‘Extremely old in a good way’: How UCLA football’s experience compares in the Pac-12
Chip Kelly’s first recruiting class signaled the beginning of a new era for UCLA football. The 2018 group headlined by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson signed with immense promise and high expectations but carried a large warning label.
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Three years of program building later, the Bruins have grown into one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12 with Kelly’s first recruiting class entering its senior year. The table is set for what should be their long-awaited breakout season.
“We’re all old now,” senior offensive lineman Jon Gaines II said. “It’s on us to have the standard that we hold ourselves to. … The time is now.”
UCLA lost just two starters on offense and defense combined — the fewest of any team in the Pac-12 — and is tied with California for the third-highest percentage of upperclassmen in the conference, trailing just Stanford and USC.
The Bruins are “extremely old in a good way,” fifth-year senior defensive lineman Odua Isibor said. They’re not only the deepest team Kelly’s ever coached at UCLA but also have experienced players who set the tone for success.
“Any really good team is player-led, not coach-fed,” Kelly said, “and I think this team is really player-led.”
The Bruins, who are 10-21 under Kelly, have a large group of leaders who are selected according to individual workout groups. The top voices include Thompson-Robinson, Gaines, Isibor, receivers Kyle Philips and Chase Cota, offensive lineman Sean Rhyan, linebacker Bo Calvert and defensive backs Quentin Lake and Qwuantrezz Knight.
Freshmen are falling in line seamlessly behind the returners and Kelly noted that young players are accelerating quickly, likely because they have the advantage of such strong leadership to show them the ropes and challenge them.
“The young guys are kind of realizing that if they don’t step up, they’re getting left behind,” Rhyan said. “If they don’t know [the plays], then the next guy is going to surpass them. So they got a little edge to them because they don’t want to get left behind.”
Veteran players hand out corrections to teammates instead of coaches and encourage each other to keep their locker room tidy. If someone didn’t touch the line to finish a drill in the summer, coaches weren’t delivering tongue lashings before requiring the offending player to repeat the exercise. One of the team’s chosen leaders took care of it.
“You gotta finish,” said Rhyan, a junior left tackle who has started all 19 games of his UCLA career. “That’s what we emphasized in the preseason: finishing in training because that’s how we win games.”
UCLA’s four losses last year came by a combined 15 points. With nearly all their impact players back for the 2021 season, the Bruins have a leg up on erasing the memories of that haunting point differential. UCLA returns all its passing yards from last season in Thompson-Robinson and backup Chase Griffin, 58.6% of its rushing yards, 85.9% of receiving yards and 89.1% of tackles.
The Bruins are one of four Pac-12 teams to reach the 80% threshold in three of the four categories. Arizona State, which returns all its defensive starters, is higher than 90% in all four.
Not only is Kelly’s first UCLA recruiting class entering its senior year, but the experience is compounded by the additional year of eligibility granted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four graduate transfers from last year — Knight, cornerback Obi Eboh, offensive lineman Paul Grattan and running back Brittain Brown — used the bonus season to return for sixth years.
The circumstance that led to UCLA’s stacked veteran roster is unprecedented, sixth-year running back Ethan Fernea said, but that’s precisely why the former walk-on also chose to come back for his additional year. He didn’t slog through a coaching change and losing records to not see a final, winning result.
“There’s a ton of teams with returning guys, but the last four years, we haven’t really had the record that we’ve been working for and hoping for, so I just think we’re coming back hungry and coming back with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Fernea said. “We’re trying to prove to the Pac-12 that we can contend and we can win games.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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