PASADENA, Calif. — Asked about the performance of his backfield mates Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson did not hold back.
"If you ask me," he said, "I think we have the best running back duo in the country."
The Bruins' backs may not have received the same preseason buzz that followed other programs around college football; sure, Brown's 6.6-yard per carry average in 2020 was impressive, but he didn't lead the team in attempts.
And the transfer Charbonnet may have starred for Michigan in 2019, but had gotten somewhat lost in the fold during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
Others may have forgotten, or just didn't know. But Thompson-Robinson's smirk following a 44-10 rout of Hawai'i, in which the running backs combined for four touchdowns and 184 yards, said it all.
DTR knew. And he wasn't the only member of his family who did.
Camarillo, California native and nearby prep powerhouse Oaks Christian product Charbonnet's return to Southern California after transferring from Michigan could not have gone any better. Half of his six carries went for touchdowns, and all covered at least 21 yards.
"I’m just thankful that they let me come in with open arms, and I’m just one of their brothers now," Charbonnet said of his integration into the Bruins' locker room.
Watching him explode through the massive holes UCLA's offensive line created, then juke any would-be tacklers with a bag full of fancy footwork or by simply shrugging them off, and it's easy to see how Charbonnet could earn respect quickly in a new locker room.
His apparent workout regimen might not hurt, either.
Pac-12 Network's Ashley Adamson provided the below anecdote, and...
...well, that might not be too far off.
The welcome for Charbonnet includes Brown, UCLA's Week 0 and the primary ball carrier with 13 touchdowns. While Brown's numbers were not as eye-popping, he broke off six yards per carry — and he might well have matched his lofty 2020 per-carry average if not for a one-yard touchdown plunge.
"It’s a great tool, having me be with Brittain," Charbonnet said. "We challenge each other every time we’re in practice and even in the games, we’re challenging each other."
The duo also provides a presence similar to wildly successful Chip Kelly-coached teams of years past.
While comparisons and allusions to Kelly's time as Oregon head coach were unavoidable from the moment of his hire in 2017, expecting the Bruins to be carbon copies of the Ducks was never feasible.
When Kelly replaced Mike Bellotti in 2009 after two years as Bellotti's offensive coordinator, Oregon was a well-established winner and well on its way to taking over as the then-Pac-10 Conference's standard-bearer. Kelly arrived at UCLA, conversely, with the responsibility of rebuilding.
This season is Kelly's fourth at the helm and, believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when a rebuilding project wasn't evaluated too harshly until about Year 5. Those days have long since passed, and popular opinion heading into the season dictated UCLA should begin approaching the success of Kelly's past teams if not necessarily the same playing style.
Enthusiasm should be measured after just one game — particularly with a challenging schedule still to come, starting immediately with 2019 national champion LSU visiting the Rose Bowl — but Brown and Charbonnet got off to a start reminiscent of Kelly's Oregon tandems:
- Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount in 2008 (30 combined rushing touchdowns, both surpassing 1,000 yards)
- LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner in 2011 (29 rushing touchdowns, more than 2,700 yards)
- Barner and De'Anthony Thomas in 2012 (32 touchdowns, nearly 2,500 yards)
While UCLA used Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton in tandem in 2019, injuries and Felton's usefulness in the slot prevented the Bruins from boasting a one-two punch quite like those past Oregon teams.
The possible difference this time around is both Brown and Charbonnet could be — and on different drives, will be — every-down backs.
"There is not much of a transition between either of those guys," Kelly said. "[The team] really [does] not have to change very much because Brittain and Zach are very similar in terms of body types and the types of runs that they can do.
"They are three-down backs," he added. "When you play the schedule that we play, where you need to have multiple running backs."
If Thompson-Robinson's assessment is correct, facing a tough schedule with the best running back duo in the nation might be the catalyst of a breakthrough season for UCLA.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.