UCLA isn’t the only team facing questions about quarterback availability in the days before coach Chip Kelly’s return to Oregon.
Ducks coach Mario Cristobal announced Monday that star quarterback Justin Herbert had been placed in the concussion protocol, making his status uncertain for the team’s game against the Bruins on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
Herbert sustained a big hit last weekend while running toward the end zone during Oregon’s loss to Arizona, but Cristobal told reporters Monday he did not know when the injury occurred.
UCLA has been without its starting quarterback since freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson hurt his shoulder area in the second quarter of the Bruins’ victory over Arizona on Oct. 20. Graduate transfer Wilton Speight replaced Thompson-Robinson against the Wildcats before starting in UCLA’s 41-10 loss to Utah on Friday.
Thompson-Robinson appeared to be a full participant in practice Monday, but Speight was taking snaps from starting center Boss Tagaloa during the portion of practice open to the media. Once Thompson-Robinson is fully recovered, does he get the starting job back?
“We’ll see,” Kelly said. “I’m not a hypothetical guy, so there’s no reasons to make any predictions on this or that. He could be 100% and the rest of the team could have bubonic plague and we wouldn’t be able to play at all, so we’ll see what happens.”
Kelly said his review of the footage of UCLA’s game against Utah revealed that Speight “did a nice job” while being victimized by six dropped passes.
“I think we could have helped him out a little bit better,” Kelly said of Speight, who completed 20 of 40 passes for 164 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, “but we were pleased with how Wilton played.”
Herbert has been one of the Pac-12 Conference’s most dynamic quarterbacks this season, completing 59.6% of his passes for 2,069 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Should he be unavailable for the game against UCLA, the Ducks would turn to either Braxton Burmeister or Tyler Shough, backups who have played sparingly this season. Burmeister has completed four of eight passes for 27 yards and Shough has not thrown a pass.
Oregon (5-3 overall, 2-3 Pac-12) could also be without its top receiver against the Bruins (2-6, 2-3). Cristobal said Dillon Mitchell, who leads the Ducks with 48 catches for 677 yards and four touchdowns, had also been placed in the concussion protocol after absorbing a massive hit that knocked him out of the game last weekend.
Theo Howard was not among the UCLA receivers who dropped a pass against Utah, though maybe he should have been.
He made one reception on a pass that appeared destined to be intercepted by a Utes defensive back before it somehow found its way into Howard’s hands.
“That was crazy,” Howard said. “I thought he was going to intercept it, but I just kept telling myself to stay focused because you never know what can happen. I’m thankful that I caught it.”
Howard has caught as many passes as any Bruin this season, his 34 receptions tying tight end Caleb Wilson for the team lead. Howard has also caught at least one pass in 24 consecutive games going back to his freshman season. Along the way, he’s earned a reputation for reliability.
“He’s a tough matchup, he’s a great route runner, a very sure-handed guy,” Kelly said. “He’s one of those guys who has not been plagued by any of the drops. I think Theo’s been kind of a security blanket for the quarterback.”
The carnage of UCLA’s loss to Utah wasn’t fully unveiled in the box score.
Kelly said he counted 24 missed tackles, up from 18 the previous week against Arizona. Are some bad habits simply hard to overcome?
“I don’t think they’re bad habits,” Kelly said. “It’s just a fundamental game and you have to do things fundamentally the right way. The same thing with catching the football.”
Kelly said the way to fix that was by continuing to emphasize fundamentals each day in practice.