UCLA Football: seven predictions for the 2022 Bruins
Spring ball is over. The dog days of summer are upon us. That means it’s talkin’ season. Time to make predictions that will be laughably wrong and go out on completely unnecessary limbs all in the name of giving Freezing Cold Takes more Twitter fodder.
Here are seven predictions about the 2022 UCLA Bruins. Please save them for future enjoyment.
UCLA wins 10 games
I am as high on UCLA in 2022 as anyone you’ll find, short of the “UCLA is winning the natty” crowd. The thinking is two-fold:
No. 1: UCLA has an offensive trio that I think is as good as any in the conference.
The combination of Chip Kelly at the controls of the offense, Dorian Thompson-Robinson quarterbacking on the field, and Zach Charbonnet running people over from the tailback spot is a mixture of offensive goodness that maybe only one or two other teams have in the league.
Thompson-Robinson is a high-level quarterback with dual-threat ability and four years of banked reps to call on. He’s seen everything and knows this offense arguably as well as any player who has ever been in it, considering the COVID waiver to play a fifth year and the starting experience he possesses.
Charbonnet is the best individual running back in the Pac-12.
Kelly, I maintain, is still one of the brightest offensive minds in football. It wasn’t the Kelly component that failed UCLA in his early seasons, it was the defense. (Which, I guess, by extension you could lay at Kelly’s feet, but I digress.)
No. 2: have you looked at this schedule?
If the Bruins aren’t 5-0 when they turn over prep work for Utah, something has gone horribly wrong. The non-conference is as soft as any you’ll find at the Power Five level. The opening two games of Pac-12 play are against Colorado and Washington. Washington is hard to peg, but surely it’ll be better in November than it is at the end of September. And there are a grand total of four road trips on the schedule. Four. UCLA gets Utah and USC and Stanford at home. With Arizona State in turmoil and Colorado still at the bare bones stage of the rebuild, an Oct. 22 trip to Eugene is the only road game on the slate that isn’t, at worst, a probable win.
UCLA beats all the teams it’s supposed to. To get to 10, the Bruins have to win one of three against Utah, Oregon, and USC. Perfectly doable with the roster Kelly has on his hands. Others are rightfully skeptical after disappointing seasons under Kelly in the past, but there are simply no excuses this season.
Thompson-Robinson posts a third-straight season with a QBR over 70
In 2020 and 2021, the Bruin quarterback ranked 13th among qualified quarterbacks in ESPN’s catch-all QB metric. He’ll have another top-15 finish to cap his career. The super-senior has turned into one of the country’s best quarterbacks, and this upcoming season presents a rare opportunity. Few players have spent this much time and seen this many snaps in a Chip Kelly offense. That’ll prove to be a big plus for the Bruins.
Charbonnet, Thompson-Robinson lead a top-10 rushing attack
Without minimizing the contributions of Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich to the overall UCLA attack, I’m not as convinced as others that UCLA is going to need an adjustment period to recalibrate the offense.
When a team has a quarterback-running back pairing this talented, and the quarterback is a major threat to run the ball, the floor is going to be pretty high for what that attack can do.
UCLA had the seventh-most-successful ground game in the country last season, according to cfb-graphs.com, as Charbonnet ran for 1,137 yards and 13 scores while No. 2 back Brittain Brown put up 615 (at 6 yards per carry) and seven scores. The two complemented each other nicely. Charbonnet forced more missed tackles than anyone in the Pac-12 and tied with Travis Dye for the league lead in 20-yard pickups. Brown was a brute.
While the Bruins need to find a replacement for Brown, Charbonnet should be better in his second year with the program. That backup spot will likely continue to be a battle through fall camp. Fourth-year man Keegan Jones (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) and second-year back Deshun Murrell (5-11, 190) are in the mix for that spot. UCLA might not have the proven backfield depth of some of its Pac-12 peers, but it undoubtedly has the best top-line guy of anyone.
Per PFF, Charbonnet was one of only four running backs at the Power Five level to finish with at least 200 carries and no fumbles. He has every tool you want to see from a ground-and-pound back—size, patience, breakaway speed, vision. Pass-pro and route work as a receiver are areas that remain works in progress, but UCLA can lean on him and Thompson-Robinson in Kelly’s read game to produce another elite rushing attack.
Bill McGovern, other defensive changes provide more splash for the defense
For two years UCLA has brought pressure with little to show for it. The team hasn’t been able to generate enough splash plays. When you talk about UCLA underachieving under Kelly, lately it’s been a defensive issue.
UCLA ranked 79th nationally in havoc rate (tackles for loss, fumbles forced, passes defended), it ranked 92nd in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), and it ranked 100th in sack rate. On passing downs, they brought pressure but had one of the nine worst posted sack rates in football.
Mitchell Agude generated the fourth-most pressures among Pac-12 front-seven players last season, but no one else from the Bruin defense was in the top-25 and Agude has since left the program.
But change has been the defining characteristic of the defense’s offseason. Only three of the top 12 tacklers from last season return. Four of the five defensive assistants have changed, including defensive coordinator.
Bill McGovern takes over for Jerry Azzinaro. McGovern’s style is to bring his linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to help fill gaps and generate pressure. There wasn’t a ton of specificity in the spring about what things are going to look like come the fall, but if UCLA’s transfer additions are any indication, generating splash plays in opposing backfields is a major priority.
Three additions stand out: Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau and North Texas edge-rushing twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy.
The former is on my All-Bang the Drum Team as the exact kind of player who should do really well in McGovern’s defense. A two-time All-Mountain West First Team selection, Muasau has totaled 23.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, five pass breakups, five forced fumbles, and two interceptions in the last two seasons.
The Murphy twins combined for 24.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles as full-time starters just last season.
There are always a question as to how players will fare when they jump up a level, but all three of the aforementioned defenders have good size and a wealth of experience. They were big-time transfer options and UCLA should be much better with them on the field.
Darius Muasau is an all-conference linebacker
He’ll be on one of the top two teams.
Jake Bobo is a contested catch machine
The combo of Dulcich and Philips saw 159 targets last season. The No. 3 target for Thompson-Robinson drew only 33 (Chase Cota, now at Oregon). For two years in a row, Dulcich and Philips were no-hesitation go-to options for Thompson-Robinson. He’ll need to rely on someone new in 2022, and former Duke wideout Jake Bobo enters with a chance to immediately be that guy.
In four years with the Blue Devils, the 6-foot-5 Bobo caught 126 balls, including the sixth-most of any ACC player last season (74). He’s a big target, a throw-it-up kind of guy. And UCLA loves him.
Thompson-Robinson looked downfield on nearly a fifth of his pass attempts last season. Using PFF’s tracking data, DTR took 20-yard shots on 18% of his pass attempts in 2021 after doing so on only 11% of his passes in 2020 and 10% of his attempts in 2019.
The completion rate was low (receivers were credited with five drops of on-target passes) but the clear and obvious intent to push the ball downfield was nice. Thompson-Robinson threw the fewest screens of any qualified passer in the conference, much more likely to go play-action and scan downfield.
That, in tandem with the rushing success, helped UCLA to one of the best explosive play rates among Power Five teams.
I think Bobo can become that relied-upon target downfield. Kaz Allen could have a breakthrough kind of campaign as a complement to Bobo in high-low action, and Bobo could turn out to be one of the conference’s best jump ball guys. The Pac-12 leader in both contested targets and contested catches last season (PFF) was USC star Drake London. He had 26 such targets and 17 such catches. No other league player had 20 and 10.
Bobo reaches both in 2022.
UCLA finishes top-four in the Pac-12
It’ll start 5-0.
On Nov. 19, UCLA hosts USC and Oregon hosts Utah. That weekend will decide who plays for the league title on Dec. 2.