UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson is ready to take Bruins fans on a thrill ride
Dorian Thompson-Robinson first heard his own words shouted back at him during warmups by wisecracking teammates. Then he heard them uttered in the locker room, as a nickname. Now they have become something of a team mantra.
Don’t be a fan later!
The phrase adorns a T-shirt that Thompson-Robinson recently made and is regularly mentioned on the UCLA sophomore quarterback’s new YouTube channel. Its meaning is exactly as it sounds.
“If you want to be a fan now, you can be a fan now,” Thompson-Robinson said last week, “but I would much rather you not be one later and kind of get on when everything’s good; I want you to kind of stick to the grind with me.”
No one knows more than Thompson-Robinson just how much acreage is left on the Bruins’ bandwagon. The team went 3-9 last season while playing in front of the smallest crowds at the Rose Bowl since 1999.
It wasn’t exactly a freshman fantasyland for Thompson-Robinson, whose college debut came in the second quarter of the season opener against Cincinnati after starting quarterback Wilton Speight went down with a back injury.
UCLA lost its first five games before Thompson-Robinson guided the Bruins to consecutive victories over California and Arizona.
But a shoulder injury suffered against the Wildcats disrupted his upward trajectory, and he started only one more game the rest of the season.
As UCLA prepares to open training camp Wednesday, there’s no question whose team it is now.
“He’s really embraced the role of being the guy,” Bruins running back Joshua Kelley said of Thompson-Robinson.
The Bruins’ presumed starting quarterback has organized offseason meetings, workouts and film sessions for his teammates. One of his YouTube videos shows him laboring through a series of daily workouts, including a morning jog, throwing drills, running on a treadmill, weightlifting, yoga and abdominal work, and finally more throwing drills while unveiling his new bare-chested physique.
Thompson-Robinson has lost about nine pounds as part of a transformation in which he now packs 196 pounds onto his 6-foot-1 frame. His weight is down, his speed is up, everything trending toward maximizing his effectiveness in what he said will be more of a zone-read offense that increasingly utilizes his running ability.
“I’ll be using my legs a little bit more this year hopefully,” said Thompson-Robinson, who was mostly running for his life last season while trying to elude unblocked defenders.
More football players from the Southland are passing on USC and UCLA and establishing themselves at other Pac-12 programs.
Thompson-Robinson’s early college stumbles generated a legion of critics and even some friendly fire. His father, Michael Robinson, directed a Twitter rant at UCLA coach Chip Kelly after the Bruins started 0-3 for the first time since 1971.
Robinson wrote that the team suffered from “lousy coaching and play calling” and described Kelly as a million-dollar coach who took no responsibility for the winless start.
Ten months later, Thompson-Robinson said he still hasn’t discussed the outburst with his father.
“I kind of blocked him out and blocked some of my family out during the season and blocked a lot of people back home out,” Thompson-Robinson said, “just because it was obviously a tough time and I was more focused on just finishing the season.”
Now he’s eager to look ahead to a 2019 season that holds far more promise thanks to an offense that returns eight starters, including four of five linemen. Thompson-Robinson recently treated those linemen to dinner at Wingstop, dropping close to $100 on the meal. (Guard Chris Murray and tackle Jake Burton were responsible for the largest chunk of the tab, Thompson-Robinson said.)
Getting to know his teammates better has been one of Thompson-Robinson’s summer highlights. He also won a giant stuffed dragon (that he gave to a little girl standing nearby) by shooting baskets at Santa Monica Pier and lost a football-heaving contest with Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (Thompson-Robinson’s longest throw covering 77 yards compared to Beckham’s 80 yards).
The quarterback appears relaxed in everything he does, smiling more easily in conversation than a year ago. His teammates have also noticed an increased confidence.
“Just the way he talks now and the way he kind of carries himself,” said linebacker Krys Barnes, whose locker is across from Thompson-Robinson’s, “there’s a demeanor of, OK, I know what I’ve got to do, I know what will get us there.”
The way Thompson-Robinson sees it, his struggles last season in only his second full year as a starting quarterback have served as a necessary prelude to much greater things.
“I like that we had the season we had last year,” said Thompson-Robinson, who completed 57.7% of his passes for 1,311 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. “One, it was a learning experience for me, never having gone through adversity, and I would rather have it hit now than say my junior or senior year when I’m fighting for a national championship.”
That senior year might not be necessary. The T-shirt that Thompson-Robinson created as part of his “Don’t be a fan later!” campaign features a “World Tour” with accompanying dates on the back. Below “Time to Take Over” on Aug. 29 (the date of the season opener against Cincinnati) and “Shock the World” on Sept. 14 (the date of the game against Oklahoma) is “First Overall Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.”
Thompson-Robinson can be seen holding up the front of the shirt atop his Twitter page, his eyes peering over the neckline. He said “Don’t be a fan later!” originated with a group of friends while he attended Las Vegas Gorman High, a private athletic powerhouse that tends to polarize sports fans in the city.
He revived the campaign this summer as a way to inspire those who have doubts about fulfilling their promise. It has also been an enjoyable way to connect with his 52,600 combined followers on Instagram and Twitter.
“I have a platform and I’m not a robot that’s just football, football, football 24 hours of my day,” Thompson-Robinson said, “so I have fun with my outside life too.”
His coach might wish he was having a little less fun. Thompson-Robinson said that Kelly told him great players don’t publicize their message so widely, especially while playing such a high-profile position as quarterback.
“He really just preached on, don’t make that as public as maybe I did,” Thompson-Robinson said of his coach’s take. “It’s nothing bad. What I have so far is OK, it’s just obviously going into the season, you don’t want to talk about it and when media and other people outside our team ask about it, just kind of keep it quiet and focus on putting my energy toward the team and the program.”
Thompson-Robinson has gone all in on making his team a winner. Nobody is more bullish on the Bruins than the quarterback who’s a fan now, later and always.
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