For once, Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn’t listen to Chip Kelly.
The quarterback surprised many by announcing in January he’d return to UCLA for a fifth season, skipping on an NFL opportunity (for now) so he could attend to unfinished business in Westwood.
First, he wants to obtain his degree. Then comes the next steps in UCLA’s long rebuilding process under Kelly.
“We left a whole lot on the table last year,” Thompson-Robinson said Tuesday after the Bruins had their first spring practice. “Definitely those four games we lost, plus the bowl game, is definitely hurting and definitely left a bad taste in our mouth.”
Thompson-Robinson helped turn the Bruins into the highest scoring offense in the Pac-12 last year, notching 36.5 points per game behind the best statistical season of his career. He completed 62.2% of his passes for 2,409 yards and 21 touchdowns, and, most importantly, the turnover-prone prospect had only six passes intercepted.
It led to UCLA’s first winning season under Kelly at 8-4, but missed out on their first bowl game since 2017 when the Holiday Bowl was canceled because of a Covid outbreak.
It looked like an unceremonious end for Thompson-Robinson’s UCLA career. Most observers figured he was a lock to leave for the NFL. After 37 games and three years as the starter, the Las Vegas native had already left a mark in UCLA’s record books, ranking fourth in total offense (8,456) and touchdown passes (61) and fifth in passing yards (7,541).
Central Florida transfer Dillion Gabriel, thinking the starting quarterback job would be open, committed to UCLA. Kelly advised Thompson-Robinson he was ready to make the jump.
No thanks, the quarterback said.
“That was the biggest part in me returning, listening to what [Kelly] had to say,” Thompson-Robinson said. “And he was actually the one encouraging me to leave, too, so that was pretty awkward at times, trying to talk to him about it. But it ended up working out.”
Thompson-Robinson returned despite an exodus of key teammates. Tight end Greg Dulcich, who was Thompson-Robinson’s longtime roommate, and Kyle Philips opted for the NFL and Chase Cota transferred to Oregon. The trio accounted for 64.5% of UCLA’s receiving yards and 69.6% of its receiving touchdowns.
Leading returning receiver Kazmeir Allen jumped into a starting role Tuesday, along with Logan Loya and Matt Sykes, who combined for three catches and 31 yards last year. Michael Ezeike was the No. 1 tight end.
Thompson-Robinson also worked behind two new offensive tackles. Garrett DiGiorgio and Josh Carlin are getting first shot at the starting left and right tackle positions, respectively, after Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson declared for the NFL draft.
Even without his proven teammates, Thompson-Robinson looked like a savvy veteran, pushing balls downfield and finding receivers in tight windows. While defenses often dominate early in training camps, the No. 1 offense seemed to hit its stride early behind its experienced signal-caller and star running back Zach Charbonnet.
Although Thompson-Robinson lost key receivers and offensive linemen, the mention of Charbonnet’s return brings a wide smile to the quarterback’s face. Once Thompson-Robinson heard the Michigan transfer was returning, it was “almost set in my mind that I was gonna come back,” Thompson-Robinson said.
Charbonnet led the Bruins with 1,137 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season and his 94.8 yards per game ranked second in the Pac-12.
Reserve defensive lineman Tyler Manoa has moved to offensive tackle. The former four-star prospect worked at right tackle with the No. 2 offensive line. He played in 11 games last season off the bench with five tackles and one sack.
Linebacker Ale Kaho missed practice with a lower leg injury. He was seen using a knee scooter on the field with a walking boot on his right leg.