Posted on July 10, 2023
This UCLA preseason football preview is the fifth of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 26th.
Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.
UCLA enters its final season in the Pac-12 with new faces at the offensive skill positions.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet, wide receiver Jake Bobo, and wide receiver Kazmeir Allen are all no longer with the program.
The four players led UCLA in yards from scrimmage, combining for 3,748 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Combined with DTR’s 27 touchdown passes, the production lost from the nation’s No. 4 offense in yards per game is staggering.
But Chip Kelly reloaded via the transfer portal and traditional recruiting.
The Bruins brought in the No. 10 transfer class in the country, per 247Sports, and the No. 25 recruiting class.
Highlighted by the nation’s No. 1 running back transfer Carson Steele and the No. 5 freshman recruit in five-star quarterback Dante Moore, the cupboard in Westwood has been refilled.
New defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn hits the ground running and improves UCLA’s No. 90 scoring defense.
Last season, the Bruins’ “D” was schematically improved by former coordinator Bill McGovern until health issues forced him to take a step back from coaching.
Copying the success of hiring a coach from the NFL, Kelly brought in the safety coach from the Baltimore Ravens.
The professional pedigree of Lynn should shine through in his scheme and game planning.
The knowledge brought from the NFL markedly improved UCLA’s defense under McGovern, and Kelly is banking on the same process repeating with Lynn.
Unlike some coaches with experience exclusively in the college game, former professional coaches tend to extract more out of their players—whether it be through schemes, game planning, or skill development.
At just 33 years old, Lynn should be able to effectively build trust and confidence in his players while getting them to buy into his system.
He consistently climbed the ranks in the NFL and knows this opportunity is key to his future.
The result should be a dedicated, detail-oriented approach with elite game planning and focused schematics.
And with the Bruins projected to not miss much of a beat on offense, noticeable improvement in the defense could result in a 10-win season.
Worst Case Scenario
UCLA returns two starters along the offensive line and must replace three players to fill the gaps.
To do so, Kelly hit the transfer portal.
Colorado’s Jake Wiley, Old Dominion’s Khadere Kounta, and Purdue’s Spencer Holstege have been brought in.
All three-star transfer prospects per 247Sports, the trio must quickly develop chemistry with returning starters Duke Clemens and Garret DiGiorgio.
The top teams in the Pac-12 all have one characteristic in common: strong offensive lines. Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, and Washington have set the standard in the league, and the Bruins must keep up.
If the new transfers don’t mesh well with the returning starters, the Bruins could be in trouble.
Kelly reeled in the No. 6 transfer wide receiver during the 2023 cycle in California’s J. Michael Sturdivant while also bringing in four-star USC transfer receiver Kyle Ford.
Combined with the top running back transfer in Steele, UCLA has the weapons at the skill position to thrive.
Yet, all that skill can be wasted if the line play is poor.
If the O-Line struggles, the Bruins could drop games to Utah, Oregon State, USC, and Arizona to finish a disappointing 8-4.
What Should Happen
Kelly’s offense should thrive under the new faces.
The competition in the quarterback room is healthy and should produce a tested leader. Moore is the No. 3 freshman quarterback in the nation, per 247Sports, and he will battle with four-star transfer Collin Schlee.
Schlee is rated at the No. 9 quarterback transfer in the 2023 cycle and could end up as the starter in Westwood.
Whichever player gets the nod should effectively operate Kelly’s scheme.
With a roughly 55/45 run-pass split last year, the UCLA offense was more balanced than it’s given credit for. Perceived as a run-heavy scheme, the running backs get most of the praise.
Steele should fit right in after rushing for 1,556 yards last season with 14 touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry. The Ball State transfer is rated as the top RB in the cycle and the No. 27 overall transfer in the class.
Keegan Jones and T.J. Harden return, too, after combining for 645 yards rushing and seven total touchdowns last season.
All told, the quarterback/running back combination should once again be among the top in the Pac-12.
At the receiver spot, Sturdivant and Ford have been added to the mix. Kelly’s scheme is generally effective with just a single star receiver carrying the load.
Sturdivant appears to be primed for the role this year, although Kam Brown, Logan Loya, and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala should contribute as well.
And at tight end, Oregon transfer Moliki Matavao has been reeled in from Eugene.
At the end of the day, the UCLA offense has restocked and reloaded. There may be somewhat of a transition period before it reaches its peak, but the Bruin offense should be strong once again.
What Must Happen
The defense has to improve.
The Bruins return seven starters on “D” and arguably have the Pac-12’s top linebacker in Darius Muasau. JonJon Vaughns returns, as well, after posting 53 tackles and two interceptions last season.
Kelly added high three-star transfer California linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo, too, which should help make UCLA’s linebacker corps among the Conference’s best.
Along the line, the Bruins have one of the league’s top defensive linemen in Laiatu Latu.
Kelly focused his transfer efforts on padding his unit up front, bringing in three-star Oregon transfer Keanu Williams.
Combined with returning linemen Grayson Murphy, Gabriel Murphy, and Jay Toia, the Bruins have the front seven to compete with anyone in the Pac-12.
But the secondary is a relative weakness.
Devin Kirkwood and Jaylin Davies headline the returning starters. The duo combined for five forced turnovers last season.
Four-star safety transfer Jordan Anderson has been brought in from Bowling Green, too, and should help elevate the defensive back room.
Yet, until the defense consistently takes a step forward, the ceiling of UCLA’s season is somewhat limited.
Top to bottom the Bruins’ roster is strong.
There are plenty of weapons at the offensive skill positions and elite individual players on defense.
Outside of the offensive line, there are no apparent flaws on that side of the ball.
The starting quarterback role is an open question at this point in the summer, but Kelly has two strong options in Moore and Schlee. Backup Ethan Garbers is in the mix, too, and is the QB most familiar with Kelly’s system.
But, the team’s greatest strength is arguably its front seven.
The defensive linemen and linebacker corps combine to make one of the elite units in the league. Muasau and Latu are among the best in the Pac-12 at their positions and each has a strong supporting cast around them.
When the D-Line and LB units are combined together, UCLA has one of the most complete groups in the Conference.
Kelly’s offensive line has been one of his team’s reliable strengths over the last few seasons.
But this year could be a different story. Only two starters return, and the O-Line was restocked via the transfer portal.
Added with the addition of a new starting quarterback and a transfer expected to start at running back, the chemistry between the three groups is frankly non-existent.
There’s not much familiarity between the players and it might take a couple of games before the units sync.
And until they show it on the field, the offensive line is UCLA’s biggest concern heading into 2023.
Apart from improvement on defense and the efficiency of the offensive line, the touchdown-to-turnover ratio of the quarterback could be a deciding factor.
DTR was the engine of Kelly’s offense during his years in Westwood, but untimely turnovers were one of his few flaws.
If the new starting quarterback is able to shore up those turnovers while maintaining the touchdown levels, UCLA’s offense could become unstoppable.
The decision-making and mobility of the starter will play a substantial role, but a strong run game is arguably just as important.
It’s somewhat of a given that the Bruins will have a powerful rushing attack, yet the efficiency of the ground game is pivotal to maximizing the effectiveness of the quarterback play.
The tight end is also a potentially heavy part of Kelly’s scheme that can make or break the quarterback.
Hudson Habermehl returns after posting 15 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns last year while Oregon transfer Matavao logged 10 receptions for 134 yards and one score.
If the duo emerges as consistent threats, an additional and deadly dimension of UCLA’s offense becomes unlocked.
The Sun Belt team is projected to win around seven games this year and presents a respectable challenge. But UCLA’s offense should get the job done and begin the year with a victory.
A matchup on the road against San Diego State follows. The Aztecs figure to have a strong defense once again, but are too often one-dimensional on offense.
As long as the Bruins contain quarterback Jalen Mayden’s keepers on the ground, Kelly’s team should secure the win.
A buy game against North Carolina Central rounds out the nonconference year.
Anything less than a 3-0 start would be a failure.
A road game against Utah kicks off Pac-12 play. The Utes are a complete team on both sides of the ball. It’s unlikely that UCLA walks away with the “W.”
A home test against Washington State follows. Each year, the Bruins tend to lose a game that they should win and the matchup with Wazzu is one of this season’s candidates.
The Cougars will have a strong defense to counteract Kelly’s offense, but a UCLA victory is a reasonable expectation.
A tough matchup on the road against Oregon State is next. The Beavers project to have a strong defense and one of the top offensive lines in the Pac-12. Jonathan Smith is building a monster in Corvallis and OSU should be favored.
Winnable games against Stanford and Colorado follow. If Kelly’s team drops either of those games, the UCLA media will once against start-up its drum beat for a change in leadership.
A revenge game at Arizona looms next. The Wildcats stole a victory at the Rose Bowl last season and return most of their production on offense.
It’s a rivalry game that UA will expect to win, making the matchup a toss-up at this point in the year.
Another potential hurdle comes to town when Arizona State enters the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils could be better than some expect but have questions at linebacker.
Regardless of what happens the week before in Tucson, UCLA should topple the Sun Devils.
The showdown with USC comes next. The Trojans are one of the top teams in the nation and should handle their business against the Bruins.
A home game against California rounds out the year. The Bears tend to step their game up when facing UCLA and might be battling for bowl eligibility. Still, Kelly’s team should end the regular season with a win.
Taken together, a 9-3 season is a fair expectation. Anything more would be a surprise while an eight-win year or worse would be a disappointment.
—More from Dane Miller—
- 2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: Devils Retooled to Surprise
- 2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: Arizona Wildcats Trending Up
- Round 9 Formula 1 Driver, Rookie, and Constructor Awards
- 2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: As Goes Rising, So Goes Utah
- 2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: OL Play Key for Colorado
- That American F1 Show Podcast: Episode 33
- Round 6 Formula 1 Driver, Rookie, and Constructor Awards
- That American F1 Show Podcast: Episode 32
- Miller: 2021-22 Pac-12 Revenue a Win, But Just a Start
- That American F1 Show Podcast: Episode 31
- Round 5 Formula 1 Driver, Rookie, and Constructor Awards
- That American F1 Show Podcast: Episode 30
- Round 4 Formula 1 Driver, Rookie, and Constructor Awards
- Miller: 2023 Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview
- That American F1 Show Podcast: Episode 29