Still with expectations of returning to prominence in the Pac-12 Conference, UCLA will be chasing more than just modest gains in its fourth season under head coach Chip Kelly.
The Bruins will play host to Hawaii on Saturday in the nonconference season opener for each at the Rose Bowl, with the Rainbow Warriors trying to make strides off their own promising effort in 2020, while also looking to overcome a tumultuous offseason.
UCLA (3-4 last season) returns senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a former four-star recruit who has progressed from unfulfilled potential to a certified leader. But Thompson-Robinson still has not guided the Bruins to a winning record in three seasons.
UCLA is just 10-21 in the Kelly era, although hope was raised in 2020 with Thompson-Robinson earning second team all-conference honors and the Bruins holding an 18-point second-half lead on rival USC last season before a late-game collapse.
This year, UCLA has a solid defense, an impressive offensive line, veteran pass catchers and multiple running backs they can depend on like Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet. Then there is Thompson-Robinson’s confidence.
“I don’t want to give away any secrets or anything, what we’ve got going on here, because we’ve got some special stuff coming,” said Thompson-Robinson, who passed for 1,120 yards last season with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in five games. “Everyone will see what we’ve got on the 28th.”
The Warriors (5-4 in 2020) will enter off their 28-14 New Mexico Bowl victory over Houston last season.
But the road between then and now has been tough. The team learned last winter that Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium no longer is a viable option for hosting home games, so the Warriors will move into a temporary — and far more intimate — venue on campus.
Then came news of the deaths of both former quarterback Colt Brennan and play-by-play announcer Robert Kekaula.
Hawaii will find solace in the return to the field behind dual-threat quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who completed 62.3 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,083 yards and running for another 483. He had a combined 21 touchdowns.
Cordeiro will take on a UCLA defense that was 30th in the nation against the run last season at 135.7 yards per game. Hawaii head coach Todd Graham has an offense that is more run reliant than pass-happy Warriors teams of the past.
Sophomore running back Calvin Turner will lead the running backs along with another sophomore in Dae Dae Hunter, who made two starts last season, including one in the bowl game.
“We were limited last year with a short season, and it forced us to be more vanilla,” offensive coordinator Bo Graham said. “Now we’re really opening up the playbook. Chevan’s got more on his plate in that sense, but he’s done a great job. … I like everything he’s doing. I don’t think there is anything he can’t handle.”
On defense, Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau was fifth in the nation in tackles per game with 11.6 and fourth in solo tackles with 7.6.
The teams last met in 2017, with UCLA earning a 56-23 victory at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins lead the all-time series 3-0.
–Field Level Media