Stop us if you have heard this before, but the fate of the UCLA football season is likely to rest with the weekly list of the injured and walking wounded.
The talent pool is there for the Bruins to compete in the Pac 12 South in 2019. The depth is there, but only at some positions. However, in some critical areas, the margin to sustain injuries is razor thin. There could be some help on the way after Saturday’s scrimmage that ends the Spring session. Certainly, some is likely to be there when Fall practice starts in late Summer. The question is, will they be enough to carry a team that has talent in many skill position spots.
It’s A Thin Margin For UCLA Football
Dorian Thompson-Robinson has grown as one would expect from freshman to sophomore years. He has a little more zip on his passes, and he is getting through his progressions quicker in Spring camp. Last week, it was simplicity at its best in seven-on-seven drills when he moved his squad 45 yards in two plays with back-to-back passes to tight end Devin Asiasi, with the second one being a touchdown. He is working on the run well, keeping his head up and continuing to look to throw the ball, instead of just tucking and running. He is the unquestioned number one quarterback and leader of the offense. And then there is, well…
At this point, Austin Burton is getting the snaps for the back-up role. Herein lies a challenge as Burton has never taken a snap in a college game. When we discuss the margins, UCLA is one rolled DTR ankle away from having its season rely on a quarterback with zero game experience. Burton has work to do on his accuracy. He has had a tendency this Spring to overthrow receivers on long routes. He also takes longer to get through his reads and when he leaves the pocket it is to run and run only.
Chase Griffin, the highly touted freshman, is decidedly third string right now in terms of live action reps. He is very efficient in the short and intermediate game. Too many times his receivers have had to slow down a step or two on the longer routes. His reads are decisive, and his scrambling ability is significant. There is his size, at 5-10, but for now, there are bigger challenges ahead, (pun intended).
In an ideal world, while no Texas Player of the Year wants to go somewhere and bide his time, UCLA would be able to redshirt Griffin in order to create an extra year of separation with Thompson-Robinson. That, though leaves Burton as the lone back-up. Maybe he can continue to grow into the role, but you have to believe that head coach Chip Kelly would prefer to pluck a game experienced grad transfer out of the NCAA transfer portal soon.
Here is where the quarterback future intertwines with the trenches. Moving Boss Tagaloa from defensive line to center last year was the best personnel move of the short Chip Kelly era thus far. It gave the line strength and stability. The growth and development in the offensive line this Spring mirrors what we wrote about the maturation of Thompson-Robinson.
Losing Andre James early to the NFL is not going to negatively impact the quality of the line. Christaphany Murray, Michael Alves, Jake Burton, and Alec Anderson will join Tagaloa as the front five. In Spring they have been blowing holes open for the running game and giving Thompson-Robinson mostly ample time to throw. Running back Joshua Kelley thrived behind four of these five last season with 1,243 rushing yards. Watching the front perform throughout the Spring leads one to believe there is no reason there cannot be a repeat performance, as long as they stay healthy. And therein lies the rub.
The second team offensive line is very much a work in progress. The group led by Jon Gaines, Baraka Beckett, and Sam Mazzaro is not getting the push needed to sustain a viable running attack. Mazzaro saw some playing time last year, but as a unit, they are a significant distance behind the starters. As individuals, the ability to fill-in for injured players is dubious as Spring closes. Sean Rhyan, the four-star recruit from San Juan Hills, was the prize “get” in this year’s class. His value may be more than anyone realized at the time. Injuries to any of the starting five could create a pressing need for Rhyan to be ready sooner rather than later.
Plugging in an offensive lineman who has never played in a college game is not as difficult as putting in a newbie at quarterback, but it’s not far off. Ryhan’s progress, and that of fellow incoming freshman Duke Clemens, is going to be watched with ultra-keen eyes. No one remembers the last time UCLA got through a season without an offensive line injury. A developed Clemens, or Rhyan, could be needed to jump to the head of the pecking order in the event of an injury to a starter.
There is a huge amount of depth at the running back and wide receiver/tight end spots. No questions there. Theo Howard coming back for his senior year will be bigger than most ever considered at the end of 2018.
The defensive line doesn’t have the eye-popping playmakers that make you sit up and take notice, but Tyler Manoa and Atonio Mafi have both had spurts of standout performances during camp. Mafi in particular is more agile right now having dropped about 35 pounds since last season’s 411-pound weight. Add in Osa Odighizuwa or Datona Jackson and there is enough there, including depth.
Linebacker is deep but with an asterisk. That depth depends on the return of a healthy Josh Woods and fully in-tact Keisean Lucier-South. Woods suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the start of last season. He just recently started participating in non-contact drills. Lucier-South was a critical part of the linebacker crew last season but had to leave Spring camp prematurely to get his academics in order, according to UCLA. The linebacker group needs both seniors on the field throughout the season. There is talent and depth at the position, (Krys Barnes has been big this Spring), but with those two, the schemes can be more aggressive.
The defensive backfield has enough depth to function by committee. They lose a lot of experience with Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors matriculating. But while the games-played wisdom may be gone, the talent is not in shortfall. Elijah Gates has made several big plays in camp. Of course, Quentin Lake will be a mainstay. Darnay Holmes has been super active against any and every receiver he goes up against, and every quarterback has had a tough time making completions against him. Shea Pitts has had a solid Spring and Jay Shaw and has been a very pleasant surprise. If Kenny Churchwell can return from last year’s torn ACL, it will be an embarrassment of riches.
The bodies are there. They just need to be standing upright after each play if this season is going to have a shot of reaching its potential.