One contender has more than a season’s worth of college experience as a starter. Another has never taken a college snap. A third is the only candidate who has actually played in a game for UCLA.
Handicapping the battle to become the Bruins’ starting quarterback involves various factors but one underlying premise.
“It’s a wide-open deal right now,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said Wednesday during the Pac-12 Conference’s media day at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
Graduate transfer Wilton Speight has the most experience of the bunch, having started 16 games over the last two years at Michigan. But Kelly said that didn’t necessarily give Speight an advantage over freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson (zero college starts) or redshirt sophomore Devon Modster (two starts) heading into the opening of fall camp on Aug. 3.
Thompson-Robinson and Modster are both speedy runners as well as gifted passers, giving them versatility that Speight cannot match as more of a pocket specialist. But Kelly said that wouldn’t tempt him to give one of the more fleet quarterbacks the nod as Josh Rosen’s successor.
“Everybody has qualities that they’re better at,” Kelly said. “Everybody has some weaknesses and then we’ll grade them off that, but I’m not going to say, ‘I want this, this, this and this.’ I’ve won with both [types of quarterback].
“What we don’t want is we don’t want a running back who can’t throw. We want a quarterback that if he has the ability to run, then we play to those strengths, if he has the ability to throw the ball a lot more, then you play to those strengths. Just who’s going to be the best for the team.”
While Modster participated in the full slate of spring practices, Speight and Thompson-Robinson only recently joined their new teammates for player-run practices. Each has impressed in his own way.
“I like what I’ve seen from all of them,” said Theo Howard, the Bruins’ top returning receiver. “It’s going to be interesting to see who comes out with the top spot.”
Howard said Speight has “a lot of zip on the ball; he can make every throw.” Modster, meanwhile, has gained even more confidence since a 295-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Cactus Bowl, Howard said, and Thompson-Robinson has already taken on a leadership role in his early days on campus.
Like quarterback Marcus Mariota, who played under Kelly at Oregon before going on to win the Heisman Trophy after Kelly departed for the NFL, Thompson-Robinson didn’t become a starter until late in his high school career. While Kelly offered Mariota a scholarship after the then-high school prospect attended one of his college camps, Kelly inherited Thompson-Robinson after he had been recruited by the previous UCLA coaching staff.
Of course, that didn’t mean Kelly was any less enthusiastic about the latter player’s potential.
“I watched every game Dorian played as a [high school] senior when I got in there” in November, Kelly said of a player who led Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas to a state title, “and was really excited about him.”
Speight has the best college numbers, having completed 58.8% of his passes for 3,192 yards and 22 touchdowns with 10 interceptions over parts of three seasons before his 2017 season was ended after only four games because of a back injury. Speight recently said he’s fully recovered from the injury.
Kelly said he’s seeking a handful of qualities in whoever eventually wins the job — largely the ability to move the offense without sustaining “self-inflicted wounds.” Given the team’s excessive youth, with 52 combined redshirt and true freshmen, the Bruins are pursuing small victories from their quarterback that can lead to something more significant.
“We understand that we don’t have to throw for a home run,” Kelly said. “We can go from first and 10 to second and five and get us into manageable situations and just keep us on the field to establish a rhythm. That’s part of what we’re going into now.”
Kelly’s teams at Oregon were heavily reliant on the run, but the coach said that was largely a function of winning lots of blowouts and he’s never believed that success is contingent upon a predetermined run-pass ratio. He noted that in successive games while he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, his team ran the ball 66 times one week and threw it 65 the next.
New Hampshire won both games.
“There’s not an ideal when you can say, ‘It’s got to be this,’ ” Kelly said of the amount of times a team throws versus runs. “It really has to be what’s necessary on that given day.”
Part of the formula will depend on the skills of the quarterback Kelly chooses in the coming weeks.
“We’re excited to see how it plays itself out,” Kelly said.
Celebrity guest list
Howard showed up for a workout on campus a while back and was asked whether he wanted to catch a few balls from a visitor with a familiar name. The guest happened to have won five Super Bowls.
“Why would I turn that down?” Howard said of playing catch with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “It was great. He gave me some advice and it was pretty cool.”
Having an NFL star around wasn’t anything new for the Bruins. Fellow Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson and Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham have also been among the players who have worked out at UCLA’s practice fields in recent months.
Kelly said he’s tried to accommodate NFL players seeking a quiet workout spot.
“When you’re a professional football player, you can’t work out at Bally’s,” Kelly said. “You can’t go to a 24 Hour Fitness and try to get a workout in, because you’re just going to get bugged. So a lot of those guys have reached out.”