By Don Wanlass
The UCLA Bruins begin their last season in the Pac 12 Conference with a new starting quarterback, another new defensive coordinator and more optimism surrounding the program than there has been for several years.
Going into his sixth season at UCLA, head coach Chip Kelly hopes to finally crack the .500 mark during his tenure at UCLA.
In his first five years, he has been 27-29, although he is 17-8 the last two seasons when he had veteran quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson running the offense. Thompson-Robinson is now in Cleveland in the NFL and Kelly has a three-man quarterback dilemma heading into this season.
He has named redshirt junior Ethan Garbers as the starter Sept. 2 against Coastal Carolina in the Rose Bowl, but also indicated that prized freshman recruit Dante Moore and Collin Schlee, a transfer from Kent State, will both play in the opener as well.
Garbers backed up Thompson-Robinson the last two seasons, appearing in 12 games and completing 57 of 88 passes for 599 yards with four touchdown and four interceptions.
He led Corona Del Mar to a state title in 2020 during his high school career and spent his freshman year at Washington, where he never saw the playing field.
His knowledge of the offense gave him the edge in camp, but Kelly is anxious to see what Moore, the top high school quarterback in the country last year, can do.
Last year, the Bruins were fourth in the country in yards per game and eighth in scoring, but they graduated their three top pass receivers and top running back Zach Charbonnet is in the NFL with Thompson-Robinson.
Kelly has taken advantage of the transfer portal to bring in a new running back, Carson Steele from Ball State, wide receivers J. Michael Sturdivant and Kyle Ford from Cal and USC, respectively; and tight end Moliki Matavao from Oregon.
The offensive line has experience and depth.
The defense remains a question mark.
Kelly has brought in D’Anton Lynn from the NFL to be the new defensive coordinator and he has his work cut out for him. The Bruins have plenty of returning starters from last year’s team.
The problem is last year’s team gave up 32 or more points five times in the last seven games of the season, losing four of those.
The defensive line could be the best part of the unit with Laiatu Latu, who had 10.5 sacks last year coming in off the edge and the Murphy twins, Gabriel and Grayson, inside.
Darius Muasau and Olawafemi Oladejo lead the linebackers and Devin Kirkwood and Jaylin Davis are solid defensive backs, who will be assisted by Bowling Green transfer Jordan Anderson at safety.
The Bruins’ opener against Coastal Carolina won’t be a walk in the park. The team was 9-4 last year, 6-3 in the Sun Belt Conference.
The Chanticleers have a new head coach, Tim Beck replacing Jamey Caldwell who is now at Liberty, and a veteran quarterback Grayson McCall, who has thrown 78 touchdown passes in his college career.
He will provide a tough test for the Bruins’ pass rush and secondary.
Game time is 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
SOLID OPENER: USC got a week’s head start on the Bruins, defeating San Jose State 56-28 Aug. 26 to open the season.
The Trojans played a spotty first half before taking control in the third quarter. They might have found a new star in the process.
Freshman receiver Zachariah Branch electrified the crowd in the third quarter. With the Trojans leading 35-21, Branch returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and followed that with a 25-yard touchdown reception.
The great nephew of former Raider wide receiver Cliff Branch was a star at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas the last four years. He totaled 232 all-purpose yards and appeared to be a threat to break free any time he had the ball.
He gives quarterback Caleb Williams another weapon, as if he needed one. Williams completed a ho-hum 18 passes in 25 attempts for 278 yards and four touchdowns.
His best play of the night came in the second quarter after he mishandled a snap from center. He scrambled to pick up the ball with the defensive line collapsing around him, set his feet and threw the ball downfield almost without looking.
The ball landed in the hands of wide receiver Tahj Washington for a 76-yard touchdown play.
The USC defense, which was horrible last year, picked up where it left off last season. San Jose State, led by senior quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, seemed to move the ball at will in the first half, the Trojans relying on penalties to slow down two early drives.
The Trojans didn’t seem to improve their tackling skills in training camp. Cordeiro eluded a pas rush and scrambled for 28 yards to keep one scoring drive alive and then threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Nick Nash on the last play of the first half to make the halftime score 21-14.
The Trojans managed to slow the Spartans more in the second half, but still yielded 396 yards and too many big-yardage plays.
The Trojans face Nevada Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. in the Coliseum. The game will be televised on the Pac 12 Network.
TROPHY QUEST: USC’s freshman wide receiver Zacariah Branch brought back memories of Reggie Bush during his Trojans debut Aug. 26. Bush returned to the Coliseum, the scene of most of his college exploits, Aug. 23 staging a press conference where he announced he was suing the NCAA for defamation of character as he began a campaign to have his Heisman Trophy returned.
Bush surrendered the trophy he won in 2005 in 2010 after the NCCA said he received unallowable benefits from a marketing agency during his days at USC.
His lawsuit stems from a 2021 statement issued by the NCAA in denying his request to reinstate his collegiate records. In the statement, the NCCA said Bush was involved in a “pay-for-play arrangement” while at USC, which Bush vehemently denies.
“Reggie Bush did not accept any kind of pay for playing for USC,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said at last week’s press conference. “The truth is, Reggie Bush played for USC out of devotion, devotion that earned him many collegiate records and awards including the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor bestowed on a college football player.
“And it was his devotion that helped earn his team … multiple national championships. And it was Reggie’s devotion and the other players in college football that earned the NCAA billions of dollars — billions of dollars.”
Bush told reporters he has dreams of coming back to the Coliseum and running out of the tunnel with the Trojan football team, but “I can’t rightfully do that without my Heisman Trophy.”
He said his collegiate career and the success of his Trojan teams “was all torn down so easily with no factual evidence behind any of these claims.”
“And so most recently the NCAA has made a statement about me, accusing me of engaging in a pay-for-play arrangement, which is 100% not true,” Bush said. “Not only is it not true, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. … It wasn’t even part of the initial NCAA investigation. So this is a new accusation as far as I’m concerned.”
The case will probably be settled before it ever gets to trial, with the NCAA restoring Bush’s statistics and the New York Athletic Club returning his Heisman Trophy. That will allow USC to place Bush’s No. 5 jersey in the Peristyle end of the Coliseum with the Trojans’ other Heisman-winning jerseys.
Bush and USC were sanctioned by the NCAA because a wanna-be sports agents bought Bush’s parents a house in hopes of being allowed to represent Bush. The NCAA sanctions effectively ended the Pete Carroll era at USC and caused the football program to spiral downward as Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton struggled to replace Carroll and restore the football glory.
In the current era of name, image and likeness compensation, this should not be a major issue for long. The NCAA has bigger concerns these days than this lawsuit.
FITTING STATUE: And while on the subject of L.A. sports icons, the city celebrated “Mamba Day” Aug. 24 with an announcement that Kobe Bryant would be honored next February with a statue outside Crypto.com Arena.
Bryant’s widow Vanessa made the announcement. Bryant wore jersey numbers 8 and 24 during his Laker career.
The bronze statue will be unveiled at Star Plaza outside Crypto.com Arena on Feb. 8, 2024, prior to the team’s home game that evening, the 8 and 24 again being prominently featured.
The Lakers have already honored Elgin Baylor, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jerry West and announcer Chick Hearn with statues outside the arena.
Bryant played his entire career with the Lakers and is the team’s all-time leader in games (1,346), minutes played (48,637), field goals (11,719) and 3-point goals (1,827), among numerous other records.
He also is the Lakers’ all-time leader in points with 33,643. Abdul-Jabbar finished his 20-year career with a then-NBA-record 38,387 points, but only 24,176 were achieved in his 14 seasons with the Lakers.
LeBron James surpassed Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring mark last February but only 7,614 of James’ points have been recorded in his five seasons with the Lakers.
Bryant died Jan. 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas that also took the lives of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
City News Service contributed to this story.