Two days into UCLA’s training camp, a hierarchy of sorts has emerged in the race to replace Josh Rosen as the starting quarterback.
Wilton Speight, the 23-year-old graduate transfer from Michigan, was anointed by redshirt freshman Austin Burton as “kind of like the dad of the group.” That would make true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, at just 18, the baby brother.
Thompson-Robinson readily acknowledged that “father” knows best when it comes to the nuances of a college offense.
“If I have any questions about plays or reads or anything,” Thompson-Robinson said Saturday, “I go to him.”
That’s not to say that Thompson-Robinson is conceding anything in the five-man battle to win the starting job. He said he’s not contemplating a redshirt season if he’s not taking the Bruins’ first snap of the season against Cincinnati on Sept. 1 at the Rose Bowl.
“Right now,” Thompson-Robinson said, “I’m just thinking about trying to get that starting job.”
Speight, Thompson-Robinson and redshirt sophomore Devon Modster are widely considered the frontrunners in a competition that also includes Burton and redshirt sophomore Matt Lynch. Speight has a huge experience advantage, having played in 21 games over parts of three seasons at Michigan; Modster has appeared in five college games and Thompson-Robinson none.
But Thompson-Robinson and Modster, both listed at 6 feet 1, feature more versatility as quarterbacks capable of routinely breaking off long runs. At 6-6, Speight is more of a pocket passer who played in a pro-style offense with the Wolverines, though he said UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s success in the NFL with similarly built quarterbacks Nick Foles, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez alleviated any concerns about his ability to fit into the Bruins’ offense.
Kelly described the quarterback race as “wide open” and said evaluations had begun even though players worked out only in helmets and shorts for a second consecutive day. If Kelly had his way, naming a starter would be a race back in time.
“I’d like to decide on a starter by yesterday,” Kelly said.
Kelly would not commit to a timetable on a decision, however, saying it had to happen “organically and authentically.”
“I don’t think you can just say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be this [date],’ because maybe the players don’t feel that way, you know what I mean?” Kelly said. “Every time I’ve been in one of these [quarterback competitions], it’s usually that the decision has been made for you and when you make it, everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy who’s played best over the course of time.’ ”
It was hard to label any of the contenders as a leader during the 20 minutes of practice drills reporters were allowed to watch Saturday.
The quarterbacks first threw passes to each other and then a stationary receiver. They practiced footwork by pretending to take a snap and dropping back several yards. Finally, they took turns firing 20-yard passes to receivers down the sideline.
Kelly said whichever quarterback was working with the first and second teams didn’t indicate who was ahead in the competition.
“It’s the same drills going on on two different fields,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to get maximum reps.”
Modster, who has a quiet personality, said he had spent the off-season working on his leadership skills while shaving a few percentage points off his body fat. Thompson-Robinson said he immersed himself in the playbook and Speight finished rehabilitating the back injury that kept him out of all but five games last season.
The quarterbacks showed off the results during player-run practices over the last several weeks. They said Kelly did not specify any qualifications for winning the starting job, but they already have an idea how the coach will go about making his decision.
“The best guy,” Thompson-Robinson said, “will play.”