UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson learns to handle the ups and downs
As the kid quarterback across town continued to be cooed over, Dorian Thompson-Robinson received the full-throated adult voice.
“DTR NEEDS TO OWN THIS LOSS,” read one breathless message-board thread on Bruin Report Online.
“Seriously, how many times DTR fumbles the ball without any hit,” read another.
“A few athletic plays do not a QB make,” read a third.
The UCLA sophomore quarterback who started a campaign before the season called “Don’t be a fan later,” a nod to the fickle nature of those who are supposed to support him, was once again being shredded by his alleged admirers.
He had engineered a three-game winning streak that nudged his team into contention for not just bowl eligibility but a Pac-12 Conference South Division title but was now getting eviscerated for everything but the chilly weather in Salt Lake City on Saturday night during the Bruins’ 49-3 loss to Utah.
Joshua Kelley knows it’ll be tough for him to top his 289-yard effort against USC last year, but he’s hoping for a Bruins repeat this week.
He couldn’t hold onto the ball … he couldn’t execute in the red zone … he ran backward too much under pressure … he couldn’t make good decisions against tough defenses … he was better suited to wide receiver … he was making the same mistakes he made 2 1/2 months earlier.
And that’s only a partial list.
Those kinds of things weren’t being said about the quarterback on the other side of Los Angeles. USC’s Kedon Slovis was the darling freshman who had already sprouted into the stuff of legends in the wake of a 41-17 blowout of California, putting together a debut season that was rivaling that of the heralded Sam Darnold.
He was prolific … he was efficient … he was unstoppable … he was already elite, just 10 games into his college career.
And that’s only a partial list.
When Thompson-Robinson and Slovis face one another for the first time Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum, they will be on equal footing in one respect, each having played only three full seasons as a starting quarterback. While Slovis took over as a starter during his junior season of high school, Thompson-Robinson didn’t do so until his senior season, having previously played wide receiver while stuck behind Tate Martell.
Thompson-Robinson said Tuesday he never wondered what might have been or how much further along he might be had he enjoyed extra seasoning at a position that demands relentless repetition.
“I like where I’m at right now and the rate that I’m growing at in terms of my development and growth,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I wouldn’t take any regrets back in high school and not wanting to transfer [to play quarterback at another school], so I’m happy with where I’m at. Just trying to work hard and continue to grow.”
His evolution is reflected in more than the occasional superb Saturday, like the one he unfurled in September while piling up a school-record 507 passing yards in a crazy comeback victory over Washington State.
His maturation can be heard as well as seen.
After he walked into an interview room underneath Rice-Eccles Stadium and faced reporters with a somber expression following the Utah loss, Thompson-Robinson didn’t sidestep the criticism that accompanied his career-worst four-turnover performance.
“I put all that on me,” Thompson-Robinson said before acknowledging that he had looked past Utah to potentially bigger games.
The mea culpas continued after practice Tuesday, the quarterback addressing his postgame comments as well as his in-game shortcomings. He repeated a phrase that coach Chip Kelly had used to illustrate one path to recovery.
“Sometimes in life you have to get punched in the mouth a little bit,” Thompson-Robinson said, “to keep going forward and to grow.”
Sticking with the metaphor, Thompson-Robinson has sustained a bloody lip and a few wobbly teeth during a season in which he has committed 17 of his team’s 20 turnovers while completing 59.9% of his passes for 2,056 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
But he has also earned the respect of a coach who understands the makeup of top-level quarterbacks, having worked with an eventual Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota and an eventual Super Bowl most valuable player in Nick Foles.
Coming off a strong performance against California, USC is a 13-point favorite to beat UCLA in Saturday’s Southern California rivalry showdown.
“He’s done a really good job of keeping a lot of plays alive and doing different things,” Kelly said of Thompson-Robinson, pinpointing one play against Utah in which the quarterback evaded pressure by zigzagging behind the line of scrimmage before heaving a pass into the end zone toward tight end Devin Asiasi that was intercepted.
“He did a great job of keeping the ball alive and if Devin goes up and makes that play in the end zone, you’re like, ‘What a great play.’ That’s an ESPN ‘SportsCenter’ play compared to how the quarterback played on that one.”
Melva Thompson-Robinson, Dorian’s mother, said she could sense an increased comfort in her son during the Utah setback compared to the Bruins’ season-opening loss to Cincinnati, another game in which he struggled.
“While he was frustrated by what was happening on the field,” Melva Thompson-Robinson said of the game against the Utes, “he was not carrying the emotional baggage that comes with a huge loss. He kept pressing to make things happen and not hang his head in frustration.
“Given that Dorian was on teams that lost only three games total during his high school career, the lack of success has been a struggle for him to deal with, but this season it has also fueled his fire to lead the team and savor the victories that the team has had.”
Thompson-Robinson will enter the rivalry game with one advantage over Slovis — Thompson-Robinson played against the Trojans last season, albeit for one snap on a trick play. He tried to run the ball after the Bruins put two quarterbacks in the backfield and lost one yard.
Like all of his college memories, good and bad, he found it worthwhile.
“Just to see that and experience that and feel that,” Thompson-Robinson said of the Bruins’ 34-27 victory, “it was definitely special.”
He retains a healthy share of believers on the message boards, where almost every negative thread is offset by one touting his upside. As one fan put it, “Have Faith in DTR.”
Thompson-Robinson understands it’s all part of a process that can seem as flighty as those fans.
“When things go good, everybody praises you,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and when things go bad, everybody tells you not to do it.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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