Does the kid stay in the picture?
That was the question confronting UCLA coach Chip Kelly on Monday with true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggling and graduate transfer Wilton Speight cleared to return from injury.
Kelly gave no indication who would be the starter on Saturday when the Bruins (0-4 overall, 0-1 Pac-12 Conference) face No. 10 Washington (4-1, 2-0) at the Rose Bowl, reiterating his stance from previous weeks that he would go with the player who gives his team the best chance to win.
But Kelly remained complimentary of Thompson-Robinson even after consecutive shaky showings in which he completed fewer than 50% of his passes during losses to Fresno State and Colorado. The coach said he liked Thompson-Robinson’s demeanor while facing new circumstances on a weekly basis.
“He doesn’t get flustered out there,” Kelly said. “Sometimes the moment can get too big for younger kids, they kind of get overwhelmed. He’s never once been overwhelmed by the moment and so you love coaching him because of his approach to everything — he wants to get better every day, he wants to win.”
Thompson-Robinson was still seeking his first college victory as the calendar flipped to October. He made his debut in the second quarter of the season opener after Speight suffered a back injury and has held onto the starting job through an encouraging performance against Oklahoma and far less spectacular showings against Fresno State and Colorado.
Kelly said the Bruins needed to do a better job of protecting Thompson-Robinson after the Buffaloes sacked him three times.
“There are some times when we weren’t in the right protection call where we should have had some linebackers picked up that came off the edge that I think in his mind should have been picked up,” Kelly said. “So there’s a little bit of miscommunication we have to work on, but I thought Dorian did a nice job.”
Thompson-Robinson has completed 52.7% of his passes this season for 660 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He did not commit a turnover against Colorado after having two passes intercepted and losing a fumble against Fresno State.
Kelly said Speight was available to play against the Buffaloes but did not turn to him even during a second half in which the Bruins went three-and-out on three consecutive drives and generated only 98 yards of offense.
Asked how Wilton reacted to sitting out while available to play, Kelly said, “Well, that’s a good question for Wilton.”
When a reporter followed up by asking whether the quarterback could be made available for an interview, Kelly said, “Yeah, sure.” Speight has not spoken with reporters since Aug. 4, the second day of training camp.
Kelly intimated that playing time remained fluid. He pointed to Joshua Kelley’s 124-yard rushing performance against Colorado that was preceded by the tailback having stepped up in practice after getting no carries against Fresno State.
“There’s a lot of internal competition on this team, and there will always be internal competition,” Kelly said. “It’s not about what you did in the past, it’s about what we’re doing right now.”
Power saver mode?
Altitude was a factor when the Bruins defense gave up 281 yards in the second half in Boulder, Colo. So was attitude.
“I just think overall our energy is … we’re not bringing what we need to bring at the end of games, so we just gotta fix that,” cornerback Nate Meadors said, noting that the drop-off occurred against both Fresno State and Colorado.
Meadors said it was up to him to help remedy the situation as a senior leader of the defense.
“I just gotta bring more energy,” Meadors said, “even though I might be tired or whatever, something going on, I have to be a leader and bring the energy so the younger guys can keep going as they see the older guys going.”
Guilty as charged
Meadors acknowledged his role in two penalties that extended Colorado drives, saying he “had a little tug” on a pass-interference call and “did grab the horse collar” on an illegal tackle.
“Unfortunately, those calls led to two big touchdowns,” Meadors said, “but we just gotta keep playing.”