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Five players who could decide the fate of UCLA’s football season

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UCLA did not spend the longest offseason in its history perfecting a new cheer, the 4-8-clap.

It’s true that the Bruins have doubled down on disappointment following their 3-9 record in coach Chip Kelly’s debut season with a 4-8 record in 2019, but players have said that’s only deepened their resolve.

They had extra time for self-reflection after being forced to sit at home for months while most spring practices were canceled and the season was delayed not once but twice amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the team returned in late June for workouts that only recently seemed assured of resulting in any sort of payoff.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said personal accountability was the only way to counteract the ceaseless monotony.

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“It’s either you do it or you don’t,” Thompson-Robinson said in a recent interview. “You don’t have to do anything during this time, but the ones that want to are going to get the job done regardless of how they feel that day.”

Here are five players who could decide the fate of UCLA’s season as the Bruins prepare to open training camp Friday ahead of their season opener against Colorado on Nov. 7:

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Dorian Thompson-Robinson

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, carrying the ball, breaks from the pocket for extra yards in a game against USC.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

UCLA’s junior quarterback has often left observers wondering which version of himself would show up from week to week.

Would it be the one who orchestrated the third-biggest comeback in major college football history, when the Bruins scored 50 points in 18 minutes and 48 seconds against Washington State to wipe out a 32-point deficit?

Or would it be the one who committed four turnovers in a deflating loss to Cincinnati, losing one fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand and another as he cocked his arm back to throw?

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Consistency will be essential for Thompson-Robinson to become a top-tier Pac-12 Conference quarterback. That means he must significantly reduce turnovers after having 12 passes intercepted last season and losing seven of his 11 fumbles.

Thompson-Robinson also must overcome his confounding habit of failing to complete short passes while on the run. The dual-threat quarterback has shown he can make the flashy play, but sometimes he just needs to finish the easy one.

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Osa Odighizuwa

Osa Odighizuwa stands facing Washington State players on the field during a game in September 2019.
UCLA defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

The little brother is all grown up.

Long overshadowed by his older sibling Owa, the standout UCLA defensive lineman who went on to spend two seasons with the New York Giants, Osa may have put himself on the verge of an NFL payday.

The senior defensive lineman led the Bruins with 10 tackles for loss last season, and his 3½ sacks are the most among any returning player. For UCLA’s defense to make a significant leap forward from the version that ranked No. 112 nationally in total defense in 2019, Odighizuwa is going to have to spend a lot more time in the backfield.

Odighizuwa appeared to benefit from UCLA’s shift toward smaller, quicker defensive linemen midway through last season and could be even more productive in 2020 thanks to the Bruins’ expected shift to a 4-2-5 alignment, intended to confuse quarterbacks and create additional pressure.

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Demetric Felton Jr.

UCLA's Demetric Felton carries the ball against Stanford
Tailback Demetric Felton.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Figuring out how to best deploy his top offensive playmaker could be one of Kelly’s greatest challenges this season.

Should he make Felton the replacement to Josh Kelley as the Bruins’ primary tailback? Have Felton operate mostly as a slot receiver? Move him all over the field?

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The third option might be best to maximize the redshirt senior’s speed and elusiveness. At 5 foot 9 and 186 pounds, Felton probably isn’t built to absorb the pounding of an every-down running back. When Felton tried to replace an injured Kelley last season against Cincinnati, the results were ho-hum: 71 yards in 23 carries for an average of 3.1 yards per carry.

But when he’s catching passes out of the backfield or the slot while mixing in the occasional run, Felton can be spectacular. His breakthrough performance against Washington State included a 94-yard touchdown catch and the game-winning score after he took a short pass and outmaneuvered defenders on his way into the end zone.

Don’t forget that Felton can also dazzle on special teams, his 100-yard kickoff return against the Cougars preceding the Bruins’ epic comeback.

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Sean Rhyan

Sean Rhyan blocks an Arizona player.
UCLA offensive lineman Sean Rhyan.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

It’s really something when you show up and become the team’s best offensive lineman basically from Day 1.

That was the situation that Rhyan found himself in last year when he took over left tackle as a freshman and started every game, making USA Today’s freshman All-American team.

Now he’ll have to anchor a line in flux after the departures of center Boss Tagaloa, guard Christaphany Murray and right tackle Jake Burton. Graduate transfer Paul Grattan Jr. will likely fill the vacated guard spot, with Alec Anderson probably taking over at right tackle and Duke Clemens possibly platooning with Sam Marrazzo at center.

Rhyan will need to be the steadying presence on a thin blue line that can’t afford any injuries if it intends to protect Thompson-Robinson or have any chance at helping the Bruins produce a 1,000-yard rusher for a third consecutive season.

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Qwuantrezz Knight

A smiling Qwuantrezz Knight holds his award for defensive MVP after the Frisco Bowl.
Former Kent State defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight.
(Brandon Wade / Los Angeles Times)

On a defense desperately in need of playmakers, the graduate transfer from Kent State could be delightfully disruptive.

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Knight is expected to fill the “striker” position that’s a hybrid of outside linebacker and defensive back as part of UCLA’s new nickel defense. It’s a position that Knight is familiar with after having played nickel back at his previous college stop, where he led the Golden Flashes with 10½ tackles for loss in 2019. He was also the defensive most valuable player of the Frisco Bowl after notching six tackles, including 1½ sacks, against Utah State.

“I feel like I will be able to come in here right away and just fill in with all the knowledge that I have with playing this position,” Knight said last month.