Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, sports editor of The Daily Californian, and Ryan Smith, sports editor of the Daily Bruin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh Yuen: On paper, UCLA is 0-5, which most of us didn’t anticipate. Do they “look” like an 0-5 team, though? What’s been the storyline?
Ryan Smith: The roster is kind of weird because we have this situation where (head coach) Chip (Kelly) comes in and doesn’t have a lot of time to recruit. So he’s got all of these upperclassmen from (former head coach) Jim Mora’s time and all the guys he picked. And Chip is the type of guy who wants to see his guys playing. He basically set it up to the point where all of his guys would end up playing a significant amount of time; he wasn’t going to redshirt them. As a result, some of the guys that we’re used to seeing, like Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo, aren’t playing anymore. On paper, you see these seniors and might think that these guys might be a 4-8 or 5-7 team, but with all these freshmen, they’re learning and don’t always know what’s happening.
If you asked me after the Colorado game, “Do they look like an 0-4 team?” I would have said, “Yeah, they do,” but that Washington game was a pretty good sign of what this team can be. Are they an 0-5 team? I would say yeah, we’re not very good, but you can see the building blocks for sure.
JY: Can you update Cal fans on UCLA’s quarterback situation regarding Wilton Speight’s injury and Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s progression?
RS: (Michigan transfer) Wilton Speight won the job out of camp, which didn’t surprise a lot of us. But he’s not the type of guy that you would expect Chip Kelly to have as his quarterback. He went out and got hurt during the first half of the Cincinnati game; he got hit in the back and obviously he had the broken vertebrae at Michigan last year, before he transferred over. We don’t really know the severity of the injury because we haven’t talked to him, but Chip says he’s healthy and ready to practice and whatnot.
But Dorian came in and did what the coaches asked of him, apparently, and while the numbers aren’t crazy, obviously, he’s looked good — he’s progressed every week. It’s coming along slowly, and he’s got the growing pains, but I would expect to see him again against Cal. I don’t think Wilton is taking over the job anytime soon. The other quarterback who was in the mix was Devon Modster, who played a little bit against Cal last season. Initially, when Wilton went down, a lot of us thought it would be Devon who would go up, but it wasn’t, and it was Dorian, and Devon decided to transfer. So if Dorian is the only one who’s healthy, and something happens to him and it’s not Wilton, then we’ve got some third- and fourth-stringers who will end up playing.
JY: Switching to the defensive side of the ball, who has stood out in the early going?
RS: The defense is also a little weird. They have the seniors — they have (Adarius) Pickett, who is the fifth-year senior back there, and I think he’s fourth this year in the Pac-12 in tackling. He’s just a good kind of in-the-box type of player. He had an interception against Washington. Other than that, it’s a lot of young dudes. There’s Darnay Holmes — he’s a sophomore and he’s a corner who’s had a really good season. There’s Jaelan Phillips, who’s also a sophomore who was a five-star recruit who Jim Mora brought in last year, although he’s been injured, so I don’t know how much we’ll see of him. I think the big thing this year is that we lost Josh Woods, a middle linebacker, before the season started — we lost him to an ACL injury. His replacement is Krys Barnes, who isn’t as explosive as a linebacker, but he’s been calling the plays. His linebacker mate is Tyree Thompson, who is a transfer. I think with that, the defense has struggled at containing quarterbacks, and stopping the run at the line of scrimmage has been an issue. They play with a lot of energy because they’re young, and that’s great, but they’re kind of a wild card because you never really know what you’re going to get from them.
JY: Is it too early to tell if fans have grown tired of waiting for Chip Kelly’s first win in Westwood?
RS: I’ve been engaging with the fans on social media and whatnot. They may not want to hear it, but we have to be patient. He’s got Jim Mora’s players, and Jim Mora couldn’t have been more of an opposite coach than Chip Kelly. He’s a power-run guy with a physical defense, while Chip isn’t either of those. Until Chip gets his people in there, I think we’re going to see the growing pains, but that Washington game definitely turned some heads of the people who were getting restless and waiting for that win. At the end of the day, what’s the difference between going 2-10 and 0-12? Just be patient; I would say the realistic timeline for him is probably not next year, but maybe the year after that. If it’s still not looking pretty, then maybe that’s when you start to freak out a little bit.
JY: What needs to change for the Bruins to return to their winning ways not just this year, but in the future?
RS: It starts with the run defense. It has just been awful over the last few years. Running backs always tend to fall forward for a few extra yards. They’re not great at containing quarterbacks — Jake Browning ran for almost 100 yards, and he’s not a dual-threat quarterback by any means. Offensively, it’s really experimental. There’s just so many things and young players and with time, Dorian’s going to get better. They have Kazmeir Allen, who’s also a freshman in the backfield and is also going to get better. With the offense, it’s just time. With the defense, they really need to figure it out because I think that’s where the root of the problem is.
JY: Score prediction for Saturday’s game?
RS: I’m a little more optimistic about the game than I was before the Washington game because I liked what I saw in that Washington game. I do still think that Cal will win the game. Obviously, going on the road against anyone is really tough. I feel like it’s going to be a low-scoring game since UCLA and Cal aren’t exactly the most explosive offenses in the Pac-12. I’m going to say 23-14, Cal.