By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There are numerous ways to watch Dorian Thompson-Robinson play quarterback, but here’s the one that will give you the most enjoyment.
Come for the highlights. Stay for … even more highlights.
Don’t think for a second here that I’m suggesting Thompson-Robinson — aka DTR, aka the main reason UCLA football is bathing in glee, aka a rapidly-emerging Heisman challenger — is more about flash than fundamentals.
Quite the opposite. The Bruins’ spring-heeled signal caller has depth to his story, as a heavy-thinking tactician who doubles as a chess expert and survived a miserable start to his college career, but burst into life last season before temporarily shunning the National Football League.
Thompson-Robinson gave up a near-certain spot in the draft to come back for a fifth college season. The results have justified his choice while giving him the status as the most improved player in the country since 2020. Bold statement? Go ahead, show me someone else who has made greater strides.
But worthy as all those things are, it’s just that you can’t get past the eye-catching nature of the way he goes about his game; a spritely, sprinting, high-hurdling, big-throwing show that freewheels to the very limits of head coach Chip Kelly’s system and sometimes still oversteps the boundaries of risk aversion.
The possibility of mistakes is all part of the fun, but with 1,510 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions on the year, the prospect of danger might now be an illusion. And UCLA is undeniably fun to watch right now.
Heading into Saturday’s visit to Oregon (5-1), the 9th-ranked Bruins are 6-0 with notable back-to-back wins over Washington (then ranked No. 15) and Utah (then No. 11), so far steering clear of a tail-off that has been predicted for them right from the beginning of the campaign.
There is levity to their play that stems from the style and personality of the man under center. If such an approach can persist, even as expectation grows and brings the gnawing clasp of pressure with it, the team could be headed for something truly special.
“You get more and more things added onto your plate and the games get bigger as you go,” Thompson-Robinson told reporters. “We’re trying to keep that pace going. We know who we are, we understand that and we also understand the work that needs to go into keeping that.”
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Standing out as a football team in Los Angeles is a tricky proposition. Franchises, teams and programs face a lot of competition for the warm, smoggy airspace in these parts.
Tinseltown boasts nine teams across a combination of the traditional leagues, Major League Soccer and the WNBA, and that’s not counting the NHL’s Ducks and MLB’s Angels in nearby Anaheim or UCLA and USC football. Just winning isn’t enough, there is an implied requirement to entertain while doing so, as well.
Even then, the local populace takes some convincing. Despite Thompson-Robinson’s electrifying efforts and UCLA’s statement wins, there have still been a noticeable number of empty seats at the Rose Bowl for home games. USC, despite its revival under Lincoln Riley, is experiencing something similar, while both teams are poised to head to the Big Ten in 2024.
Getting butts in seats is a conundrum for the marketing folks and their pricing algorithms to figure out, but no one can question DTR is upholding his mandate —winning — and doing so with panache.
The most serious hint to the nation that this was a version of UCLA worth taking seriously under Kelly — who returns to his old haunts in Eugene this weekend — was in Week 5 against Washington.
On a Friday evening, Thompson-Robinson pinged passes into tight windows, marched the Bruins downfield with pace, leaped into the air to bypass oncoming defenders and, on one cheekily memorable play, paused a moment as he headed for the goal-line — giving just enough time for two Washington players to run into each other, not him.
Beating Utah a week later solidified UCLA as a rising force. Oregon might be the biggest test of the bunch, the No. 10 Ducks entering the game as a 6.5-point favorite, per FOX Bet.
Kelly, for one, has unshakeable faith in his QB.
“He’s a lifelong learner and he wants to get better on a daily basis,” Kelly told reporters. “He’s always trying to constantly improve and that’s the fun part of coaching him.”
Thompson-Robinson brings an abundance of brainpower, but his greatest plays are in the moment, instinctive, immediate, with no room for much of a first guess, let alone any extra ones.
Those plays, man. Those skyward leaps, those fearless decisions, those jukes out of the pocket to lead defenders on a game of tag. Sometimes, yes, putting it in the wrong spot too, because that’s what happens when you just go for it, all the time.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson heads to the pylon for the opening score, UCLA leads Utah 7-0
Dorian Thompson-Robinson heads to the pylon for the opening score, the UCLA Bruins lead the Utah Utes 7-0.
One of the most exciting things in football is to have a quarterback who doesn’t think, but just plays, unabashed.
One of the most productive things is when a QB treats the sport like a true craft, with analysis, perception and structure being the key words to live by.
Somehow, some way, UCLA might have gotten both those things, in one QB package. A highlight package, no less.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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