“It’s cool to win eight games, it’s cool to go to a bowl game,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Jon Gaines II said last week at Pac-12 media day. “But we were nowhere near where we wanted to be and where we want to be this season.”
So what are the Bruins goals?
“Win every game we play,” Gaines said.
That would be something for a program that has gone unbeaten only once — during its 1954 national championship season — and has not won 10 games since 2014. Showing its usual skepticism of the UCLA brand, the media picked the Bruins to finish fourth in the Pac-12 even with the return of high-jumping quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and star running back Zach Charbonnet.
UCLA football is on the clock and under pressure to do something ahead of its move to the Big Ten. With a soft schedule, a 10-win season is a must.
At least nine victories will be needed to continue the upward trajectory UCLA has forged under Kelly, its sustained improvement perhaps the biggest reason he was given a new four-year contract despite an 18-25 record in his first four seasons.
The Bruins might just get there given their easiest schedule in at least three decades, the probability of an elite offense and some hope for a long-awaited breakthrough on defense.
Here are five questions facing the Bruins as they prepare to open training camp Friday:
How long will Charbonnet’s Heisman Trophy campaign last?
Barring injury, probably at least until October.
Thanks to Michigan backing out of an agreement to play UCLA this fall, the Bruins will open the season with Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama. (Please, stifle your laughter.) It will be the first time UCLA has not faced a Power Five conference team or Notre Dame in nonconference play since 1992, when Cal State Fullerton, Brigham Young and San Diego State graced its schedule.
Playing middling teams from smaller conferences means yards can be gobbled like one of the Bruins’ lavish buffet spreads. In his first season as a Bruin, Charbonnet led the Pac-12 with seven 100-yard rushing games on the way to 1,137 yards.
Former Oaks Christian running back Zach Charbonnet showcases in UCLA practice how much work he has done to improve on his strong 2021 season.
Here’s guessing the senior could be nearly halfway to matching that total by the time UCLA opens its Pac-12 schedule with Colorado and Washington — two more enticing opportunities to pile up yards before the real tests start with Utah on Oct. 8.
A fascinating subplot will be who emerges as the No. 2 running back between redshirt junior Keegan Jones and redshirt freshman Deshun Murrell
“There’s a group of guys in there that we’re trying to get to emerge,” Kelly said. “Obviously, Zach being No. 1 makes you really comfortable.”
Can the defense stop being a drag?
It doesn’t need to be elite. It doesn’t need to be among the best in the Pac-12. Above average would do just fine.
UCLA’s defense never reached that humble threshold under Jerry Azzinaro, leading to the defensive coordinator’s departure early this year.
Enter Bill McGovern, part of an overhauled defensive staff that also includes new inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe in addition to holdover defensive backs coach Brian Norwood.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly has hired veteran assistant Bill McGovern as defensive coordinator to replace Jerry Azzinaro.
Those coaches have some intriguing newcomers. Edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy, twin transfers from North Texas, were disruptive forces in the spring. Linebacker Darius Muasau, a transfer from Hawaii, could reprise his role as a tackling machine. Linebacker Laiatu Latu, a transfer from Washington, appears ready to return from the neck injury that forced his medical retirement.
A more physically imposing secondary featuring 6-foot-3 cornerback Devin Kirkwood and 6-2 safeties Mo Osling III and Kenny Churchwell III should stop the Bruins from getting beaten so often over the top while snagging more interceptions.
“From what we came into to where we are now with our secondary, our secondary looks like what a secondary should look like,” Kelly said.
How many school records will Thompson-Robinson break?
Lots, if everything works out.
The fifth-year quarterback needs 15 touchdown passes to surpass Brett Hundley’s career record (75), 633 rushing yards to surpass John Sciarra’s career quarterback rushing record (1,813 yards) and 3,168 passing yards to surpass Cade McNown’s career passing record (10,708). All are within reach, even if they necessitate an asterisk with Thompson-Robinson granted the extra COVID-19 season of eligibility.
It should help that his top targets will include Duke transfer Jake Bobo, a 6-5 wide receiver who made 74 catches last season for 794 yards and one touchdown, as well as speedy slot receiver Kazmeir Allen.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is happy to have returned to UCLA, putting off a shot at the NFL to attend to unfinished business in Westwood.
Thompson-Robinson can also utilize a tight end corps that Kelly said he would take over any other in the country.
Returners Mike Martinez, Michael Ezeike, Hudson Habermehl and David Priebe all feature enviable size and soft hands, resembling clones of one another in the spring. They will be joined by highly coveted freshmen Carsen Ryan and Jack Pedersen, allowing Kelly to use three or four tight ends on any given play.
Will the offensive line hold up?
Three-and-out could describe an offensive line that lost guard Paul Grattan Jr. and tackles Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson.
It also could describe UCLA’s offense if the Bruins can’t find capable replacements.
Rutgers transfer Raiqwon O’Neal, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in each of the last two seasons, is the presumed leader to take over at left tackle. That should leave a battle at right tackle between redshirt freshman Garrett DiGiorgio, redshirt junior Josh Carlin and converted defensive lineman Tyler Manoa.
UCLA football player Thomas Cole and his family explain how his mental health struggles escalated with the hope his story can help others.
There’s more certainty on the interior of the line with Gaines and fellow fifth-year senior Atonio Mafi at guard flanking senior center Duke Clemens. Sixth-year senior Sam Marrazzo also figures to play extensively after missing all but two games last season because of an undisclosed injury.
Significant regression from the offensive line must be avoided for the Bruins to match — or exceed — the Pac-12-leading 36.5 points they averaged last season.
Who will be the biggest impact transfer?
It could be a different player each week.
O’Neal might grab those honors in a sackless romp in which UCLA piles up an obscene amount of yards.
Maybe Muasau takes center stage — literally — the next game by clobbering one receiver after another coming over the middle of the field.
Under Armour will pay UCLA $67.491 million to settle the school’s lawsuit against the sports apparel giant, which terminated a 15-year, $280-million deal.
The Murphy twins will also vie for supremacy in this department, trying to top one another for most trips into the backfield that end in a tackle for loss.
Like its number of victories, when it comes to dominant newcomers, the Bruins can never have too many.