Inside UCLA’s fierce, but friendly, competition for QB1


LOS ANGELES — If it weren’t for the blue shirts and gold accents, the footballs and the pads, the playbooks or the helmets, one could describe what is going on inside the UCLA quarterbacks room this year as a scripted reality show.

Take four guys from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds and different personalities — but one commonality — and give them nearly a calendar year to play, learn, compete, hang out and essentially live with each other.

A familiar backup from Orange County. An experienced transfer from a small town in Maryland. A dynamic redshirt freshman from Inglewood, California. An 18-year-old potential superstar from Detroit. Put them all in a room and have them learn from coaches, from each other, from teammates, from themselves. Take them out on a football field and have them show what they can do — running, throwing, talking, leading. Now do it all, while dangling a prize at the end of the road — one they all desire, but only one of them can have.

There is no point in ignoring the obvious, the inevitable. One of these four will be the starting quarterback for the Bruins come their opener Sept. 2 at Coastal Carolina. They all want the job. But they all know it could easily be the guy they’re splitting reps with each day.

The terms of engagement were established early, when UCLA coach Chip Kelly told the quarterbacks in the spring a decision had not be made, freeing them to perform, do their best and not worry about the outcome. At least not yet.

“I think all those guys have really progressed from where we started with them in our first spring practice, to where those guys are today,” Kelly said in mid-August. “So we’re excited. I’m excited about the whole group.”

But it’s almost fall. Game day approaches and with it, Kelly’s decision looms. The reps, the quarterbacks say, have been evenly distributed. And while the media try to glean what they can (why is Ethan Garbers the one wearing the VR headset during practice?), there is little indication from Kelly or anyone else on whom the choice will be. So far, the chorus coming from Westwood seems to be one of a glass half-full mentality. There aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen if they’re all trying to make the best possible meal.

“It’s a really cool group,” Kelly said. “Their meetings are awesome, watching ’em go back and forth and the questions and the dialogue that goes on with them and [quarterbacks] Coach [Ryan] Gunderson. … They get along really well.”

On this August day, the four quarterbacks appear less like fierce competitors and more like friends passing time at a nearby playground. With the day’s practice already a memory, they sit on the turf of Spaulding Field, picking at the artificial grass and looking up at the sunny Southern California sky.

The biggest question at the moment isn’t a scheme or even a drill. Instead, it’s the order of operations. How will they decide which of the four quarterbacks will speak to the media first?

“I think it was seniority,” Garbers said with a smile when he stepped in front of the Bruins-branded backdrop. “So Collin is the oldest, then me …”

COLLIN SCHLEE ISN’T just the oldest in the group. He’s also the only one who has spent extended time as a team’s starter. When he arrived at Kent State to play quarterback in 2019, Dante Moore — UCLA’s five-star freshman vying for the same spot — was 14.

Since then, Schlee has bided his time, going through a COVID-19-affected year and then ample time as a backup before he was given the starting job two games into last season. The Ijamsville, Maryland, native displayed plenty of flashes at Kent State on his way to a 2,000-yard, 13-touchdown campaign over nine games, adding nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

The move to UCLA was one Schlee saw as not just an opportunity to start at a higher profile program, but also an investment in his future. Schlee isn’t wary of admitting it: What he had to learn and execute at Kent State was far different than what he’s having to do now. Even the conditioning.

“I’ve never experienced this kind of conditioning. It’s a little more intense,” Schlee said. “They expect a lot more out of you, because you know, you come to such a great school, you got to be at your best. So if you don’t, they’re going to start getting on you and getting on you until you do it at your best.”

Conditioning aside, Schlee’s familiarity with an RPO-style offense gives him a proper foundation on which to learn how Kelly takes that concept to a deeper level. Having been at UCLA since the spring, the learning curve for Schlee has not been as steep as it was at the beginning.

“This is more of an NFL-style offense,” Schlee said. “At Kent State, it was pretty self-explanatory. It was basically just like a normal college offense. This is way more. … I don’t know, there’s more stuff going on, more schemes, but it’s helped me for the long run where I want to go in the future more in terms of reads and making progressions.”

In several other settings at a Division I level, Schlee’s decision to transfer would make him the favorite, even the surefire selection, to be the starter. At UCLA, he’s having to fight for it, and not just on the field.

“It’s very fun,” Schlee said of going up against several other players for the starting gig. “You don’t just compete on the field, you compete in the meeting rooms, too. You try to be the first one to answer all the questions.”

PERHAPS NO ONE is more familiar with Kelly’s system and his offense than Garbers. Having sat behind Dorian Thompson-Robinson for the past two seasons after transferring from Washington, Garbers is, on paper, Kelly’s safest choice.

Teammates know him well. Coaches do, too. Kelly has seen what he can do, and that is something none of the quarterbacks fighting for the same job have: experience in the UCLA offense, which Garbers acknowledged gives him a slight advantage.

After transferring to UCLA following the 2020 season, Garbers has waited to get his shot. Over the past two years, he’s had spurts of playing time when he’s shown flashes that he can excel as a starter, as well as some growing pains that have likely prevented him being QB1.

Time has served Garbers well, though. In his third season under Kelly, his improvements are less about making a giant leap on the field and more about rounding out his skills with the intangibles that might make a bigger difference.

“I wanted to really, really key in on just trying to be the smartest person out there on the field and not just knowing my job inside and out, but kind of knowing everyone else’s job,” Garbers said.

Whether he starts or not, the redshirt junior has become a more vocal presence in the absence of DTR. When asked about that increase in volume and frequency, Garbers shrugged, saying it comes with being the starting quarterback.

“He’s been in this program for some time now, so he knows the offense really well,” tight end Hudson Habermehl said of Garbers. “He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s kind of taken that leadership role.”

Much like Schlee, Garbers likely is in the toughest position. He’s expected to be the starter given his history and familiarity with this team, but he’s also got the most to lose because of it. If Moore or Justyn Martin aren’t named the starter, there’s plenty of opportunities for them to eventually take the job. Should Garbers not be under center Week 1 and Kelly instead goes with youth over experience, it’ll be an uphill battle to get another shot.

Yet pressure or concern seems to be absent from Garbers’ demeanor. He welcomes the competition and brushes aside the notion that the intense competitiveness for the starting spot could make it difficult to be a teammate, or even a friend.

“It’s not as hard as you would think. We’re all, I mean, we’re all similar in age. We all have the same interests. We all play the same position,” Garbers said. “We’re pretty much just friends out there helping each other out and there’s no resentment or anything like that. I mean, we all want each other to succeed.”

The quarterback room — the physical manifestation of it inside the Wasserman Football Center on campus — has become part classroom, part competitive arena, part comedy room. Senior quarterback Chase Griffin — who has been at UCLA since 2019 and has become a de facto mentor for the younger players in the room — says film sessions sometimes turn into comedy roasts. It’s all part of the fun and the levity they inject into a pressurized situation.

“I think having the ability to be lighthearted but also understand that those meetings are a time of growth is important,” Griffin told ESPN. “In my time here, the better we’ve been in the meeting room, the better we’ve done on the field and especially at the quarterback position.”

Not only are players competing to memorize things, answer questions first and draw up plays on the whiteboard, they’re creating a certain kind of competitive chemistry. It helps, like Schlee said, that all the quarterbacks are so different from one another, with different backgrounds and personalities.

As Martin put it, the quarterback room is “flavorful” off and on the field.

“We have a lot of different elements,” Martin said. “Some of us can run, some of us have pristine accuracy. Some of us are just really knowledgeable about the game and know everything that’s going on. It’s just a really good environment to be a part of.”

TO OUTSIDERS, MARTIN is kind of the odd one out in this competition. He doesn’t have the hype of Moore, the experience of Schlee or the familiarity of Garbers. But there’s no doubt he has the skill.

The 6-foot-4 Martin quietly sat on the Bruins bench all of last season, mostly watching Thompson-Robinson put together the best season of his college career. Martin would seek DTR out, ask questions and pick his brain. If he wasn’t going to play, he may as well learn from the quarterback who was playing.

“It was a blessing to be around him,” Martin said. “I feel like that made a lot of a difference.”

In the offseason, Martin and DTR linked up again, this time to work out. And while DTR stopped short of giving Martin his blessing to be QB1, their relationship and their similar style of play are notable.

Even though Thompson-Robinson is playing for the Cleveland Browns now, his presence still looms over this UCLA team. For those who have been around a few years, DTR at quarterback was all they knew. Now the void is vast, but the outlook is bright.

“We have everything in our room,” Martin said. “You can pick stuff from everybody, you can learn from everybody.”

Even from the true freshman.

Though Martin is slightly older than Moore, he didn’t step up to the microphone after Garbers in the expected order. Instead, it was Moore who stepped into a spotlight he’s well acquainted with but could be growing far bigger and brighter than he’s ever experienced.

“I’m the youngest one in there, just turned 18,” Moore said. “So it’s just kind of like everybody in there has grown and is more mature than me. It’s more just really me learning.”

Despite his youth and inexperience, whether his fellow quarterbacks acknowledge it or not, it’s clear it’s a matter of when, not if, for the Detroit product who spurned Oregon to join Kelly’s team with hopes of becoming the next great Bruins quarterback.

MOORE’S DEBUT COULD come Week 1 or it could come next season. There’s no rush, but there is the growing feeling Moore is more ready than most freshmen at the position, and certainly more talented.

“Mentally, he’s actually really smart and he knows the playbook really well and he’s able to dissect defenses the way he wants to,” wide receiver Kyle Ford said. “Obviously, we already know the arm talent and everything, I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody. He’s been good and he’s only going to get better, which is the most exciting part.”

Though young and wide-eyed, Moore is not lacking confidence. You see it in the way he played in high school or at the All-American game. That hasn’t stopped since he’s the new kid on the block.

“He’ll make a throw, and he’ll do that Steph Curry turn away before the guy catches it,” Ford said. “I love that stuff, man. Just the confidence, that’s what turns me up.”

That belief comes from within, Moore said.

“My confidence comes from really me,” he said. “Just knowing that all this preparation and all this studying and all these things that I’ve been doing for these past years.”

Even if Moore doesn’t start right away, plenty will be calling for his number if the Bruins’ season goes awry. Despite his age, the potential could be too tantalizing to pass up. Whether it’s this season or next, the future of UCLA’s offense appears to be in suitable hands.

“The sky’s the limit with him,” said Griffin, who has become a human version of Quora for Moore as he soaks up the playbook. “Whether I’m playing, whether I’m not playing, each and every chance I get to show him how to be the best player he can be, I will.”

Griffin, though a few names down on the quarterback depth chart and not in contention for the starting spot, represents a lynchpin in the quarterbacks room. The 22-year-old veteran still wants a shot at being the starter, but he relishes the ability to impact the position and the team without having to step foot on the field come Saturdays. It’s why, aside from Kelly and Gunderson, no one has a better grasp on the room than Griffin.

Sheer depth aside, Griffin believes the different traits each of the players bring to the quarterbacks room — be it Schlee’s experience, Garbers’ leadership, Martin’s skills or Moore’s confidence — will act as enhancers for whoever ends up under center.

“If our quarterback room does their job,” Griffin said, “the player who wins the job will be an elite quarterback.”

POST AUTHOR: Paolo Uggetti

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