UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson is right where he wants to be
Dorian Thompson-Robinson can see where he was four years ago when he looks at 2022 signee Justyn Martin. The freshman from Inglewood is on campus and going through spring ball with the Bruins, which began Tuesday.
There won’t be a ton of first-team snaps to be had though. Maybe UCLA initially planned to have to spend this time finding a new quarterback to take the reins. That can be put on hold for another year. The young guys in the room can take their time learning the system.
UCLA’s leader is back for one more go-around.
Thompson-Robinson has seen the full gamut of the college experience. A target of frustration turned fan favorite. A struggle turned success. A youngster turned leader.
The 6-foot-1 quarterback from Las Vegas is taking part in his fourth spring as a member of the Bruins. In the fall, he’ll start his fifth year behind center and give UCLA one of the country’s most experienced quarterbacks as it seeks out a Pac-12 South title. The COVID-19 pandemic gave Thompson-Robinson an extra year if he wanted it. Turns out he did.
But this wasn’t a situation where he always knew which way he was leaning—his college home or a trip back to Vegas for the 2022 NFL Draft. No, this was something he had to pour over.
“A lot of things went into it,” he told reporters on Tuesday, per SI’s Sam Connon.
Maybe it comes as a surprise to learn that one of the voices saying “test the NFL” was Thompson-Robinson’s head coach.
No, of course Chip Kelly wasn’t telling Thompson-Robinson to kick rocks. The Bruins’ head man should be thrilled his quarterback is back for one final ride. Surely he is.
The relationship between a coach and a quarterback is a special one—the leader of the team and the extension of that voice between the lines. It’s especially true if that head coach has his efforts and energy as invested in the offensive side of the attack as Kelly does with the Bruins. Coaches talk about teams growing and bonding and eventually feeling likes sons.
Quarterbacks become extensions of self. You grow to want what’s best for the person, sometimes even if it’s at the expense of your team.
“That’s where I knew he was coming from,” Thompson-Robinson said.
With tight end Greg Dulcich and wideout Kyle Philips officially venturing into the NFL waters, Thompson-Robinson was losing his favorite receiving options and two close friends.
Those two caught a combined 240 balls while in a UCLA uniform. In each of the last two years, they were first and second in UCLA’s major receiving categories. An outsider looks at UCLA’s roster and thinks, “They’ve got options to replace those two.” It’s not that simple for the quarterback.
That kind of time together builds a sort of mind-meld. Thompson-Robinson knows where Dulcich will be. Philips knows when the ball’s coming. DTR is still in those guys’ ears when they’re around the facility asking about the draft process. Prep for next year.
He wanted his degree, though. That’s coming, and he didn’t want to leave Westwood without it.
But here was Kelly talking about the NFL.
“That was pretty awkward at times trying to talk to him about it,” Thompson-Robinson said with a smile. “He let me know from the beginning that he wants the best for me. … Me having to really take a look at that next step and evaluate all my options was really big. Hearing that from him as well as some of the other people I really look up to kind of saying some of the same things and stuff like that made me consider wanting to leave, but ultimately I felt like this was the place for me.”
Take Thompson-Robinson’s word for it.
The draft-eligible quarterbacks in 2023 feature Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Spencer Rattler, and Jake Haener at the top of the list. Any one of those guys would be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 field. The ’23 crop is deeper, too.
That Thompson-Robinson is putting a run at the league on hold for a year might say more about his desire to get UCLA over the top than it does anything else.
Of course, it helped that if he did decide to come back, he knew he’d have his backfield running mate alongside him once again.
“As soon as he told me he was coming back, it was kind of pretty much set in my mind that I was going to come back and join him,” Thompson-Robinson said of tailback Zach Charbonnet’s decision to return for 2022.
The DTR-Charbonnet backfield was a significant weapon last season for UCLA.
Kelly has been at his best when he’s had a punishing ground game upon which to build, and the backfield last season gave him exactly that. Charbonnet ran for 1,137 yards and 13 scores, finishing third in the Pac-12 in yardage. Only seven guys in college football forced more missed tackles, according to PFF, than Charbonnet. He led the Pac-12 in 20-yard gains and posted the best PFF run grade by a qualified tailback in five years.
The lightning to his thunder, Brittain Brown ran for 615 yards and seven scores on 102 carries (6 yards per).
The run element that Thompson-Robinson provides made things juicy for the Bruins. He’s evasive and effortless when running. The arm strength is impressive, and his ability to drive passes and generate force on his throws even when working without a set base makes the Bruins’ play-action game deadly.
Roughly a third of his dropbacks came in play-action situations, and Kedon Slovis was the only qualified Pac-12 thrower with a higher completion rate on such throws. DTR converted 68% of his play-action passes, per PFF, for 1,035 yards and nine touchdowns.
Pretty good. It’s not hard to see why Thompson-Robinson enjoyed playing next to Charbonnet so much. He faced the blitz slightly less often last season compared to 2020, and at a rate nearly seven percentage points less than what he saw in 2019. In fact, among qualified quarterbacks, Thompson-Robinson was the least blitzed guy in the Pac-12 last season.
“I love Zach, we’ve gotten so (much) closer over this offseason, and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do this year,” Thompson-Robinson said. “It’s going to be a special one for sure.”
Not just for Charbonnet, though. When the Bruin offense caught its stride over the final three games of the 2021 season, Thompson-Robinson was averaging more than 9 yards a play and completing 70% of his passes. He totaled 1,016 yards and 10 scores in three games, all UCLA wins.
Few were hotter.
Kelly’s offense has spurtability. Thompson-Robinson’s game can generate magic.
Yes, another step for the team overall will be heavily contingent on the defense, but in spite of what needs replacing, the UCLA offense has loads of potential.
To his credit, Thompson-Robinson’s mind isn’t on personal acclaim as he prepares for the new year.
“I think we left a whole lot on the table last year,” he said. “Those four games that we lost plus the bowl game definitely hurt and definitely left a bad taste in our mouth, so we’ve got some things we want to prove still. I haven’t gotten a ring yet.”
In that regard, Kelly’s pitch for Thompson-Robinson to try and jump to the NFL seems to have been a bit premature. Thompson-Robinson isn’t looking at just himself right now.
There are a few boxes left to check.