The apparent consensus among the college football punditry heading into 2021 suggested it was a pivotal season for UCLA football. After two disappointing first full seasons with Chip Kelly at the helm, and a promising if not unfulfilling pandemic-shortened 2020, the program needed to show measured improvement.
The Bruins responded with eight wins, their best overall record since 2015, and arguably their most positive season since 2014 by virtue of beating archrival USC (soundly) and closing the regular season on an upswing.
An 8-4 mark certainly provides UCLA a building block, but is doubtfully the ceiling the university's athletic brass set for Kelly when his hire was announced in 2017. With the Pac-12 South in a transitional phase, and the arrival of Lincoln Riley looming large across town, 2022 may be the year the Bruins finally need to break through to the conference title game for the first time in a decade.
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5 Storylines to Watch During UCLA's Spring Practice
1. Another step forward for DTR?
Injuries and assorted other struggles have dotted quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson's tenure at UCLA, but the former high-4-star recruit played his best, most consistent football by a considerable margin in 2021.
After an impressive season, Thompson-Robinson announced his intent to use the additional year of eligibility granted due to the COVID-19 season to return for 2022. Riding the momentum of last season, Thompson-Robinson heads into the new campaign rivaling Utah's Cameron Rising as the Pac-12's top returning quarterback.
2. Restructured rotation of pass catchers
It should go without stating that a big part of Thompson-Robinson's success in 2022 hinges on the playmakers around him. Last season in the passing game, he had two of the Pac-12's most dependable targets in wide receiver Kyle Phillips and tight end Greg Dulcich. The duo combined for 101 receptions, 59 by Philips and 42 by Dulcich.
Both are gone.
The next-most productive pass catcher, Chase Cota, made 18 grabs. That's a considerable drop-off, and Cota's also gone, having transferred to Oregon.
UCLA's passing game is going to look markedly different in 2022 in terms of personnel, but isn't lacking for potential. Kam Brown scored touchdowns on two of his 17 receptions, while Kazmeir Allen got into the end zone four times on the same number of grabs.
Allen is an especially intriguing playmaker, a speedy Swiss Army knife in the vein of former Bruin Demetric Felton. His usage in 2022 presumably as a primary option could open up some unique possibilities for UCLA to spread the field. Meanwhile, Duke transfer Jake Bobo brings much-needed experience to the receivers room.
Replacing Dulcich will likely be the biggest challenge. UCLA has had a long-running line of outstanding pass-catching tight ends, including in each of Kelly's four seasons. Springtime is the first opportunity for Michael Ezeike to take up that mantle.
3. Two big voids in the secondary
Defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight was a do-everything dynamo for the Bruins last season, leading the team in tackles (66), tackles for a loss (8.5), and breaking up the second-most pass attempts at three. The leader in that category, Quentin Lake with six, also is gone.
The veteran Lake added three interceptions, also a team-high, shared with Jay Shaw. Shaw blasted out his intent to return to UCLA on Instagram in January, but less than two weeks later, did an about-face that sent him to the transfer portal and eventually Wisconsin.
The Bruins' secondary isn't without experience, welcoming back Stephan Blaylock, Martell Irby and Kenny Churchwell, but replicating the production lost from the trio of Knight, Lake and Shaw may be a tall order.
4. Impact transfers
A host of transfers join the UCLA roster this offseason. The transfer portal's been good to the program in Kelly's tenure, from the Michigan quarterback/tight end tandem of Wilton Speight and Devin Asisi, to returning Ann Arbor import running back Zach Charbonnet.
In 2022, transfers will be looked upon to address some pressing needs. Laiatu Latu previously played at Washington before declaring medical retirement, but is making a comeback as a Bruin. Interior defensive lineman Gary Smith III, from Duke, will be part of the same unit as Latu. The secondary welcomes Azizi Hearn, a three-year starter at Wyoming after one season at Arizona. Linebacker Darius Muasau was an All-Mountain West Conference honoree at Hawaii.
5. Governing the defense
The biggest staff shakeup for UCLA in 2022 comes in the role most frequently questioned in Kelly's time with the Bruins. Jerry Azzinaro is out, resigning as defensive coordinator in January, and Bill McGovern is in.
McGovern is an interesting choice, bringing plenty of experience — approaching 40 years, in fact — but with limited experience as a coordinator. He oversaw the UMass defense in 1993 when the Minutemen shared an FCS conference with Kelly's alma mater, New Hampshire (albeit before Kelly or mentor Sean McDonnell were coaching the Wildcats), and Boston College's D from 2009-12. For most of the past decade, he's worked as a linebackers coach in the NFL.
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