Swanson: UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson has grown up, into a leader

LOS ANGELES — Dorian Thompson-Robinson greeted every reporter at UCLA’s Wasserman Football Center with a hello and a handshake, very much the host welcoming guests to his home.

Which, well, yeah.

Thompson-Robinson – or “DTR,” as he doesn’t mind being called – is from Las Vegas. But he’s grown up in Westwood.

From cub to man, the now-22-year-old quarterback is embarking on his fifth season as Bruin, back on campus for the start of training camp on Friday because he opted – against Coach Chip Kelly’s advice, actually – to return as a “super senior.”

Thompson-Robinson is taking advantage of the COVID-19 eligibility extension the NCAA granted all student-athletes who were affected by the pandemic.

He’s no longer the 18-year-old who was thrust into the unforgiving spotlight in his first game as a college freshman – without having even been a full-time quarterback in high school until his senior season – when starter Wilton Speight suffered a back injury.

Now Thompson-Robinson is officially one of the guys to watch, appearing on both the Davey O’Brien Award and Maxwell Award watch lists.

He’s the guy who used some of his new name, image and likeness earnings to take his offensive teammates on a boating trip. It was a pre-camp, team-building excursion from which they’ll take memories of having seen dolphins at play – and insight about how the youngest among them might play right away, as Thompson-Robinson did.

“I let all those guys know at the boat … ‘You guys have an opportunity to play,’” Thompson-Robinson said. “‘But only if you do the work that it takes.’”

Getting on the field is one thing, producing requires even more work. Especially when you’re the quarterback at UCLA.

“You gotta learn how to be a quarterback. Everybody thinks you just go out there and throw a ball and you ‘lead,’” Thompson-Robinson said Friday, making air quotes as he spoke. “But what’s leading if you don’t know what you’re doing?”

His confident, clear-spoken demeanor is one indicator that he’s got a much better idea of what he’s doing now. The rasp creeping into his voice after just one clearly communicative practice was another sign.

So too are the results.

The growing pains that accompanied the spurts – both his and his team’s – leveled out last season, when the Bruins, who were 10-21 in his first three seasons (when he started 24 games), finished 8-4.

To that, Thompson-Robinson contributed more than his winning smile. He was first in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (153.94), passing yards per attempt (8.51), total offense (274.36) and total offensive touchdowns (30).


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And with 21 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, the dual-threat QB wasn’t nearly as turnover-prone as he was in his first two seasons, back when he had a 7-to-4 TD-to-interception ratio.

Now he’s on the verge of a host of UCLA milestones, including closing in on third all-time in total offense and touchdowns.

His longevity is working for him there, but so is the fact that he’s sharpened his mechanics, his reads, even his cadence. Because of it, he has hopes of improving something else too: His NFL draft stock.

He said Friday that he’s treating his final college season as a dress rehearsal for the next step, “just learning overall how to be a pro before I get there,” he said. “Right now is my rookie year, so trying to learn all those little finite detailed habits.”

Those all-important habits are what he’d focus on, if he could go back and counsel his younger self: “In terms of advice I’d give myself, it’s all about the habits and what you do on a day-to-day basis. That’s what I’m learning right now.”

Now this is team bonding. @UCLAFootball QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson taking on LB Bo Calvert. DTR has a passion for competition. Can’t wait to see him play in person Saturday. pic.twitter.com/M1XWT2gbwo

— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) October 22, 2021

Thompson-Robinson – who is one of the team’s serious, competitive chess players, linebacker Bo Calvert said Friday – recognizes he still has plenty of learning to do. That’s a good thing for the Bruins as they try to maintain last season’s momentum, taking a swing at the program’s first nine-win season since finishing 10-3 in 2014.

Most of all because a fifth-year quarterback who knows he doesn’t know everything will send a message – “leadership,” y’know?

He’s learned something about that along the way too, he said.

“For me, leading is loving the absolute hell out of your teammates,” Thompson-Robinson said. “And loving what you do every day.”

Including on Day 1 of Year 5.

What does “leading” mean to UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (@DoriansTweets):

“Loving the absolute hell out of your teammates and loving what you do everyday and showing that through your actions. …” pic.twitter.com/Zmjs7cafxV

— James H. Williams (@JHWreporter) August 5, 2022

BOAT DAY before my last fall camp

Love these boys! Thankful to be able to give back to them & enjoy time together as a family! Time to go to work! pic.twitter.com/TSpr6DpY3l

— DTR (@DoriansTweets) August 4, 2022