Through five games of the abridged 2020 college football season, everything was finally coming together for Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
For the first time in his three years as UCLA quarterback, the Bruins had a winning record. Thompson-Robinson’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and yards per carry were all up compared with his past efforts. And a statement game against rival USC was on tap at the Rose Bowl.
But, despite Thompson-Robinson putting on a show with more than 400 yards of total offense, the Bruins fell just short in the battle for the Victory Bell. The next week against Stanford, he hurt his leg in the second quarter and UCLA suffered another heartbreaking loss, this one in double overtime.
The Bruins finished 3-4, and the positive vibes disappeared as quickly as they arrived. But a few days later, Thompson-Robinson announced he would return for his senior season instead of taking a leap of faith that an NFL franchise would fall in love with his untapped potential.
More than four months later, as UCLA goes through spring practices, it has become abundantly clear that Thompson-Robinson did not come back for more of the same.
During the offseason, he went to coach Chip Kelly, director of football performance Keith Belton and new quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson and asked them how he could be a better player and leader his last year. The consensus answer?
Put your teammates above yourself.
So when Thompson-Robinson was asked recently how he has improved, he sounded more like a custodian than a quarterback.
“I would say the biggest thing is being a servant,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Picking up bottles after practice, cleaning up the field, if there was a helmet or something left out there. Picking up shoes and making sure guys’ lockers are cleaned, stuff like that. That’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on, making sure I’m taking care of everybody but myself.”
Thompson-Robinson’s Twitter bio reads “We not Me,” but this change has been about actions, not words and perception.
“Dorian’s definitely been doing a lot of extra work,” said sixth-year senior running back Ethan Fernea. “That’s our job as leaders. We have to do the little things right if we want to do the big things right. Dorian’s been a good example. He’s got a little bit more power behind his voice now, and he’s coming out here and having a blast and bringing a lot of energy every day, which I think is infectious.”
Thompson-Robinson’s game-changing explosiveness as a runner has never been in question, and his ceiling as a quarterback jumped drastically in 2020 as he completed 65% of his passes with 12 touchdown throws and four interceptions.
The last step for him is to take the Bruins out as winners in Kelly’s fourth season.
“I think it’s part of a natural maturation process,” said UCLA wide receivers coach Jerry Neuheisel, who worked with the quarterbacks as a graduate assistant. “Most people don’t realize he only started at quarterback his senior year of high school. So there are a lot of intricacies that come with this position that happen off the field and on the sidelines that he’s learning and getting better at. You can see the guys really rallying behind him.”
UCLA’s offense is now a truly veteran unit. The entire two deep returns on the offensive line, and Thompson-Robinson already has developed chemistry with an experienced group of receivers led by Kyle Philips. With Duke transfer running back Brittain Brown returning for another season with the Bruins and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet impressing early in spring camp, Thompson-Robinson shouldn’t have to do it all.
Of course, the hope is he can put the team on his back when called upon.
“He’s got his undergrad degree in being a quarterback,” Kelly said. “Now he’s got to get his master’s degree. He’s really working hard on the little things, carrying out play fakes, looking off defenders, some of the high-end stuff you need your quarterbacks to do to be successful.”
But Thompson-Robinson’s focus this spring doesn't appear to be on the graduate-level material. In some ways, it’s almost like he’s learning in reverse.
“Trying to be a complete teammate,” he said. “Really doing everything I can for guys, stuff like that. I couldn’t be more blessed than I am to be here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.