Experienced roster could help UCLA Bruins contend in Pac-12

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — Chip Kelly‘s arduous rebuilding job at UCLA showed positive results last season with an 8-4 record and a Holiday Bowl invitation.

The biggest question is if Kelly can continue the climb to Pac-12 contention.

The Bruins were picked fourth in the conference preseason poll but still find themselves in the shadow of rival Southern California, which is ranked No. 14 in the preseason and continues to dominate local and regional headlines following the hiring of Lincoln Riley.

Even though he had chances to channel Rodney Dangerfield and claim “no respect,” especially after the Bruins won last year’s crosstown showdown over the Trojans 62-33, Kelly isn’t trying to get caught up in who has bragging rights in LA.

“Who runs the city, who doesn’t run the city, I’ll leave that up to the voters, I guess,” said Kelly, who has an 18-25 record during his four years in Westwood.

If the Bruins are going to contend for the Pac-12 title, they will need big seasons again from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet. They were the leaders on an offense that led the conference in average points per game (36.5) and second in yards (441.3).

Thompson-Robinson surprised many by deciding to return for a fifth season. He accounted for 30 touchdowns last season (21 passing, nine rushing) and cut down on his turnovers, which plagued him his first three years.

Charbonnet led the conference with seven 100-yard rushing games and was second in rushing yards with 1,137.

“I think the biggest thing is him being able to respond to adversity, and that’s been the nature of the whole team,” offensive lineman Jon Gaines II said. “We didn’t have the best couple of seasons when we first got here, but he’s always been the face of the franchise as long as we’ve been here. And he’s the perfect example of how we’ve grown over the years.”

DEFENSIVE OVERHAUL

Bill McGovern, who was one of Kelly’s assistants when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles, was hired as defensive coordinator following the resignation of Jerry Azzinaro. His most significant task will be to fix a pass defense that gave up 260.2 yards per game last season, the worst in the Pac-12.

Safeties Stephan Blaylock and Kenny Churchwell III bring a veteran presence to the secondary. Transfers will bolster the front seven. Kelly lauded the quick adjustments by defensive lineman Jacob Sykes (Harvard), while edge rushers Gabriel Murphy and Grayson Murphy (North Texas) will apply pressure. The Bruins also added linebacker Darius Muasau, who led the Mountain West with seven sacks last season.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Wide receiver Jake Bobo, a graduate transfer, should emerge as Thompson-Robinson’s favorite target after the departures of tight end Greg Dulcich and wide receiver Kyle Phillips to the NFL. Bobo made at least five catches in nine games for Duke last season and finished with 74 receptions for 794 yards.

COMING SOON

While fans are looking ahead to the Bruins’ move to the Big Ten in 2024, Kelly is trying to keep the focus on this year’s team until he has to go out on the recruiting trail.

“I think when I got the news that this was going to happen, that was my first question: When? Then when we found out it’s two years, I think that puts a little bit different spin on it,” said Kelly, who learned about the move while golfing with Ohio State coach Ryan Day in New Hampshire. “Our sole focus and attention is making the 2022 season as memorable as it can be for our players. It’s a unique situation. I’ve never been in it before. But I think the biggest thing is to focus on what we can control.”

SCHEDULE

The Bruins have eight home games for the first time since 1939, including what might be the easiest nonconference slate of any Power Five team – Bowling Green, Alabama State, and South Alabama. The Sept. 10 game against Alabama State replaces a road game against Michigan and marks the first time the Bruins will play a Football Championship Subdivision team.

UCLA hosts Pac-12 favorite No. 7 Utah on Oct. 8 before traveling to No. 11 Oregon two weeks later. The Bruins will host Southern California on Nov. 19.

Minnesota football players’ discrimination lawsuit dismissed

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine former University of Minnesota football players who were accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that roiled the school’s football program.

The lawsuit against the school claimed that the players faced emotional distress and financial damage after being falsely accused of being sex offenders. The players, who were identified in the lawsuit as John Does, sought unspecified damages for willful and malicious discrimination.

A woman alleged up to a dozen football players raped her or watched and cheered at an off-campus party in 2016. None of the players were ever charged.

The university found that 10 football players committed sexual misconduct. Five of them were expelled or suspended for violating student conduct codes, and the others were cleared on appeal.

In their lawsuit, the players alleged that the woman initiated the sexual encounters with players and an underage recruit.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the former players did not prove any of their claims, including allegations of bias by university investigators or pressure from Athletic Director Mark Coyle and former President Eric Kaler, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

David Madgett, an attorney for the players, said Tuesday that they are considering an appeal but have to determine if it makes sense financially and in terms of letting the former players get on with their lives. He said it was disappointing that the outcome was determined by the judge’s version of events and not decided by a jury.

“It’s disappointing to see disputes decided in this way,” Madgett said. “That’s the way things are decided more and more these days. … It’s disappointing you don’t get your day in court.”

When the allegations became public in 2016, players threatened to boycott the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. But after a graphic report of the investigation was released, the players agreed to play in the game.

University of Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said the school appreciated the judge’s decision affirming the actions taken in the case. He said the university would continue its work focusing on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention and response.

Frank dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, but an appeals court reinstated part of it in 2021 and returned it to Frank.

The players, all of whom are Black, also initially claimed racial discrimination, but that claim was previously dismissed.

The only remaining claim alleged Title IX gender discrimination. The former players noted that they never faced criminal charges, but Frank’s ruling said that “is certainly not evidence of a judicial adjudication or that plaintiffs ‘were proven innocent.'”

The men also claimed that an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action used “manipulative tactics” with them in interviews and that their accuser helped draft the report. The players also alleged that “prior failed investigations motivated” the the school to punish them.

Frank said all the claims were unsupported by the evidence and “no reasonable jury could find that the University disciplined plaintiffs on the basis of sex.”

Michigan State player who swung helmet gets probation

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Michigan State football player who swung his helmet at a Michigan player in a stadium tunnel expressed regret Tuesday and said he’s “just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue” on the field.

Khary Crump, a defensive back, was sentenced to probation. He was one of seven Michigan State players charged in a skirmish that followed a loss at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 29.

Crump was the only Spartan facing a felony, but that charge was dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.

“Unfortunately, an exchange of words (took place), I felt attacked and unfortunately I did what I did,” Crump said of the tunnel altercation involving Michigan’s Gemon Green. “I’m not proud of that. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Crump was suspended by coach Mel Tucker. In addition, the Big Ten has suspended him for eight games in 2023.

“I had difficulties trying to stomach my actions … on that fateful day, but it happened. I can’t take it back,” Crump told MLive.com after the court hearing. “Honestly, I’m just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue in the future — on the football field, of course.”

At least four other players charged with misdemeanors Will Likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions. The cases against two others are pending.