After spending much of his season debut on the run, Dorian Thompson-Robinson benefited from some sturdy protection Monday.
It came from his coach.
“We had four turnovers,” Kelly said, placing emphasis on the first word. “So that’s how we look at it, it’s a team. It’s not a one-man show by any stretch of the imagination.”
Kelly said he did not consider benching Thompson-Robinson in favor of backup Austin Burton despite the fact that Thompson-Robinson lost two fumbles in the red zone on plays in which he was not touched and completed only 30.8% of his passes for 156 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Kelly noted that on one of Thompson-Robinson’s interceptions, receiver Michael Ezeike was supposed to continue running before breaking off his route.
“You don’t put that on the quarterback,” Kelly said. “So I think sometimes obviously in that position you get too much blame when things don’t go well and sometimes you get too much credit when things do go well.”
Little went well for the Bruins against the Bearcats.
UCLA generated only 218 yards of offense, its lowest output since November 2016. It didn’t help that the Bruins were playing without running back Joshua Kelley, receiver Theo Howard and offensive linemen Michael Alves and Alec Anderson because of injuries, but no one associated with the team touted that as an excuse even though the absences forced freshman offensive linemen Sean Rhyan and Jon Gaines II to make their first college starts earlier than expected.
The team’s inability to move the ball was rooted in collective struggles, Kelly said, and couldn’t be pinned solely on the quarterback.
“I think the whole offense as a group, we need to do a better job clicking,” Kelly said. “We had some new guys up front, obviously [Cincinnati’s defensive] front presented some problems and issues for us, but we’ve got to protect [Thompson-Robinson] better.
“We have to be able to be a little cleaner in the pocket and give him a little more time because I thought our receivers did a decent job of getting open, but there were times where we just didn’t have enough time to get them the football, so overall offensively we were not very good.”
After Thompson-Robinson was mashed to the turf for no gain on UCLA’s final offensive play, center Boss Tagaloa placed an arm around his quarterback’s shoulder and offered encouragement.
“I was just telling him to keep his head up,” Tagaloa said. “I knew there was going to be a lot of talk around his name, just told him to ignore all the outside [noise] and just focus on us and just come back next week and get better.”
The Bruins (0-1) will seek some home improvement Saturday afternoon against San Diego State (1-0) at the Rose Bowl. Receiver Jaylen Erwin said Thompson-Robinson appeared to have fully shifted his focus to the Aztecs based on his demeanor in practice Monday.
“He came out here like it’s a new day,” Erwin said. “I had messed up on a play, he was picking me up. You can clearly see the leadership and flip the switch and leave whatever happened last week in the past and continue to motivate all of us to get better so we can come out on Saturday and beat San Diego State.”
Kelly said there was no update on the availability of the five players who missed the opener for the Bruins’ game against San Diego State. Kelley, Howard, Alves, Anderson and cornerback Darnay Holmes were dressed to fully practice Monday, just as they were in the days leading up to the game against Cincinnati.
“Most of those guys trained last week,” Kelly said, “but it wasn’t where we thought it was safe to put them in a game.”
Kelly did not back down on his previous assertion that it was the best training camp he’d staged in terms of health, noting the handful of players who had to medically retire last season because of injuries. The coach also said the players who were held out against Cincinnati would not have played had it been a Pac-12 Conference game.
“Safety is the first and foremost thing that we always talk about,” Kelly said, “and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Pac-12 game or the Super Bowl; if they’re physically ready to play, then they’ll play. If they’re not physically ready to play, then we’re not going to put them out there.”
Kelly said freshman running backs Keegan Jones and Jahmon McClendon did not play against Cincinnati because they were not ready. “You’ve got to earn your playing time,” Kelly said, “ … and those other two guys [Jones and McClendon] are young kids that are growing and have bright futures here, but they weren’t ready to play in the football game last Thursday night.” … Kelly said there was no new information on the availability of running back Kazmeir Allen, who was held out of the opener because of academic issues. Allen practiced on Monday as part of the scout team.