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2023 Team Talent Preview: UCLA

What will UCLA look like now that the DTR era is offiically over?

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NCAA Football: Washington at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the 9th part in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats, 9. California Golden Bears, 8. Oregon State Beavers, 7. Colorado Buffaloes, 6. Arizona State Sun Devils, 5. Utah Utes

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 1,017.5 (7th)

Quarterback- 98.4 (9th)

Starter- Collin Schlee (69.2)

Reserves- Ethan Gabers (58.4), Dante Moore (55.4), Luke Duncan (45.6)

It feels like a lifetime ago when we last looked at the quarterback depth chart for UCLA and didn’t see Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s name atop it. DTR is finally out of eligibility and it should be a battle royale to see who prevails in his stead.

There are two names though that standout with a 3rd lingering. Husky fans got to play against Collin Schlee when he was at Kent State last year and he will now try to make the transition to power conference ball. In his career at KSU he threw for 8.0 YPA with 16 passing TDs against 5 INTs plus another 812 yards and 8 TDs on the ground. His dual threat athleticism should work well in Chip Kelly’s offense. Also in heavy contention is 5-star true freshman Dante Moore who flipped from Oregon after OC Kenny Dillingham left. He has the highest upside but also obviously the least college experience.

Washington transfer Ethan Garbers was the backup to DTR last season but with the late additions of Schlee and Moore seems like he may be destined to slide down to 3rd on the depth chart rather than ascend after waiting a few years. Although at least one betting service has him installed as the favorite now which is worh monitoring. 4-star redshirt freshman Justyn Martin is also on the roster still.

Running Back- 93.2 (12th)

Starter- Carson Steele (70.2)

Reserves- Tomarion Harden (46.1), Isaiah Carlson (42.8), Anthony Adkins (42.4)

When we look back at year’s end we probably won’t say this position group was last in the conference. Presumed starter Carson Steele made the media’s preseason all-conference 2nd team as he transfers in from Ball State where he ran for 1,500+ yards last year. His talent score here gets hurt by not being ranked coming out of high school but his numbers were in the MAC so it probably balances out about right.

Given that Zach Charbonnet was the bell cow last year it’s not a shock there isn’t a ton of experienced depth behind Steele. Tomarion (T.J) Harden came on strong at the end of last season averaging 7.4 YPC as a true freshman and has designs on the backup role. They also added Army transfer Anthony Adkins who was a fullback but missed all of last year after entering the portal late in the cycle the previous spring. There’s the chance that Steele and Harden are a fantastic 1-2 punch but it’s not unreasonable to be a little skeptical. Especially compared to the depth found on a lot of the Pac-12 rosters this year.

Wide Receiver- 324.0 (4th)

Starters-J. Michael Sturdivant (86.2), Titus Mokiao-Atimalala (75.2), Kam Brown (71.6)

Reserves- Logan Loya (68.3), Kyle Ford (64.3), Jeremiah McClure (49.2), Grant Gray (48.2)

UCLA pulled off a coup getting J. Michael Sturdivant away from Cal. The Athletic’s draft expert Dane Brugler has him #5 on his preseason WR rankings for next spring ahead of both Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. We’ll see about that one but the talent is undeniable. He torched Washington with 8 catches for 104 yards and 2 TDs last year but also had 11 drops on the season.

No one else in the group projects as a star but UCLA is 5-deep at the position. Former Texas A&M transfer Kam Brown was 3rd on the team in receiving yards with 362 last year. Meanwhile, former UCF transfer Titus Mokiao-Atimalala was 5th with 290 but was the best deep threat leading the team in yards per reception. Right behind him with 289 yards was Logan Loya meaning UCLA returns their 3rd, 4th, and 5th receivers.

The other major addition is USC transfer Kyle Ford who has struggled with injuries as a high 4-star coming out of high school but was solid in reserve for the Trojans the last 2 seasons. The Bruins also bring in 4-star true freshmen Jeremiah McClure and Grant Gray. In fact, the top-8 players in my talent formula were all 4-stars in the recruiting rankings. Athleticism shouldn’t be a problem for UCLA.

Tight End- 119.3 (1st)

Starter- Carsen Ryan (85.1)

Reserves- Moliki Matavao (68.3), Jack Pedersen (36.3), Hudson Habermehl (20.7)

This is one of the few times where I would manually downgrade a team’s position rankings if I could (I mean I guess I can, it’s my article right, but a man must have a code). Ryan finishes as the #1 tight end in the conference in these ratings. That’s probably a shock for those of you reading since I doubt anyone who isn’t a UCLA fan has heard of him before. The reason for his high standing is in part because PFF loved what he did in just over 100 snaps last year. He caught all 6 of his targets for 82 yards leading to an elite 2.5 yards per route run. And he did it as a 4-star true freshman. The chance for a breakout season is high.

The #2 tight end spot should also be fairly well established as UCLA added Oregon transfer Moliki Matavao, himself a former 4-star recruit. Matavao didn’t quite live up to expectations in Eugene but started 6 games for the Ducks in 2 years and was at least a solid option for them even if he never displayed great receiving numbers. Beyond that pair you have 4-star redshirt freshman Jack Pedersen and a pair of former walk-ons.

Offensive Line- 382.6 (9th)

Starters- C Duke Clemens (73.7), LG Spencer Holstege (66.8), RT Garrett DiGiorgio (62.0), LT Khadere Kounta (50.6), Jake Wiley (49.0)

Reserves- Tavake Tuikolovatu (43.9), Caleb Walker (34.5), Sam Yoon (30.5), Benjamin Roy (26.1), Noah Pulealii (25.9), RG Siale Taupaki (24.8), Jaylan Jeffers (23.8)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

UCLA lost 3 starters off of last year’s offensive line including 2nd team all-conference pick Atonio Mafi and Honorable Mention Jon Gaines. The lone returner is center Duke Clemens who is on Phil Steele’s preseason 4th team and also once played for our own Coach B back in Hawai’i. He’ll be the glue of this unit. Clemens I mean, not Coach B. Garrett DiGiorgio is the only other returner having started 14 games for UCLA with a below average PFF grade.

Otherwise, UCLA looked to the transfer portal for the most part. Purdue transfer Spencer Holstege was a 3-year starter at left guard for the Boilermakers and is on Phil Steele’s preseason 2nd team. Another transfer may start on the left side with Khadere Kounta who comes from Old Dominion. He started 27 games for them but didn’t have great PFF grades and now is moving up in competition. We’ll see how well he handles that shift.

The other long-time starter is Colorado transfer Jake Wiley although right now Steele doesn’t have him projected to start. At the least he’ll provide some good depth. Steele has the right guard listed as Siale Taupaki who will be in his 5th year of college and his only on-field action was playing about half of UCLA’s first 2 games last season where he generally graded out well. But that right guard spot should be a question mark.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,097.8 (3rd)

Defensive Line- 206.0 (4th)

Starters- Keanu Williams (76.4), Jay Toia (69.8)

Reserves- Gary Smith (67.2), Devin Aupiu (52.2), Grant Buckey (44.2), Quintin Somerville (36.8), Dovid Magna (35.8)

This group overall has nearly 2,000 career defensive snaps which is pretty good experience along the D-line. Jay Toia started 12 games last year as a 4-star redshirt freshman. Conventional stats are never the best way of evaluating DL play but he also didn’t have a great PFF grade. Oregon transfer Keanu Williams might be the favorite to start alongside Toia and also was a 4-star redshirt freshman last year but didn’t start for the Ducks.

If Williams doesn’t win the other starting job then it likely goes to former Duke transfer Gary Smith. Last year Smith was 4th among the DL in snaps but had the highest PFF grade of the bunch. Former walk-on Dovid Magna saw a little bit more of the field but Smith missed a few games due to injury. Right there that’s 4 players who should at least be serviceable and in the Pac-12 that’s what we call a quality defensive line. We can't all be Georgia.

Edge Rushers- 237.5 (2nd)

Starters- Laiatu Latu (88.5), Gabriel Murphy (77.1)

Reserves- Grayson Murphy (76.1), Jake Heimlicher (67.8), Carl Jones (55.6)

Perhaps no single school did better in the portal at a single position than UCLA at the edge rusher spot last year. They added Latu (from UW obviously) and the Murphy brothers (from North Texas) and got stellar production out of each of them. Latu ended up 1st-team all-conference and was my system’s 2nd rated edge player in the conference even after missing 2 years due to injury. Technically the Murphy brothers started every game ahead of Latu last year but all 3 played about the same number of snaps and should do so again.

UCLA is hoping to hit it big in the portal yet again with the addition of Penn transfer Jake Heimlicher. He was the best edge rusher in the Ivy League with 21 sacks over the past 2 seasons and it’s tough to think that doesn’t translate to at least being above average in the Pac-12. Jared Verse put up similar numbers at FCs Albany, transferred to Florida State last year, and was one of the best edge players in the country. Verse is now Brugler's top-rated edge prospect for next springs draft and Latu is 5th.

Linebackers- 185.7 (5th)

Starters- Jonathan (JonJon) Vaughns (64.7), Darius Muasau (64.3)

Reserves- Oluwafemi Oladejo (58.4), Choe Bryant-Strother (54.8), Jalen Woods (48.7), Tre Edwards (45.0), Solomone Malafu (44.4), Ale Kaho (42.2)

This is another position with very good depth for the Bruins. Muasau should be the leader of the group after transferring in from Hawai’i last offseason and leading the team in tackles. JonJon Vaughns filled in due to injury and played the 6th most defensive snaps on the team and has 11 career starts. However, he missed nearly 25% of his tackles which explains why he might not be the favorite to start again this season.

The likely fill-in next to Muasau is Cal transfer Femi Oladejo who started alongside Jackson Sirmon last year. He had 80 tackles and 1 sack for the Bears but had a low PFF grade due to his lack of pass rush and coverage skills. If you’re looking for someone to make a sound tackle in run defense though, he’s your guy. There are another three players outside that group with 350+ career defensive snaps including one-time Husky commit Ale Kaho.

Cornerbacks- 300.9 (6th)

Starters- Devin Kirkwood (85.9), Jaylin Davies (83.7), John Humphrey (73.0)

Reserves- Ty Lee (44.2), Alex Johnson (38.4), Isaiah Newcombe (34.5), DJ Justice (33.7), Croxi Stewart (33.6)

This looks to be a potentially strong group of corners for UCLA as long as they stay healthy. The Bruins bring back 3 of their 4 primary corners from last season in Kirkwood, Humphrey, Davies, and Johnson. That trio combined to start 23 games last season. Johnson is a former walk-on who played primarily out of the slot and projects as the starting nickel back.

The other three are all outside corners and they should rotate a little to stay fresh. Kirkwood and Humphrey have a little more experience than Davies which gives them the nod to be the opening day starters but the highly rated Davies should definitely see plenty of times. Kirkwood is my system’s #2 corner in the Pac and Davies is #3.

Once you get outside that core group of four though the pickings get slim. None of the guys in spots 5-8 on the depth chart have played 75 career defensive snaps and all are former 3-star prospects. UCLA has the depth to withstand one injury but if they deal with multiple at the same time like UW did last year then things could fall apart quickly.

Safeties- 167.7 (10th)

Starters- Jordan Anderson (72.6), Kamari Ramsey (50.0)

Reserves- RJ Jones (46.9), Clint Stephens (43.5), William Nimmo (42.6), Kenny Churchwell (39.5)

This was a clear position of strength last year for UCLA but they lost their two snaps leaders after Mo Osling III and Stephan Blaylock both graduated. Kenny Churchwell has been the #3 safety each of the past 2 seasons and it seems reasonable to think he’ll simply upgrade to a bigger role. My talent system isn’t as high on him because his career PFF grade is average, he was a mid-3-star recruit out of high school, and he hasn’t played very much for someone who was in the class of 2018. We’ll see if any of the less experienced but more objectively talented players like Ramsey or Stephens can beat him for that job.

I’ve been talking about one starting spot because the other one shouldn’t be a mystery. Jordan Anderson transfers in from Bowling Green where he was one of the best safeties in the Group of 5. He enters the year as the #8 safety in the Pac in this rating system despite being unrated coming out of high school. If he makes the transition from the MAC to the Pac well then he has a chance to sneak on to an all-conference team at year’s end despite the position group ranking 10th.

OVERALL TEAM- 2,115.3 (4th)

This should be a very interesting last season in the Pac-12 for UCLA. Chip Kelly slowly built up the Bruins over the course of several years and last year looked to be their coronation after a 6-0 start but they collapsed down the stretch to wind up 9-4. Losing their 5th year QB and a 2nd round draft pick RB makes it seem like their chances for a conference title are probably dead. And while that’s likely true, there are still reasons for optimism.

UCLA finished #1 in my Pac-12 transfer rankings this season losing almost no one of consequence and adding in at least 8 projected starters plus several more key backups. That haul should be able to fend off some of the regression. What it all comes down to though is the quarterback position. In the end, DTR was never able to be one of the absolute best QBs in the conference even if he was almost always above average. Could 5-star Dante Moore immediately ascend and surpass that? It’s possible, though not likely, but will be necessary for the Bruins to be a true top-ten team

The good news for UCLA is that they may not have to be that level to sneak into the Pac-12 title game. The Bruins miss both Oregon and Washington this year after USC got that advantage last year. That opens the door for a magical run. Unfortunately, all of their other games against the title contenders come on the road: at Salt Lake City, at Coravallis, and a trip across town versus USC. I could see a very similar season to Washington last year with a 3-0 non-con (Coastal Carolina, at San Diego St, NC Central), a 7-2 Pac-12 season, and missing out on the title game due to strength of schedule tiebreakers leading to an Alamo Bowl trip.


Top-10 Players (with position rank and conference rank)

  1. ED Laiatu Latu, 88.5 (2nd, 26th)
  2. WR J. Michael Sturdivant*, 86.2 (6th, 35th)
  3. CB Devin Kirkwood, 85.9 (2nd, 36th)
  4. TE Carsen Ryan, 85.1 (1st, 40th)
  5. CB Jaylin Davies, 83.7 (3rd, 46th)
  6. ED Gabriel Murphy, 77.1 (10th, 79th)
  7. DL Keanu Williams*, 76.4 (5th, 84th)
  8. ED Grayson Murphy, 76.1 (11th, 87th)
  9. WR Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, 75.2 (16th, 92nd)
  10. OL Duke Clemens, 73.7 (13th, 99th)

*Incoming transfer