LOS ANGELES — As more freshmen find their way onto the field for UCLA, it might seem like new Coach Chip Kelly is focused on the future.
However, Kelly insists his attention is on getting the Bruins a win, ideally against Fresno State on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
The answer could come when quarterback Wilton Speight is healthy enough to play again. The Michigan graduate transfer was a limited participant in the portion of practice open to reporters Monday, doing more than he has at any point since sustaining a back injury in the 26-17 loss to Cincinnati in UCLA’s season opener.
Kelly said Speight is not guaranteed to reclaim the starting job when he returns.
“There’s no promises to anybody,” Kelly said. “We want to make sure he’s healthy before we do anything.”
Dorian Thompson-Robinson made his first career start in a 49-21 loss at No. 5 Oklahoma on Saturday, completing 16 of 26 passes for 254 yards and one touchdown. But Kelly said he is not tempted to commit to the touted freshman and let Thompson-Robinson work through any growing pains.
“Our temptation is to beat Fresno,” Kelly said.
Youth Movement for Bruins?
Still, it looks as though UCLA (0-2) might be going with a youth movement against the Bulldogs (1-1) and beyond, even if it is not stated explicitly.
Thompson-Robinson took snaps from freshman center Christaphany Murray. Freshman running backs Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby each got 10 carries against the Sooners and combined for 78 yards rushing. Freshman receiver Chase Cota had four receptions for 45 yards and Michael Ezeike scored a touchdown on his first career catch.
A total of 13 freshmen played against Oklahoma, which Cota said is the product of putting Kelly’s teachings into action.
“A lot of us freshmen are playing now because we’re really keying into what he says and trying to be the best we can as a unit,” Cota said.
Cota enrolled early to participate in spring practice and was able to get any early jitters out against the Bearcats, opportunities that eluded Ezeike. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Ezeike made his college debut after a strong week of practice, but insisted there were no nerves playing for the first time on the road.
“Honestly, it wasn’t as difficult as it seems,” Ezeike said. “Actually, it was pretty exciting, just being out there. I was more exciting than nervous playing out there.”
Kelly said Ezeike earned his playing time and was hopeful he could build on the performance, something Cota said Thompson-Robinson was able to do after replacing Speight against the Bearcats.
“He just seems like a lot more relaxed the second game,’ Cota said. “You know he knew what the shots are going to feel like after the first game, so he knew going into it like, ‘Hey, this is going to be a battle.’ He was aware. I was aware. And he stayed composed through it all, and in the end he ended up playing better in the second half than the first half so you could tell that he was confident in himself.”
Cota was especially impressed with the leadership Thompson-Robinson displayed at Oklahoma and expects him to continue to develop with more playing time.
“He realizes he has to take us in like we’re his team, and I’ve bought into it,” Cota said. “I’m like, ‘Shoot, DTR is our leader right now,’ so it’s pretty special, and I think he’s doing a great job in that role.”
What Might Have Been for Bulldogs
On Saturday, Seth Green ran for two short touchdowns, including the game-winning 3-yard score late in the fourth quarter, and Antoine Winfield Jr. sealed it with an interception off a trick play in the end zone as Minnesota held off Fresno State 21-14.
On first-and-goal from the 4 with 1:18 to play, Bulldogs quarterback Marcus McMaryion handed off to fullback Josh Hokit, who floated a pass toward Jared Rice in the corner of the end zone.
But Winfield reached back with both hands, snagged the ball and somehow got his foot down in bounds for the touchback.
“I saw the ball come over and I just went high up under the ball,” said Winfield, who added he thought he was beaten on the play.
The Bulldogs successfully ran the same final play twice last year, with Hokit throwing a 65-yard touchdown pass against Incarnate Ward and a 16-yard score against Nevada. But Fresno State Coach Jeff Tedford said Saturday night’s pass was underthrown.
“It’s a play we’ve run before and we were comfortable running it,” McMaryion said. “You can’t blame it on the play call at all. We had our opportunities in the first half and we didn’t execute the way we should have.”