UCLA spring football takeaways: New-look Bruins deep at quarterback and tight end

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Los Angeles, CA - April 23: UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, left, runs with the ball.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs with the ball during the Bruins' spring showcase on April 23. UCLA has plenty of depth at the quarterback position. (Kyusung Gong / For The Times)

Dorian Thompson-Robinson sprinted toward the corner of the end zone. The UCLA quarterback had just lofted a pass to receiver Jake Bobo in that spot, the teammates leaping into the air to bump bodies as others joined them in a loud, late-morning frolic.

Their exuberance drew the attention of observers, not to mention referees who threw a flag for excessive celebration.

It was a feel-good spring practice finale for the Bruins. Their bid to follow Chip Kelly’s first winning season at UCLA with something more meaningful is off to an upbeat start, cornerback Devin Kirkwood lingering on the field to embrace his coach after the final play Saturday.

The Bruins have begun to merge their returning talent with a host of promising newcomers, though optimism is always abundant this time of year and questions remain. Here are five takeaways from spring practice:

1. The Bruins aren’t wanting for quarterbacks

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers looks to pass against Utah on Oct. 30.
UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers looks to pass against Utah on Oct. 30. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

If all goes well, Thompson-Robinson will set one school record after another during his fifth and final college season.

Yet if Thompson-Robinson is sidelined because of an injury — something that has happened at some point in each of his first four seasons — the Bruins should be able to withstand his absence. Ethan Garbers filled in capably last season in one start against Utah, and Chase Griffin has shown he too can be an effective replacement.

There might even be a third attractive option behind Thompson-Robinson. In one of the biggest developments of the spring, freshman Justyn Martin flashed enticing potential. The former Inglewood High standout made one of the top plays of the final practice when he connected with receiver Bradley Schlom on a 40-yard completion.

“We do feel confident with the group,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks.

2. Tight End U won’t lose its accreditation

UCLA tight end Mike Martinez catches a pass for a touchdown against Colorado in November 2020.
UCLA tight end Mike Martinez catches a pass for a touchdown against Colorado in November 2020. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The school that enjoyed the bounty of Caleb Wilson, Devin Asiasi and Greg Dulcich in recent seasons has welcomed its next set of dynamic tight ends.

Michael Ezeike, Hudson Habermehl, Carsen Ryan, Mike Martinez, David Priebe and Michael Churich made big catches throughout spring practice, combining exceptional size with steady route-running. Having fully recovered from the leg injury that sidelined him most of last season, Martinez made an impressive, twisting catch Saturday on a pass thrown behind him.

“That’s probably our deepest position throughout the entire team, that group of guys,” Kelly said, “because I think you can go four or five deep there.”

The group will be joined by freshman Jack Pedersen, a four-star prospect from Vista Murrieta High, in time for fall camp.

3. A star might be born at cornerback

UCLA cornerback Devin Kirkwood takes part in the UCLA spring showcase on April 23.
UCLA cornerback Devin Kirkwood takes part in the UCLA spring showcase on April 23. (Kyusung Gong / For The Times)

One constant of spring practices was Kirkwood making at least a play or two each day that trumpeted the sophomore's arrival as a lockdown cornerback.

On Saturday, Kirkwood broke up a pass intended for Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, then placed his hands on his head in disbelief that he did not intercept it. Along with 6-foot-2 cornerback John Humphrey, the 6-3 Kirkwood appears ready to satisfy Kelly’s wish list at the position.

“We finally have two tall, long corners — what we’ve been looking to get. Both of those guys physically, I think, can match up with anybody," Kelly said, “and the one thing you love about both of them is they’re so dialed in to what their technique is and how do they get better.”

4. A reliable pass rush might finally be in the works

UCLA defensive end Grayson Murphy runs a drill in practice.
UCLA defensive end Grayson Murphy runs a drill in practice on April 9. (Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

UCLA has improved its run defense under Kelly but hasn’t consistently pressured the quarterback.

That could change given the disruptiveness of twin edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy in addition to linebackers Carl Jones and Bo Calvert. On back-to-back plays Saturday, Grayson Murphy charged into the backfield followed by his brother, both making things uncomfortable for Thompson-Robinson.

“If we can get home with not having to blitz every down, that makes any defensive coordinator happy and any head coach happy,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve got some guys right now that have demonstrated their ability to get to the quarterback in one-on-ones, so we feel good about it.”

5. The transfer portal giveth more than it taketh away

Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau (53) breaks up a pass intended for Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper.
Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau (53) breaks up a pass intended for Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper in October. Muasau might land a starting role with the Bruins this season. (Marco Garcia / Associated Press)

As far as transfer numbers go, the Bruins are at a deficit after losing 21 players and gaining just 12.

But the arrivals could offset the departures given that at least seven of the newcomers — Bobo, Mokiao-Atimalala, the Murphy twins, left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal, linebacker Darius Muasau and defensive back Azizi Hearn — appear on the verge of challenging for starting roles.

“We feel really good about the guys we’ve brought in so far,” Kelly said. “We’ll continue to look and may add, but it’s got to be the right add.”

The Bruins could use another veteran offensive lineman, running back and defensive back, but Kelly said it’s not as easy as targeting transfers by position because they have to be a good fit on multiple levels.

“You can say, ‘Hey, I want this,’ ” Kelly said, “but they may not be that” fit you’re seeking.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.