCLA’s single biggest offensive weapon, as he can take a lot of the pressure of making plays off Thompson-Robinson. As one of the few Pac-12 teams not bitten by the injury bug this year, UCLA has been fortunate to catch other Pac-12 teams as they were down mid-season (such as Stanford when they were forced to play their 3rd-string QB Jack West). However, UCLA’s single most impressive win this season came against ASU, and it was because Joshua Kelley helped UCLA jump out to an early lead.
The other running back you’re likely to see is Demetric Felton. He’s not quite even a running back, but more of a hybrid running back/slot receiver. He’s more in the mold of something you’d see at Washington State; a pass-catching running back. Felton will line up both at running back and at slot receiver, but the goal remains the same: allow Felton to get to open space.
UCLA has some young and talented receivers, and I’d probably like them a lot more if their jersey was a darker shade of blue. My two favorites are probably redshirt freshman Kyle Philips and junior transfer Jaylen Erwin. Kyle Philips is quick, shifty, and has reliable hands:
Kyle Philips and Demetric Felton are Thompson-Robinson’s two favorite targets; typically Philips downfield and Felton as the safety valve. Both Kyle Philips and Jaylen Erwin like to run go routes down the sidelines. Jaylen Erwin is a track star-type receiver who models his game after DeSean Jackson:
Chip Kelly has been fond of using tight ends in different ways at UCLA. And though tight end Devin Asiasi isn’t as reliable as (now NFL practice squad TE) Caleb Wilson, he’s still a big target in the middle of the field as a big possession receiver:
As a big-bodied receiver, Asiasi is also a frequent red zone target for Thompson-Robinson, who typically needs a receiver able to make a catch in tight space.
UCLA has some good talent at the wide receiver position, so it will be interesting to watch how well they can get open against the Cal secondary. This unit would be dangerous with a competent quarterback throwing them the ball.
I always like showing kick/punt return touchdowns in this section, especially because Cal’s subpar kicking this season means these players do have a chance at big returns. A good portion of the following clip is demonstrating the defensive shortcomings of Washington State, but it’s still nice to see a player with enough speed and elusiveness to run 69 yards for the touchdown. Nice.
I remember UCLA’s kicker JJ Molson being one of the better kickers in the Pac-12, but he’s actually having a rough year this year: he’s the only kicker with at least 10 field goal attempt to have a worse field goal percentage than, uh, Cal. (Oregon and Oregon State have worse kickers, so you can safely rank JJ Molson as the 9th best this year). Molson has a range of about 50 yards on his kicks. I am going to refrain from further comment on the kicker, because any time I say something about them— from Washington’s Peyton Henry kicking a career-long 49 yard FG or Stanford’s punter Ryan Sanborn booting one through from 48— they’re all pretty much guaranteed to make the kick if I say anything negative. So yes, JJ Molson, solid kicker. People are saying, maybe the best kicker ever. Everybody is saying that. All the best football experts, everyone, people are saying that. Believe me.
It will be important for Cal to get an early lead on UCLA, because UCLA is not a very good team at playing from behind. Sure, you might remember the one single exception to this, but it’s only because Washington State was even more intent on a meltdown than UCLA was (for example, Chip Kelly’s decision in the red zone with 2:38 remaining in the game, to decline the easy field goal on 4th and 5 when down by 3, went unpunished because Washington State immediately fumbled the ball on the very next play after the turnover on downs). Typically, falling behind means that you have to throw the ball more (DTR) and run the ball less (Kelley), and that spells trouble for UCLA. Cal also needs to be prepared for totally improvised backyard football plays, because Thompson-Robinson loves to scramble around and try to make something happen, and Cal was not prepared for that last year. UCLA was already having trouble filling the stadium (and the Oklahoma game was a home-away-from-home game for OU), combined with the fact that this game is occurring over the Thanksgiving weekend after being disqualified for bowl-eligibility, and I have to believe that this will not be a tough atmosphere for Cal to play in. Cal will be more motivated than UCLA and much better prepared for UCLA’s offense this year.