UCLA-Cincinnati: A look at how the teams match up

Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson practices with the Bruins
Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson practices with the Bruins on July 31 at the Wasserman Football Center.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)

Thursday, 4 p.m. PDT, Nippert Stadium. TV: ESPN. Radio: 1150.

Marquee matchup

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson vs. the Cincinnati defense. It wasn’t a fair fight when these entities went head to head last year, Thompson-Robinson unexpectedly making his college debut before halftime after an injury to Wilton Speight. The true freshman predictably struggled against one of the nation’s top defenses during the Bruins’ 26-17 loss, but he should be on at least equal footing in the rematch. A year to learn coach Chip Kelly’s offense and the presence of four returning starters on the offensive line, not to mention an established Joshua Kelley at running back, could make all the difference.


Getting offensive

UCLA (392.6 ypg/24.6 ppg in 2018): The Bruins averaged 31 points and 475 yards of offense over their final four games last season, but three of those games were started by the since-departed Speight. Thompson-Robinson could replicate those numbers if he can show improved touch on short passes and find a go-to receiver to replace tight end Caleb Wilson, who now plays for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

Cincinnati (458.5 ypg/34.9 ppg in 2018): The Bearcats should be able to absorb the absence of running backs Tavion Thomas (suspension) and Charles McClelland (knee injury) because they’re stocked at the position with Michael Warren II and Gerrid Doaks. Quarterback Desmond Ridder also doubles as a running back because of his ability to churn out yardage on the ground.

Getting defensive

UCLA (444.9 ypg/34.1 ppg in 2018): That joke about both the good news and the bad news being that almost everyone is returning applies to the Bruins’ defense. Ten starters are back to prove that the team’s weaker half is no longer a pushover. The sophomore-laden defensive line must stand firm if UCLA is to make a significant leap in wins.

Cincinnati (303.5 ypg/17.2 ppg in 2018): The Bearcats generated sacks galore last season thanks largely to a stout defensive line, which has undergone an almost total makeover. Likely starters Myjai Sanders, Elijah Ponder and Jabari Taylor combined for only one sack last season — 14 fewer than the trio they are replacing.


Something special

UCLA has revamped its special teams with a new coordinator in Derek Sage and an experienced punter in 31-year-old graduate transfer Wade Lees. The Bruins’ numerous special-teams blunders last season included having 12 men on the field after a timeout against Cincinnati, giving the Bearcats a fourth and goal at the one-yard line that they converted into a touchdown for the game’s final points.

Of note

UCLA’s 64 freshmen (43 true freshmen, 21 redshirts) represent 53.3% of its roster, the highest percentage in the nation. Only Nebraska, with 78 freshmen, tops the Bruins’ total number.

Injury report

The Bruins will play without linebacker Tyree Thompson, who is expected to miss at least a handful of games while recovering from foot surgery. Linebacker Keisean Lucier-South, the team’s top returning pass rusher, must sit out at least three games while addressing academic shortcomings. Receiver Theo Howard (wrist) and left tackle Alec Anderson (leg surgery) are expected to play but not start after being slowed by injuries in training camp. … In addition to the sidelined Thomas and McClelland, the Bearcats are expected to be without defensive backs James Wiggins (knee) and Arquon Bush (foot).