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Breaking Down UCLA’s Tightly Contested Quarterback Competition

| Sports | January 25, 2018

It’s a new era of UCLA football with the ousting of Jim Mora Jr. after five seasons as the program’s head coach. The Bruins were able to snag one of the hottest head coaching commodities of the offseason in Chip Kelly, who returns to the college ranks after a stint as an NFL coach.

UCLA will also be turning its attention to the quarterback position, as Josh Rosen, one of the best quarterbacks to wear the blue and gold, will be heading to the NFL as a likely first overall pick.

The competition looked to be between Devon Modster, the now sophomore quarterback who backed up Rosen in 2017, and incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Thompson-Robinson gained notoriety for being recruited as a four-star quarterback in his junior year, despite never having started at Bishop Gorman High School.

The Bruins were gifted a good problem, when former Washington Huskies quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels declared he would be coming to UCLA as a graduate transfer, making him immediately available for next season. Carta-Samuels was a one-time four-star recruit, and spent three years at the University of Washington, amassing 310 passing yards and three passing touchdowns in that time.

Kelly now has a treasure-trove of quarterbacks to choose from to start for UCLA next season, and will surely take his time in the decision. It is no secret that Kelly’s offensive system requires a mobile quarterback. In his first season as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, Kelly had quarterback Nick Foles run a total of 57 times in 10 starts. Foles’ second most rushing attempts for a season was 17 in 2015 with the then St. Louis Rams.

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Fortunately for the Bruins, Modster, Carta-Samuels, and Thompson-Robinson all have mobility as a strength. Furthermore, the trio all have the ability to throw accurate passes of varying lengths on the move. With that in mind, here are some ways in which the three differ.

Devon Modster
Given Modster’s familiarity with UCLA’s offensive personnel, it could be assumed he has a stronger grasp on the starting spot. His chemistry with his receivers was on display in Modster’s first start of the season against Kansas State in the 2017 Cactus Bowl.

Jordan Lasley and Theo Howard were the beneficiaries of Modster’s strong first half in this game. Lasley scored the Bruins’ first touchdown, after Modster hit Lasley on a screen in perfect position for the receiver to take the ball 52 yards to the house. Just three minutes later, Modster threw a beautiful, deep pass to a streaking Howard for a 70-yard touchdown that gave the Bruins a 17-7 halftime lead.

Modster displayed accurate ball placement on all three passing levels. For the game, he went 21-34 with 295 passing yards and the two aforementioned touchdowns. Furthermore, he showed strong pocket presence, going through his receiving options before taking off to run. In fact, Modster only carried the ball two times for 19 yards.

The second half is where the game unraveled for UCLA. Kansas State switched from man coverage to a zone defense, allowing Modster to complete shorter throws, causing the Bruins to find themselves faced with third down fairly often. In the second half, they punted twice, turned the ball over on downs twice, and lost a fumble.

It should come as no surprise to learn that 215 of Modster’s 295 yards came in the first half, while eight of his 13 incompletions came in the second half. UCLA’s defense did put Modster in a must pass situation throughout all of the final two quarters, as Kansas State scored on every second-half possession.

The game did expose Modster’s most glaring weakness. He doesn’t yet have the ability to put the team on his shoulders and lead a comeback win. If that’s the biggest knock on a one-time backup quarterback, however, then the Bruins would be in good hands with Modster as their starter.

K.J. Carta-Samuels
Carta-Samuels is the biggest unknown of UCLA’s quarterback room. He recorded just one start during his time with Washington, a 31-14 loss to Stanford in 2015, in which Carta-Samuels went 9-21 for 118, while scoring on a rushing touchdown.

In three years at Washington, Carta-Samuels logged just 15 rushing attempts, but showed he had the ability to run with the ball in high school. At 6 feet 2 inches and 221 pounds, Carta-Samuels uses his physicality, rather than speed, as a runner. He is hard to bring down on the first tackle, especially if he breaks past the front seven and gets into the secondary.

Like Modster, Carta-Samuels has strong pocket presence, with running coming as a last resort if all passing options are unavailable. His accuracy as a passer depends on the distance. On short and intermediate throws, he is usually on the money, putting the ball in the best place for his receivers to make a play after the catch.

Deep balls, on the other hand, appear to be Carta-Samuels’ weakness. He definitely has the arm strength to push the ball downfield, but doesn’t have the greatest accuracy on these passes, showing a tendency to both over and under throw his targets.

That being said, most of Carta-Samuels’ tape is from the high school level. It is more than fair to assume that three years at Washington helped fine-tune his passing accuracy, especially on deep balls. This will be revealed more when spring practices begin, and Carta-Samuels has a chance to throw with UCLA’s offense.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson
Of the three quarterbacks, Thompson-Robinson has the most potential. His raw talent is undeniable. His first start at Bishop Gorman didn’t come until his senior season, after already having committed to UCLA. Thompson-Robinson’s one year at the helm of the Gaels didn’t disappoint either. For the season, he went 176-256 for 3,275 yards, 38 touchdowns and three interceptions on a 69 percent completion rate.

The year culminated in the Las Vegas State Championship, where Thompson-Robinson displayed his athleticism in a 48-7 win over Reed High School. For the game, Thompson-Robinson went 17-25 for 260 yards and two passing touchdowns. He also ran for 57 yards and scored a rushing touchdown, and had a 10-yard touchdown reception.

Despite possibly being the Bruins’ biggest play-making threat at quarterback, Thompson-Robinson is also the least polished passer of the three. He has the ability to play from the pocket, but his footwork while dropping back to pass is sloppy at times. He can hang in the pocket and pass with accuracy on short, intermediate, and deep passes, but has the propensity to run as soon as he feels pressure.

Forcing Thompson-Robinson to run is also dangerous for defenses, as he has incredible speed and an arsenal of moves to make tacklers miss. In 2017 at Bishop Gorman, Thompson-Robinson ran for 426 yards on 4.8 yards per carry, with seven rushing touchdowns.

A lot of Thompson-Robinson’s passing plays in high school came from shotgun or in motion, which fits well with Kelly’s spread offense. A few things keep Thompson-Robinson from being the favorite to start for UCLA next season, including his pocket presence and footwork, and acclimation to the college game, which Modster and Carta-Samuels already possess.

It is way too early to tell who will come out of camp as UCLA’s starter, but never too early to predict. Modster will more than likely start 2018 as starting quarterback, with Carta-Samuels as backup, and Thompson-Robinson as third string. Depending on Modster’s performance and Thompson-Robinson’s rate of progression, however, don’t be surprised to see Thompson-Robinson under center at some point in the year.

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About Keir Chapman

Keir Chapman began his career in sports journalism as Sports Director for iCLU Radio in Thousand Oaks. After graduating from California Lutheran University in 2013, Keir used his experiences as a writer and a college basketball player in a weekly blog for the New York based athletic gear company, True Athelite. Now, Keir makes weekly appearances on the Doug and John show on KHTS as Mr. Sports and is happy to contribute to the Santa Clarita Gazette.

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