THE PRACTICE JERSEYS were not quite the same shade of Oregon green as the Ducks, but they would do. As Chip Kelly fielded questions from the media at the start of last week’s bye week for UCLA and said the Bruins wouldn’t start fully preparing for Oregon until the following week, members of the scout team slipped into the colored jerseys and prepared for practice.
“That’s a good discrepancy,” Kelly said, flashing a wry smile when asked about it. “I’ll have to go ask them about that. I know some of our guys like to jump ahead.”
It’s never too early to prepare in Kelly’s world. In fact, “preparation” and “process” might be the words the UCLA head coach has uttered the most this season as the Bruins have raced to a 6-0 start. To the world outside Westwood, UCLA’s success was somewhat unexpected. But to hear Kelly talk about it, there’s no real mystery, no drastic improvement or storybook energy behind the wins.
“I saw confidence in our group last year, so it’s not like this is new to us,” Kelly said.
For a process-based individual like Kelly, this has all been validation of what he preaches. But this season, UCLA has managed to marry that confidence with execution and now stands at the doorstep of beating its third ranked opponent in as many weeks: Kelly’s former team.
“It’s always special going back [to Eugene], it’s a special place in my life and there’s a lot of great people there that had a profound impact on my life,” Kelly said this week. “But I’m not playing the game.”
A return to Oregon for Kelly and Co. isn’t novel; Kelly and the Bruins have played at Autzen Stadium twice since he was hired and have yet to win against his former teams. As defensive back Stephan Blaylock said this week, there are no good memories of traveling to Oregon. Added quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who has only played in Eugene once during his freshman season: “We got our butts kicked. That wasn’t fun.”
The significance of another homecoming is heightened by the fact that the Bruins are starting to display shades of Kelly’s Oregon teams, including being led by a dynamic quarterback in Thompson-Robinson. Over the past two seasons, UCLA is 14-4 since the start of 2021 after going 10-21 in Kelly’s first three seasons. Offensively, UCLA has scored a touchdown on 40% of its offensive drives since last season. That number is good for third-best among Power 5 programs over that span, only surpassed by Ohio State and Tennessee.
“I think we’re just right on track with where we thought we were going to be,” Kelly said. “Our guys really do every day very well; they understand there’s a consistency to the process. They’ve been really good every Monday, they’ve been really good every Tuesday, every Wednesday, and that’s not easy. That’s easier said than done, but I think there’s a consistency to their preparation and that consistency pays off on Saturdays.”
Sounds simple enough, but the journey here has been anything but for the Bruins. If Kelly’s team is able to take down Oregon on Saturday, it will be the first time since 2001 that UCLA has beaten three ranked opponents in a season. It’s been 10 years since any Pac-12 team has done that in three straight games.
NO PLAYER HAS been privy to Kelly’s process, as well as the up-and-down nature of the game, more than Thompson-Robinson. The fifth-year senior has experienced all the peaks and valleys of the Kelly era since 2018, yet he has continued to come back. After last season, he decided to forego the NFL draft and not transfer to another program, choosing to return to UCLA and give it one more run. So far, the move has been vindicated — Thompson-Robinson is on the cusp of the Heisman Trophy conversation and has UCLA playing the part of a top-10 team.
“This is right where I thought we’d be heading into the season,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Personally, it’s what I envisioned for this team.”
At first glance, the partnership of coach and quarterback appears incongruent. Kelly goes above and beyond to extricate emotions from how he coaches, assesses and talks about his team. This week, when answering a question about Oregon’s evolution since the Georgia loss and whether they have changed, Kelly provided his ethos
“That’s kind of what we do, we try to take the emotion out of our game plan breakdowns,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson, on the other hand, runs on premium unleaded emotion. He doesn’t just wear it on his sleeve; his whole jersey is made out of it.
After UCLA beat a ranked Washington team at home to kick off this current run, Thompson-Robinson could barely talk postgame. His hoarse voice provided a sense of his intensity throughout the game, while his teary eyes painted a picture of how fulfilling the moment was given his journey. In fact, leading up to that game, he made it a point to go back and watch the UCLA-Washington game from his freshman season in which the Bruins lost 31-24.
“Seeing that kid,” Thompson-Robinson said, choking up, “seeing how we played against them and now bringing it to today and making sure that doesn’t happen again … a lot of nostalgia for sure.”
Kelly, for his part, said Thompson-Robinson had several great games during his career, refusing to make a comparison between this performance and others.
While Kelly said he has approached every week and opponent with the same mindset, Thompson-Robinson has talked plenty about the bad taste in his mouth after not being able to beat specific teams in the conference like Washington, Utah and now Oregon since arriving at UCLA. He’s been able to use this season as a mouthwash and any criticism he had received as motivation. Most notably, after beating UW, he said he had read all the criticism calling UCLA one of the worst 4-0 teams in the country.
It’s been like this for a while. The Las Vegas native, who played for high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman, recalls the chatter that always surrounded prep football in the area. Rankings, stories, columns — it was all part of the ecosystem of being a football player in the area.
“I think that’s just kind of what makes the game [of] football fun is you getting to be able to prove people wrong and to be able to say, ‘Hey, I told you so,'” Thompson-Robinson told ESPN with a smile. “Over the course of years, I’ve been having to deal with so much here that I haven’t even emphasized it that much. But obviously now that we’re winning and things are going the way we want, you know everything kind of opens up.”
What Thompson-Robinson has had to deal with has been a mixture of transition, his own growth (he was thrust into a starting role as a freshman), injuries and criticism (he was a four-star recruit out of high school). But the lowest point for him remains a near exact inverse of his current situation. During Thompson-Robinson’s freshman season, UCLA started 0-5.
“I had come from a winning program, somewhere where winning is all we do,” Thompson-Robinson said, referring to his time at Bishop Gorman. “We get here and [are] talked about so highly, and then the team is where it is, being 0-5, that was a real bit of a rough patch. Just having to deal with being a college athlete, with school, the fan base, my family, just the team, everything involved being just a freshman. That was a really rough time for me.”
Be it experience, offseason work, sudden clarity, criticism or a combination of it all, Thompson-Robinson has glided his way to his most productive season yet. In six games, Thompson Robinson has thrown for 1,510 yards, ran for 231 yards, thrown for 15 touchdowns and added four more scores with his legs, including plenty of highlight reel plays in the process. Heading into Week 6, Thompson-Robinson’s QB rating against Power 5 opponents was the best among Pac-12 quarterbacks by nearly 50 points.
“I just think the one thing that I love about him is he’s a lifelong learner,” Kelly said. “He gets better every single day; he’s always trying to get better and he has that mentality. I don’t think he ever thinks he’s arrived; he’s always trying to — ‘Can I get better at this, can I work at this?’ And it’s neat to see his growth over that time. He’s got a world of talent.”
The biggest leap Thompson-Robinson has made so far has been in ball protection. After four seasons of totaling 26 interceptions, Thompson-Robinson has thrown only two this season. Players who have been at UCLA for as long as he has have noticed the level of comfort and confidence Thompson-Robinson seems to have adopted this year and how it’s trickled down to the rest of the team. When he was asked this week who he believed were some of the smarter guys on the team, he quickly quipped: “Besides me?” before chuckling and mentioning his entire offensive line.
ON WEDNESDAY, THE preparation for Saturday’s game continued. Temperatures in Los Angeles reached over 90 degrees, but Kelly was out on the UCLA practice field taking water bottles and squirting them onto the hands of returners before they caught the ball on kickoff returns. Rain is in the forecast for Eugene.
Once upon a time, the kind of offensive efficiency UCLA is displaying was the defining characteristic of those Kelly-led Oregon teams, which upset teams like Pete Carroll’s USC squads by simply outscoring them.
It has taken Kelly some time — perhaps longer than many expected — to build that same kind of continuity and foundation at UCLA. But this season, the combination of experience, consistency and new additions have coalesced just right to create a contender. Or, according to Kelly, a team that can benefit from being able to lead itself.
“Any time you have a player-led team and not a coach-led team, that’s really what we all strive for,” Kelly said. “But you got to have players that can lead the room, that’s what we’re really fortunate to have is that our older group of guys is outstanding in that aspect.”
Kelly has been adamant about not leaning into the emotion in this week’s matchup, reiterating that this is where he expected the Bruins to be. But it’s evident that the effect of players like running back Zach Charbonnet, Gaines, Blaylock and more who have been with the program for a few years has created a continuity that’s working to their advantage on both sides of the ball.
“The defense in the past years, when we needed to step up, we didn’t step up,'” Blaylock said. This season, the Bruins have one of the best 25 defenses in the country, per expected points added. “This year, we’re showing that in those moments we step up … so that takes the pressure off of Dorian. It makes him feel a little bit more confident about his play.”
Thompson-Robinson looks back on his early play as a Bruin as learning experiences instead of failures.
“My earlier years, I had a lot of flash plays, as well as some plays that I’d like to take back,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I’ve learned from those flash plays. And I’ve also learned from the plays where I got sacked 20 yards behind the line.”
Those sacks and turnovers have been few and far between this season, but the fact that they linger on his mind provides an insight into the mindset of this Bruins team. It already has seen rock bottom and been through it. Or as Kelly would say, the Bruins have been through the process. Now, they get to build on their results.
“You can’t replace experience,” Gaines said. “You got to get knocked down to get back up, learn from your mistakes. And I think that’s been a great thing for us.”