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UCLA football players say they will be ready for the start of Season 3.0

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambles against USC.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson carries the ball against USC in November. What are the biggest questions facing the Bruins ahead of the new season?
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)
1

A season that was slated to feature the earliest start in UCLA football history will instead involve the latest.

The Bruins originally were scheduled to open the season Aug. 29 against New Mexico State before the COVID-19 pandemic put things on hold. The Pac-12 Conference later announced a revised schedule that called for UCLA to open the season against USC on Sept. 26, only for the resurgent virus to wipe out those plans.

Now the Bruins hope to start playing in early November, as part of an unspecified schedule, after conference presidents and chancellors voted Thursday to allow the football season to resume.

Will they be ready for Season 3.0? A handful of players recently told The Los Angeles Times they had been preparing as if an imminent season reboot was a given.

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“There’s an old saying that if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” graduate transfer Paul Grattan Jr. said, “so if I stay ready and I stay in football shape and they say, ‘Hey, you guys can play in four weeks’ because the rapid testing in California lets us play, then I’ll be good, I’ll be ready to go.’ ”

The Bruins will begin 20-hour-per-week workouts on Friday before transitioning to training camp in two weeks.

Here are five questions facing the Bruins as they prepare to start training camp:

2

Might widespread roster defections from the pandemic benefit UCLA?

Offensive lineman Jake Burton (73) at fall football camp
Offensive lineman Jake Burton (73).
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It certainly looks that way. USC lost defensive tackle Jay Tufele and guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, potential first-team all-conference players, to season opt-outs in preparation for the NFL draft.

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It was a similar story at Oregon, where the Ducks lost three projected starters. Other Pac-12 teams have also lost potential star players who chose to focus on professional careers.

UCLA’s only recent departure was right tackle Jake Burton, who transferred to Baylor, after the Pac-12 announced last month that no sports would be played before Jan. 1. Coincidentally, Baylor’s season opener against Houston was postponed after a COVID-19 outbreak.

The loss of Burton was distressing for a team that already needed to replace two offensive linemen, but the Bruins figure to play several opponents whose rosters were far more depleted because of the pandemic than their own.

3

Can the Bruins overcome their history of slow starts under Chip Kelly?

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks off the field after a loss to the Oklahoma Sooners
UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The coach hailed by Troy Aikman as the greatest hire in UCLA history has not won a nonconference game with the Bruins, going 0-6, and that won’t change this season thanks to a conference-only schedule.

It could help the Bruins that most of their roster has been training on campus since late June, when the school allowed football players to return for limited workouts. Other schools sent players home after the most recent sports shutdown, compromising readiness as they prepare for the start of full-contact practices.

4

Will Dorian Thompson-Robinson enjoy a breakthrough season?

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks down field
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

No one will be as critical to the Bruins’ success in a shortened season as their quarterback. Thompson-Robinson has alternated sparkling performances (a school-record 564 yards of offense against Washington State) with disappointing ones (four turnovers against Cincinnati).

Turnovers could tell the story of his season. Thompson-Robinson’s 11 fumbles last season were the second most of any major college player, trailing only Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith’s 12, and he had 12 passes intercepted, the second most of anyone in the Pac-12. Several of Thompson-Robinson’s fumbles came when the ball simply slipped out of his hand.

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If Thompson-Robinson can keep making flashy plays while reducing errors, the Bruins could post their first winning season since 2015.

5

Will a new defensive scheme lead to better results?

Stanford cornerback Obi Eboh
Cornerback Obi Eboh.
(John Hefti / Associated Press)

It can’t be much worse. The defense that UCLA ran last season under defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro ranked No. 112 nationally in total defense and surrendered a school-record 3,729 passing yards.

Enter Brian Norwood. The former Navy co-defensive coordinator, who is now the Bruins’ passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach, brought with him an attacking 4-2-5 alignment that helped the Midshipmen go from 3-10 in 2018 to 11-2 the following season.

Running a nickel defense could help the Bruins capitalize on the arrival of graduate transfers Obi Eboh and Qwuantrezz Knight, veteran defensive backs familiar with that alignment who are expected to contribute immediately.

6

Who will replace the always-smiling, hard-charging Josh Kelley?

Former UCLA running back Josh Kelley.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

This figures to be a two-man race between Brittain Brown, the graduate transfer from Duke, and Demetric Felton Jr., the fleet-footed converted receiver.

Unless the Bruins go with a running back-by-committee approach, Brown might have an edge based on being four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Felton, who often seems more suited to slot receiver.

But Brown must overcome durability concerns after having parts of his last two seasons wiped out by shoulder injuries.

“Hopefully,” Brown said, “I can do what J.K. did for UCLA rushing-wise.”