UCLA football players say team is ‘hungrier,’ driven to win

Kyle Phillips’ eyes darted up from his Zoom screen, observing the scene before him.

Practice had already ended on this Thursday. But the field in front of the UCLA sophomore receiver, who was busy fielding questions from media, still bustled with activity. Quarterbacks remained, taking extra time to practice their drops. Receivers stayed to work on their routes.

It’s all part of a rejuvenated roster that just feels, as Phillips said, “hungrier.”

“I’m looking around now — basically, the whole entire team’s still here, getting extra work,” Phillips said Wednesday. “There’s no coaches on the field. Everyone’s just here.”

UCLA is in its second week of spring football workouts, with a critical fall looming. Coach Chip Kelly has yet to deliver on the hope that his 2017 hire would turn around a middling football program. Yet with improvement in 2020 — a 3-4 record with all four losses coming by a margin of less than seven — and NCAA eligibility extended due to COVID-19 for many seniors, UCLA is returning a group ready to go to war in the spring to re-establish themselves in the Pac-12.

“They’re always trying whatever they can do to hone their craft,” Kelly said before a Friday practice, noting the fun of coaching the group. “They’re like sponges.”

In the past, some players would view practice as a period of time they’d need to make it through, Phillips said. This spring, that’s changed.

“I think a lot of guys that maybe weren’t as optimistic … or guys that weren’t as on board [have] kind of been weeded out,” said sophomore receiver Chase Cota. “We have a bunch of guys that really care and want to win.”

Players are still looking at those four losses from last season as not only motivation, but a foundation to build upon in the fall. Junior linebacker Caleb Johnson, who led the Bruins with 44 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks last season, said on Monday the group is getting used to new plays.

Defensively, Johnson and captain Bo Calvert are missing the presence of Osa Odighizuwa this spring, the team’s second-leading sacks leader in 2020 who is primed for selection in the 2022 NFL draft. Kelly pointed to sophomores Mitchell Agude and Odua Isibor as returners who could step into Odighizuwa’s massive shoes, while noting the staff was particularly excited about the development of sophomore linebacker Sitiveni Kaufusi. Johnson also tabbed returning linemen Otito Ogbonnia and Datona Jackson as players who’d shown improvement from last season.

Yet if the defense can’t sustain the improvement it made last season — jumping from 113th in the nation in total defense in 2019 to to 71st last season — the offense is gearing up this spring to pick up the slack. Phillips feels UCLA could trot out one of the best offenses in the country next season, citing the returners’ increasing familiarity with Kelly’s playbook.

“It’s really like another language, another language we speak to each other where we just completely understand it,” Phillips said. “We can say one word to a guy and he’ll completely understand what’s going on with the play.”

That fluidity starts under center, behind junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Freshman Chase Griffin shone in filling in for Thompson-Robinson at times last season, and buzz has emerged from players around University of Washington transfer Ethan Garbers thus far this spring — despite Garbers’ eligibility to play next season currently blocked by Washington. However, Kelly stressed the only competition is for Thompson-Robinson is himself.

“Just knowing that he’s behind me and I can go to him for anything, whether it’s questions or advice or anything like that, is big,” Thompson-Robinson said of Kelly after Friday’s practice.

Kelly said he hopes to work on developing depth this spring, and skill positions on offense feature a pool of talent to accomplish that goal. Among the receivers, Cota praised the play of freshman recruits D.J. Justice and Keontez Lewis while also praising Texas A&M transfer Kam Brown. The running back corps is similarly robust despite last season’s starter Demetric Felton Jr. declaring for the draft, with standout Brittain Brown returning among a group of new faces. One to watch is University of Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet.

“He’s looking bigger than ever,” said Calvert, who played with Charbonnet at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village. “I mean, his biceps are probably, like, the size of my head.”

The spring has looked a little different for UCLA this season, starting workouts later than many other programs around the country.

Normally, Kelly explained, the team practices for two weeks before spring break in March, then resumes for the three weeks after. Yet due to COVID-19 guidelines, the team had to undergo testing after break and then quarantine for a week. That made it more practical in Kelly’s eyes to start later rather than be interrupted for a two-to-three-week period.

Calvert said the late start gave UCLA a chance to look at how other teams were faring during the spring. Griffin could only list positives — namely, the weather.

“If we can execute in this heat, then we can execute at any time,” Griffin said. “To be able to replicate sort of a four-to-five-week season now is good conditioning.”

With returners gaining more familiarity within the system and fresh faces looking to give the offense and defense a jolt, UCLA is ready to work this spring toward rectifying previous losing seasons.

“I think we’re about to have a breakout,” Johnson said.

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