UCLA Football is going through a drastic transformation this offseason across the board. A lot of talent moved on — five players were drafted, others were signed as undrafted free agents and more still are working to get a look from a team. Jim Mora is out, replaced by Chip Kelly who must assess the remaining talent and figure out how to make them work with his system. Mora always recruited well, but that talent never really meshed and performed — UCLA never won a Pac-12 Championship despite consistently being in or around the top 15 nationally with every recruiting class.
Kelly’s work begins at the top, by picking a QB that best fits his system. He has five to choose from — two of which will be new to the staff this summer. With summer school starting up, here’s a look at each of them and how they project to fit:
Austin Burton, 6-3 Sophomore, Winter Garden, FL
The three-star recruit from Florida who saw no playing time as a freshman has impressed throughout spring practices, despite taking most of the third team reps. He firmly made a statement at the spring game, where he had the best passing performance by far and was the only QB not to throw an interception. He threw for more passing yards than the other quarterbacks combined, and also kept a read option for a touchdown, showing a very competent handle of the new offense. While spring games are ripe for over-analysis and fan hype that exceeds reasonable reactions, Burton’s no doubt helped his case. Seemingly an afterthought, he has thrust himself into the competition and looks like he is here to stay heading into the summer.
Matt Lynch, 6-4 RS Sophomore, Broomfield, CO
Lynch was another three-star recruit who has barely seen the field at all behind Rosen and others. He’s thrown three passes in his college career, yet he’s been running the second team during spring. He was one of the QBs who did not have a good spring game, only throwing for 35 yards with a touchdown and an interception but he has clearly shown some things during practices. While his primary recruiter was Noel Mazzone, who’s long gone by now, all of his coaches have only positive things to say about him. Lynch has the college experience but will need to step up to stay in contention moving forward.
Devon Modster, 6-3 Junior, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA
Modster will be a junior this year and is the only one returning with any significant playing time for UCLA. He filled in for Rosen last year when he went down, playing in three different games and starting one. Another pro style quarterback, Modster is adjusting like the rest to Kelly’s different offense. He has been taking first team reps this spring but still had a forgettable spring game. Again, while spring games are a small sample size that tend to be blown out of proportion by fans, that still doesn’t bode great given Modster’s experience advantage. He went 7-11, but averaged less than four yards per attempt while also throwing an interception. If he wants to start this year, he’ll have to earn it — Kelly mentioned that the best player will start, whether that be a freshman or a grad transfer, and Modster is right in the middle.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, 6-1 Freshman, Las Vegas, NV
DTR was a huge get for Jim Mora — he was the third-ranked dual-threat QB in his class who was supposed to be groomed into Rosen’s replacement. While most coaching changes mess with recruits’ best-laid plans, this coaching change may have made UCLA an even more attractive destination for him as, in theory, a Kelly offense is better suited for him than a Mora offense. Given his mobility combined with the spread and option traits Kelly’s offenses are known for, this bit of serendipity works in DTR’s favor. As a true freshman, he’ll join the team this summer and if he can pick up the offense quickly, his skill set seems to work best with a historical Kelly offense. He’s got a great arm, great speed, and ran a spread offense in high school, so he has some experience with some of the quick-hitting concepts Kelly might employ. Whether he starts immediately or not, he projects to be a very good quarterback in this system.
Wilton Speight, 6-6 Grad-Transfer, Richmond, VA
Finally, the grad-transfer from Michigan, Speight is another pro-style quarterback who was highly ranked out of high school. His 2017 season was cut short by a spinal injury but he has recently enrolled in classes and is ready to get started at UCLA. While he is a pocket-passer who does not run much and took most of his snaps under center, the staff is hopeful that he can transition and succeed. Speight can make quick accurate throws, and also is mobile enough when he needs to be. That being said, he didn’t exactly thrive when his legs were called upon in cases of his Michigan offensive line breaking down. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence at UCLA, where even with two linemen picked in the 2018 draft (one of which was first-rounder Kolton Miller), Josh Rosen was battered and bruised in far too many drop-backs. With that same offensive line replacing two draft picks and one more senior, it’s safe to assume Speight won’t be able to rely on an All-American pocket. Still, of all of the options, he does bring the most experience in the college game and has proven he can win at this level. The main question is, can he pick up the system and harmonize with his receivers quickly enough?
As summer practices get going, it seems like the candidates will start to separate from one another and determine who will start. A strong spring for Burton helped, but Thompson-Robinson and Speight are pushing for it too, and don’t count out the incumbent Modster. It’s shaping up to be one of the more exciting QB competitions nationwide and one that will hopefully leave the best one standing.