It would have been easy to give up on the young quarterback.
His accuracy was spotty. The ball sometimes slipped out of his hand for no apparent reason. He had a maddening tendency to run backward under pressure.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a better alternative …
It would have been easy to give up on the old coach.
His offense didn’t resemble what those jolly green giants ran at Oregon. The roster hemorrhaged one talented player after another. He preached books and ball, but where were all the wins?
Maybe, just maybe, there was a better alternative …
The quarterback never hit the transfer portal. The coach never went with a backup, except when forced by injury.
Their belief in one another has elevated Thompson-Robinson into a record-breaking quarterback while putting Kelly’s Bruins on the verge of possibly tying a school record for victories in a season.
“I can tell you one thing, it makes my job a lot easier knowing that he trusts me,” Thompson-Robinson said on the eve of his final college game, his No. 18 Bruins (9-3) preparing to face Pittsburgh (8-4) on Friday in the Sun Bowl.
It turns out that trust was rooted more in self-interest than benevolence. Why did the old coach always stick with the young quarterback?
“Because he was always our best quarterback,” Kelly said.
He’ll go down as one of the finest to ever put on a UCLA uniform. Thompson-Robinson has become the school’s all-time leader in total offense (12,236 yards), total touchdowns (113), completions (844), passing touchdowns (94) and quarterback starts (47). If he passes for 285 yards against the Panthers, Thompson-Robinson will surpass Cade McNown’s school record of 10,708 passing yards.
Thompson-Robinson choosing to play in the bowl game when so many others on the opposite sideline — including Pittsburgh counterpart Kedon Slovis — have opted out could be considered reaffirmation of his love for the coach whose trust has felt like a warm embrace.
“It allows me to go out there and play my game, it allows me to go out there and play free, as well as lead in my own way,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and I know that’s been a huge thing for me.”
It’s almost like they were made for one another, even though their pairing was a fit of fate. Thompson-Robinson initially committed to Kelly’s predecessor, Jim Mora, in high school and remained devoted to the Bruins through the coaching change before his freshman season.
Watching footage of onetime Oregon stars De’Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota pile up yardage only reaffirmed Thompson-Robinson’s allegiance to playing for Kelly.
“My reaction to him,” Thompson-Robinson said, “was this godly Oregon coach, offensive genius.”
Having played quarterback for only one season in high school, Thompson-Robinson was just starting to build his reputation. Kelly anointed Wilton Speight, a graduate transfer from Michigan, his first UCLA starting quarterback, but that move lasted less than two quarters. Speight went down with a back injury in the 2018 season opener against Cincinnati and onto the Rose Bowl field trotted Thompson-Robinson, to cheers from fans eager for the Bruins’ next young star.
Showing promise before he eventually was sidelined with his own injury, Thompson-Robinson split time with Speight the rest of the season. But the team finished 3-9.Doubts about Thompson-Robinson’s ability to become a top-tier Pac-12 quarterback intensified when he committed four turnovers in another loss to open the 2019 season against Cincinnati.
Fans howled for a change, some even suggesting Thompson-Robinson should move to wide receiver. Kelly just doubled down on the quarterback whose belief in himself matched that of his coach.
“Never in my time did I think I was going to get pulled or benched,” Thompson-Robinson said, “just the competitor in me.”
That mutual confidence was validated three weeks later on a chilly night in eastern Washington. With his team trailing Washington State by 32 points in the third quarter, Kelly stuck with Thompson-Robinson. The quarterback rewarded his coach with a school-record 564 yards of total offense in leading the Bruins to an epic 67-63 comeback victory.
Afterward, they shared a movie moment.
“He gave me a hug,” Thompson-Robinson said of Kelly, “and told me how much he believed in me.”
With the roster heavy on freshmen and sophomores, Kelly condensed his playbook during those early seasons to avoid overloading so many newcomers, Thompson-Robinson said. Its expansion over the last two years, alongside a more seasoned roster, has led to an explosion of yards and points.
This season, Thompson-Robinson combined with running back Zach Charbonnet and others to comprise one of the top offenses in the Pac-12, averaging 39.6 points and 507.8 yards per game.
“These past two years have been everything I expected and more, you know?” Thompson-Robinson said. “The wide-open receivers, the Zach Charbonnets breaking through the hole untouched, me pulling the ball on the end and there’s nobody around the corner.”
It might not have happened if the quarterback didn’t stick by his coach one last time.
Told by Kelly a year ago that he was ready for the NFL, Thompson-Robinson talked it over with his mother, Melva, and opted to give college one more try. He informed his coach of his decision over the phone while on winter break.
“Definitely awkward at times,” Thompson-Robinson said with a smile of his conversations with Kelly. “He was super happy for me and my family and the decision we made, but I think he was going to be happy regardless, though.”
His return allowed Kelly to be wowed anew by the quarterback who only enhanced his professional prospects with the best season of his career, repeatedly hurdling defenders in a symbolic move for a team on the rise.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody that’s as competitive when you watch him play, the way he throws his body around,” Kelly said. “You know, his combination of competitiveness and his toughness, I think is kind of unmatched.”
On Friday, the Bruins could win 10 games for the first time since 2014. A coach and his quarterback will unite one last time, their shared belief having withstood every test.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.