Chip Kelly won’t be blinded by stars in picking UCLA’s QB

Chip Kelly said he’s not going to do it. He won’t give into all those recruiting stars or the external pressure or the worry that the freshman who might be UCLA’s next great quarterback could leave in a huff and throw his first college pass elsewhere.

If Dante Moore trots onto the field as the Bruins’ starter against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 2 at the Rose Bowl, he will have earned it.

That means the job will be won on arm strength, accuracy and decision-making, and not be given to coddle the highest-rated quarterback prospect Kelly has landed in his decade as a college coach.

“Our job has never been to keep people happy,” Kelly said Friday during Pac-12 media day at Resorts World Las Vegas. “I think the way you keep your entire team happy is that you’re fair with everybody and then things are won on the field, not just because someone came in and they’ve got better accolades than somebody else.

“If you pick Player B over Player A and everybody in the locker room thinks it’s Player A, that’s never a good situation. So it has to be won on the field.”

Kelly’s meritocracy sounds like a sound plan, if it can withstand some significant headwinds. Quarterbacks like Moore are harder to find in Westwood than free parking. The Detroit native is only the second five-star quarterback, according to the 247Sports composite ratings, to pick UCLA since the website started ranking players in the early 2000s. He’s also just the 13th five-star player at any position to become a Bruin over that span.

Barring something unforeseen, either Moore or redshirt junior Ethan Garbers will win the job as Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s replacement.

There’s a scenario in which the biggest loser could be Kelly and the Bruins.

If the coach chooses Garbers — a decision that may be perfectly justified given Garbers’ talent and experience — he risks alienating Moore as well as top high school players who will be watching closely to see how things go for one of the most hyped freshmen in UCLA history.

Upsetting Moore when he might be able to find more name, image and likeness riches elsewhere, and the transfer portal makes switching schools easier than crossing the street, could lead to a short stay as a Bruin. What incentive would Moore have to stick around if Garbers, who has two more years of eligibility remaining, wins the job, especially given Kelly’s past loyalty to his starters?

Maybe Moore will prevail in UCLA’s most heated quarterback battle since graduate transfer Wilton Speight edged Thompson-Robinson, Devon Modster and Austin Burton in 2018. Maybe Moore will be patient if he doesn’t. He said after arriving on campus in January that he understood the only guarantee next season would be Thompson-Robinson throwing his next pass in the NFL.

“With Dorian leaving,” Moore said at the time, “they said the quarterback position was open — not saying I can come right in and start, but I know I can compete, be the best I can be and we’ll just go from there.”

Working in Moore’s favor is the widely held perception that he’s the nation’s most college-ready freshman quarterback, even if he just turned 18 in May. It’s partly because he was a four-year starter in high school, leading his team to back-to-back state titles. Throwing for three touchdowns in the first half against other top high school players at the U.S. Army Bowl this year only reinforced Moore’s standing.

Kelly called Moore an “old soul” who doesn’t have the me-first mindset of many top prospects, pointing to him hanging out with the kicker, long snapper and punter in the hospitality room the night before the U.S. Army Bowl.

Moore’s new teammates, particularly the veterans, have tried to accelerate his growth. Center Duke Clemens, a fifth-year senior, told Moore to calm down and breathe during spring practice when the young quarterback appeared to be on the verge of hyperventilating.

“I could just see it in his eyes, like, oh, he’s kind of getting to that point,” Clemens said Friday, “so just kind of wanted to calm him down, just settle back in and lock in and refocus.”

Should Moore win the job, he would become UCLA’s first true freshman quarterback to start an opener since Josh Rosen in 2015. Rosen matched his hype while leading to the Bruins to a 4-0 start before his career took a steep nosedive. The Bruins finished that season 8-5 in what would go down as the high point of Rosen’s injury-marred career.

Three years later, Thompson-Robinson became the starter in his second game after Speight went down with a back injury in the second quarter of the opener.

Anyone who has watched Kelly closely knows he’s not afraid of a youth movement. In 2012, during his final season at Oregon, Kelly picked redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota over sophomore Bryan Bennett in a mild upset. It worked out for the Ducks, who went 12-1 and beat Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Two years later, Mariota won the Heisman Trophy.

Kelly also has resisted the lure of shiny new toys. As a rookie NFL coach in 2013, he went with veteran Michael Vick over the much younger Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. After his return to college, Kelly steadfastly stuck with Thompson-Robinson whenever the quarterback’s performance dipped during the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

Garbers would be the safe pick. Having spent the last two seasons as Thompson-Robinson’s backup after transferring from Washington, he’s a known quantity who some would describe as steady but unspectacular. He’s completed 64.8% of his passes but logged as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns while losing his only start, against Utah in 2021, and failing to complete comebacks against Oregon and Pittsburgh.

The wild cards in the competition are redshirt freshman Justyn Martin and redshirt seniors Chase Griffin and Collin Schlee. Martin has continued a steady progression up the depth chart but remains a long shot to overtake Garbers or Moore. Griffin hasn’t played meaningful minutes since 2020 and seems destined to make his biggest impact in the NIL sphere. Schlee is a heralded transfer from Kent State who compiled decent numbers last season but was yanked from the last two games in favor of freshmen.

After backing out of a commitment to Oregon, Moore said the biggest reason he flipped to UCLA was Kelly, citing the coach’s NFL experience, offensive smarts and development of quarterbacks. Now it’s up to Kelly to see if he will double down on that belief or risk having the Dante Moore era end before it begins.