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Duck Dive: UCLA Football 2021 Preview

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Going deep with the Bruins’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Stanford Cardinal defeated the UCLA Bruins 48-47 in overtime during a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bow. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Special thanks to David Woods of Bruin Report Online and the Podcast of Champions the for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the UCLA roster. Listen HERE.


Offense

‘The backup quarterback is the most popular guy on the team,’ as the old saying goes … and at UCLA for good reason.

#1 QB Thompson-Robinson, a former 4-star who’s been the starter since his true freshman season in 2018 but has missed sustantial time each year with injuries, only took about 60% of meaningful snaps in 2020. When he was in the offense was shockingly complex with a changing playbook every week, but it’s an overall balanced one in terms of run/pass splits - slightly biased to throwing the ball, but with a 50/50 success rate, given the down & distance, at both rushing and passing plays.

However when backup #11 QB Griffin came in for the other 40% of snaps, the offense simplified considerably. It switched to a heavy zone-read rushing playbook that somewhat resembled a basic version of the Blur offense HC Kelly ran at Oregon for years, with more than two-thirds of plays as designed runs. While the passing efficiency certainly dipped to only 44% per-play effectiveness, the explosive passing rate more than doubled to 15% of dropbacks, and the rushing efficiency jumped to 57%. That meant an overall per-play efficiency rate of 53% with Griffin, a three-point bump, and one more long touchdown pass despite 80 fewer dropbacks outside of garbage time.

There’s a long discussion on the podcast of this “maddening” phenomenon, to use David’s term, a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having for the last several years about Kelly’s counterproductively complicated playbook. I don’t think it’s because Griffin is a superior quarterback to Thompson-Robinson — in fact every aspect of his game from arm talent to scrambling is inferior and the guy was a low 3-star in the 2019 cycle for a reason — and I have no doubt that the starter’s job is secure. It does cast some doubt on whether the 2020 4-star #9 QB McQuarrie will ever see the field, since he was passed up for backup reps, another 4-star from the same year in #10 QB Garbers has transferred from Washington, and David was generally dismissive of what he’s seen from McQuarrie in practices. I think Griffin still has the backup position locked down because of proven effectiveness, but it’s more likely that Garbers or 2021 mid 3-star #15 QB Hollawayne challenges him for that job.

USC v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The most significant departure on the offense is #10 RB Felton, who was both the leading rusher and third leading receiver in 2020 - the “do-everything” back that this offense needs. However despite the loss of Felton and two other deep backups, I think the running back room will continue to be the strength of the team. They return Duke transfer #28 RB B. Brown, who was nearly as productive as Felton, and #22 RB K. Jones, who was Brown’s backup when Felton was out and just as effective at finding holes and breaking tackles as the guys ahead of him.

UCLA is also bringing in a transfer, former high 4-star #24 RB Charbonnet, who averaged 5.1 ypc on 168 rushes the last two seasons at Michigan. The offense is fairly different in Ann Arbor and I think they have a much better offensive line there as well, so it remains to be seen if he can replicate Felton’s ability to make something out of nothing, but I still believe he’ll be very productive in Los Angeles. They’ve also moved speedster #36 RB Fernea, a former walk-on now on scholarship in his fifth season, over from the receivers, plus they have two 3-stars from the 2019 and 2021 classes for depth.

I think the net effect here is neutral. Felton is a big loss but Charbonnet is a big gain, and I’d have expected their returners to be pretty good even without the addition. This team already leaned heavily on their tailbacks last year such that I don’t think they’re going to squeeze much extra production out of the unit, and I think that the strengths and weaknesses of Kelly’s play design are far more determinative of their offensive success than the backs’ talent.

The wideouts return their top three producers in the unit in #2 WR Philips, #29 WR Hurt, and #23 WR Cota, plus three more backups including #7 WR Yankoff, the transfer from Washington who converted from quarterback whom David and I discussed a bit. Philips is the slot guy and can be thought of as simply the default receiver - he had 12 more receptions than the rest of the 2020 wide receivers combined, and David’s characterization of him is “solid if unspectacular.” There are a couple of departures here, #18 WR C. Njoku and #15 WR Erwin, but they brought in five more including a transfer from Texas A&M, #0 WR K. Brown, and they’ve converted #19 WR Allen from a tailback.

This unit really doesn’t rotate much, and between multiple-TE and multiple-RB sets they don’t field many at the same time either. Depth should be fine given all the bodies and I think they could even handle a Philips unavailability because he’s not really doing anything special to make all those catches happen, the offense just sets up any slot receiver for that many targets. As David put it, “this is not in any way a receiver-led offense.”

I do think the offense is heavily dependent on #85 TE Dulcich, however - he’s their leading receiver and the deep option on seam routes and other passes in which the offense is trying to scheme someone open. It’s remarkable what he’s accomplished as a former walk-on in the last two seasons, and he may even leave early for the NFL at the end of the year.

The other frequently seen tight end is #88 TE Martinez, who can block adequately but has bricks for hands … David has been trying to sell me on him switching to offensive tackle for the last two years. #82 TE E. Njoku (brother of the WR) has also transferred from the program. This offseason UCLA converted a former wideout, #21 TE Ezeike, who was used sparingly in 2018 and not at all over the last two years - he’s tall enough but not currently listed at the right weight for a tight end who can block (though UCLA is notoriously slow to update their official site, something David and I railed against for quite a while on the podcast). The only other tight end in the room is #83 TE Priebe, a mid 3-star from 2018 who’s never seen the field in the last three years and David says hasn’t caught anyone’s attention in practice.

Four scholarship tight ends — there are four other walk-ons but each is undersized, unlike Dulcich — is totally insufficient depth for an offense that wants to run this many 12- and 22- personnel sets, let alone the 13- and 14-personnel sets we saw some of in the last two years. That only one is actually productive, and the other three either can’t or haven’t caught anything, constitutes even worse roster management. Any unavailability to Dulcich would be devastating to the offense, I think, because as far as I’ve seen on film he’s the only tight end they have who can both block and catch passes, and that’s an absolutely essential position for this offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Stanford at UCLA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UCLA returns all seven of the offensive linemen in last year’s rotation. The tackles on every snap were #74 LT Rhyan, a high 4-star and the only real talent in the unit who’s played well for several years, and #70 RT Anderson, who was previously a backup but got the full time job when longtime starting right tackle Jake Burton opted out and has now left for the NFL.

The interior line had a lot more rotation. Snapping duty rotated between #64 C Marrazzo, a former walk-on, and #62 RG Clemens, who’s now going into his third year as a starting guard. They brought in #55 LG Grattan, an unranked grad transfer from Villanova, late in the last offseason, and that kept longtime backup #57 OG Gaines on the bench except when an injury to Marrazzo caused Clemens to move to center and Gaines had to fill in at right guard. They also converted a massive defensive tackle to offensive guard for certain packages, #56 LG Mafi, about whom David’s colleage Chris Osgood and I had a fun discussion.

All but Mafi were starters or experienced backups in 2019 as well, which means this will be a veteran line with a lot of depth at center and guard, plus possibly the best LT in the league for 2021. Linemen are generally the smartest guys on the team and David and I joked about how they must be geniuses to have executed Kelly’s playbook as well as they did. As such I think this’ll be one of the better lines in the conference.

That said, I don’t think it’ll be an elite one, because outside of Rhyan there’s really very little talent in the unit - two starters were unranked and the remaining four in the rotation are all low-to-mid 3-stars, and frequent protection breakdowns are by far the most frequent cause of drives stalling out on my tally sheet (which must be a relief for Thompson-Robinson, since in 2019 it was him inexplicably turning the ball over or scrambling backwards for a 20-yard sack, which were much less frequent in 2020). In particular I thought Anderson was the weakest link and the whole right side of the line got rolled up a lot.

The backups here are also a mix of low 3-stars and walk-ons, which is surprising for a team in Los Angeles. David thinks Anderson’s job is in no jeopardy at all because there are no obvious choices to replace him, but that also means that the tackles — unlike the guards — are possibly in a precarious depth situation. I think the most likely guys to take over at tackle if something happens are #78 OT Gramlick, a walk-on, or #55 OT Cole, a high 3-star true freshman. We saw both during the Spring game and I think neither are at replacement level right now.


USC v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Defense

It seems clear at this point, after a lot of speculation in my UCLA previews last Summer and Fall, that Kelly brought in DB coach Norwood from Navy to restructure and run the defense, even though DC Azzinaro retains the title and the staff won’t publicly confirm the change. It’s a defense where the front and back ends can be called separately and so there’s a possibility that Azzinaro — a former DL coach for Oregon and a pretty good one at that, despite clearly not being up to the job as coordinator — is still making the line calls while Norwood calls the secondary and backers at depth. But regardless, it’s an entirely new defensive approach from 2020 onward, and as David put it on the podcast, “Norwood is the brains of this operation.”

It’s difficult to describe the structure in traditional terms, but it’s probably best understood as a 4-2-5 with a “Raider” OLB to the boundary and a “Striker” DB to the field, and the tension between the two creating exotic blitz opportunities. At the beginning of the year these unconventional pressures were effective at confusing offenses, but as David pointed out they were less and less effective as opponents got film on it and by the end of the season it was a pretty “one-note” defense.

I think the novelty wearing off is only a partial explanation though. I’ve charted every snap UCLA took last year and on my tally sheet the player who was most determinative of the Bruins’ success was the most conventional of all: #92 DL Odighizuwa, who rebounded from a poor first outing against Colorado and was a dominant defensive lineman for the rest of the season. His backup, #97 DL Isibor, was far less effective, and when he got hurt midseason and Odighizuwa was forced to play more often, it seems like the fatigue factor dragged his performance down. As a result the rest of the defense that’s so dependent on him also collapsed, especially in the 4th quarter in their last few games.

Odighizuwa was drafted by the Cowboys, and while UCLA returns just about every other defensive lineman who’s played over the last two years and had a few recruiting coups at the position, I don’t think they’ll be able to replace him and as such I think the defense as a whole won’t get the second-year bump common to new installs and in fact may take a noticeable step back.

The candidates to replace him each have a pretty big knock on them. We’ve seen Isibor before and he’s about 20 lbs too light for the job. UCLA brought in a Juco the previous year, #58 DL D. Jackson, who’s closer to the right weight, but neither David nor I have been impressed with him so far. I wouldn’t have considered him because I’ve never really seen him play, but David mentioned #44 DL Andrus as a possibility since he’s the right size, but he’s been injured his entire career and it’s possible he’ll retire instead of playing at all. They converted three linebackers from the 2019 cycle to DL, but they’re all currently listed at 25 to 45 lbs underweight for the position and haven’t played. #94 DL Magna, a walk-on from the 2019 cycle, got several reps in 2020, which I think is indicative of where the depth of this position is at.

The other down lineman position in this defense is in better shape, although it’s less structurally important as it’s really more of a space-eater position. Both starter #91 DL Ogbonnia and backup #50 DL Manoa return, who are the right size for the job. After Spring practice ended for both teams, UCLA flipped Jay Toia, a 4-star in the 2021 class, from USC - that was a new one on me. Toia would probably have been vital to the Trojans since they really need a big man up front, and at 325 lbs and reportedly very talented Toia qualifies. But between the possibility that USC puts a hold on his eligibility and the fact that there are two veterans ahead of him, I suspect we won’t see him play in 2021 for the Bruins. At any rate, the depth at this type of lineman doesn’t help with the likely lack of disruption that losing Odighizuwa creates.

Besides Toia, UCLA took six other defensive linemen in the 2021 cycle. However, only one made it to campus for Spring practice, #92 DL Somerville, and he’s listed at 230 lbs so it’s unlikely he’ll be at playing weight soon. David thinks we won’t see any on the field next year.

USC v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Linebackers in this defensive structure would be a confusing situation under the best of circumstances, but unexpected roster management moves have made it doubly so. Let’s start with the best understood, which is the Raider position, played predominantly by #35 OLB C. Jones. He’s a converted safety and understands the position well, and was probably the biggest beneficiary of the scheme change, generating twice as many sacks/TFLs in seven games last year as he did all season the year before. We can also be reasonably certain that #40 ILB C. Johnson, the team’s leading tackler, will continue as a starter inside.

From there it starts to get tough to figure out. The team suffered a real crisis at the other inside backer spot, where #33 ILB Calvert simply wasn’t living up to his 4-star billing and by the end of the year wasn’t playing at all, with the team going to something like a 4-1-6 in their last game against Stanford (a particularly poor choice against a power rushing team that likes to deploy 23-personnel). At times we also saw #0 LB Sellers playing ILB, OLB, and DE, and I don’t think his lanky body type is a good fit for any spot in this defensive scheme - I suspect both of these former 4-stars may consider a transfer soon. Everybody else who’s returning is a low 3-star and either hasn’t played or hasn’t played well.

The end result is that despite taking a dozen (!) linebackers in the 2020 class, I believe the other inside spot will go to transfer #15 ILB Genmark Heath from Notre Dame. He was a mid 3-star safety in the 2017 class, but converted to a linebacker and played as a backup for three seasons of the last four years, missing 2020. He only has 41 tackles in his career but I thought he looked the most competent of the bunch in the UCLA Spring game. I’m not sure what the depth is like here, since there hasn’t been much playing time to go around and they’ve had multiple departures from the team, including #26 LB Toailoa who had been playing since 2016 and two of the 2020 recruits that David and I talked about as possibilities last summer.

The other outside backer spot is also a mess. We’ll probably see #45 OLB Agude playing all over the line of scrimmage as a quasi-DL. David’s been talking about #20 LB Medrano for a couple of years now; he’s a big guy and certainly looks the part but he’s frequently out of position (so far as I can discern assignments in this scheme) and has been ineffective. We also saw a bit of #9 OLB Bryant-Strother and #25 OLB M. Jackson, both 3-stars from the 2020 cycle, but not extensively and I believe both were unavailable for stretches during the season. UCLA took yet another transfer here, #10 OLB Kaho from Alabama - he was a high 4-star in 2018 but didn’t play much for the Tide and 24/7 downgraded him to a low 3-star as a transfer, and I didn’t think he looked great in the Spring game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Stanford at UCLA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Striker position was played on almost every snap by #24 DB Knight, a transfer last year from Kent St. There’s a lot of range to the responsibilities here as well as a lot of pre-snap motion which usually ends with him about four yards off the line and six yards laterally outside of the DE/OLB. That’s sometimes because his assignment is to cover a slot receiver (although I think Knight’s coverage ability is modest), but more often the free safety spins down and Knight goes for QB or back, and in that sense isn’t a typical nickel DB. On most reps that safety was #4 DB Blaylock, a former 4-star from the 2018 class who played as a true freshman - I haven’t been impressed with him in three years of film study and David was audibly even less enthused, calling him the second worst defensive player on the squad (stiff competition, to be sure).

On the boundary side when they’re in their standard nickel look the Raider and strong safety, #37 DB Lake, tend to keep outside spills contained well. In their dime look they bring in backup #21 DB Vaughns as a quasi-LB, and paradoxically coverage gets worse because these three have to form a triangle in coverage and I’ve repeatedly seen them leave the hole open. The reconfiguration of the defensive structure seems to have left longtime starter #30 DB Guidry in a redundancy with Blaylock at free safety, though Guidry has graded out better on my tally sheet in the past so I don’t understand why he’s not the starter instead.

Depth is certainly not an issue at safety - there are fourteen (!) other players here, including two transfers, two walk-ons with substantial minutes, and two converts from other positions. Six of those are mid-to-high 3-stars and I don’t think there would be a serious falloff if they had to come in, though a) that’s not saying much, b) there’s not much impressive film on any of them, and c) I have no idea if the coaches are being rational or not in dumping so many additional bodies into this room.

On paper the cornerbacks in 2020 should have been a good unit, with 4-star upperclassman #12 CB Gates, 4-star transfer #22 CB Eboh, and experienced high 3-stars #3 CB R. Williams and #1 CB Shaw as backups.

That’s not how it went at all. Gates has been a complete liability since sometime in the middle of 2019, and both he and Williams have now transferred out. Eboh was terrible at Stanford and somehow got worse at UCLA; he’s now the backup boundary corner behind low 3-star #7 CB Osling, who passed him up midseason last year but missed Spring practice. Shaw looks like he’ll be the starter to the field, though I think true freshman 4-star #26 CB Kirkwood is more talented, and David and I doubt UCLA will get this one right anytime soon.

The other curious thing about the secondary is that despite the staffing and scheme change, I’m still seeing what I did back in 2018, which is way more press man coverage than I would have expected given the talent. It wasn’t really working out in the first two seasons when they had a blitz rate at around the Pac-12 average, but in 2020 their frequent use of DB pressure left them with no help at all, and the deep middle particularly to the field side got left wide open a lot. It’s like watching a 2-3 zone defense in basketball - opponents who can hit it deep get to score at will.


USC v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

Last year’s preview of UCLA turned out to be as accurate it could have been - with Kelly’s madhouse playbook, disguised coordinator change, and bonkers roster management, I beg the reader to be graded on a curve. I think the closest to a black eye that I took was predicting that Thompson-Robinson would never be anything but a liability. It’s true that the offense did better without him and that 4.5 games he played is probably too small a sample size to be worth adjusting the priors, but his NCAA passer rating was the top in the conference and he had mostly gotten over the constant turnover problem that had doomed his career in the first two years. I called the offensive line rotation exactly, with the exception that Grattan transferred from Villanova and Burton opted out a week after publishing. My prediction for the running backs — that the previous primary backs besides Felton would be supplanted by the transfer and a walk-on — was spot on. I also nailed every one of the receivers, including one of them switching to tight end.

I nailed every one of the defensive positions except the most eye-catching one, which was the Striker position played by the Kent St transfer Knight - nobody saw that move coming, including David and his colleagues at Bruin Report Online. I thought he was undersized for a hybrid S/LB role (and still do) but I should have dived deeper into Norwood’s scheme to see if they were taking him for a unique role. Otherwise this was a pretty perfect score - I called every one of the d-linemen, outside backers, and inside backers correctly, including highlighting Odighizuwa and pointing out the schematic conflict with players like Sellers and Vaughns causing them to be mostly left out. I got the secondary personnel mostly right, although that wasn’t hard given that they were returning most of their starters from the last two years, but I did accurately predict that Gates was done playing after becoming a liability and that Eboh wouldn’t be playing by the end of the year because UCLA would learn what Stanford already had.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Oklahoma at UCLA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Personal Note

Last night we learned that longtime UCLA coach Terry Donahue passed away after a long battle with cancer. Over his 20-year tenure with the Bruins he won 151 games, and has the most conference wins of any coach in the history of the league. My fondest memory of his UCLA teams was in 1990, when the Ducks won on what would be Bill Musgrave’s final pass in Eugene and the only time Oregon ever beat Donahue at home. His teams would never quit on him and like most of his games it went to the wire - maybe the most thrilling game I’ve ever seen in Autzen. He will be missed.


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