Chip Kelly names Ethan Garbers UCLA’s starting quarterback

Old reliable won. But the kid stays in the picture. And so does the transfer.

In an unprecedented move for Chip Kelly, the UCLA coach on Monday awarded redshirt junior Ethan Garbers the starting quarterback role while saying that true freshman Dante Moore and transfer Collin Schlee would also play in the season opener against Coastal Carolina.

Kelly said Garbers, who spent the last two seasons as Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s backup, would start by virtue of having the most experience in the Bruins’ offense. But Moore and Schlee will also take turns directing that offense in an unspecified division of playing time that will be decided before kickoff Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

“All three of them deserve to play,” Kelly said. “They’ve all played outstanding, it’s been a really good battle with those guys, a healthy competition and they all have earned playing time.”

Schlee’s inclusion in the quarterback rotation was a bit of a surprise to those who watched the open spring practices because of his struggles with accuracy. But Kelly said the Kent State transfer had impressed since his arrival and his playing time was not won as a result of a recent jump in performance.

“I don’t think there was a jump,” Kelly said of the sidearm-throwing quarterback who is also probably the best runner of the group, “because I didn’t think he was behind anybody during this whole thing.”

Kelly would not say whether he wanted to settle on one quarterback after the opener, maintaining that his sole focus was on beating Coastal Carolina. Giving three quarterbacks playing time has the added benefit of keeping them happy — at least for the moment — after Moore arrived as the Bruins’ highest-rated prospect in at least two decades and Schlee was widely considered one of the top quarterbacks in the transfer portal.

“Our job has never been to keep people happy,” Kelly said at Pac-12 media day. “I think the way you keep your entire team happy is you’re fair with everybody and that things are won on the field and not just because someone came in and they had better accolades.”

Reporters were not allowed to watch the quarterbacks during fall training camp outside of a 15-minute window involving mostly individual drills, but during the open spring practices Garbers appeared ahead of the other candidates with his decision-making and accuracy.

Moore, the five-star prospect from Detroit who was bidding to become UCLA’s first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener since Josh Rosen in 2015, displayed exceptional arm strength and touch on his deep passes.

“I’m excited about what he can do because he’s shown a great grasp of what we do offensively, [he’s] a very accurate thrower, very calm and he doesn’t get worked up, he’s got a real good demeanor about how to play quarterback,” Kelly said of Moore. “Coming in as a true freshman and earning playing time as a true freshman is a credit to him in terms of where we believe his talent is and he’s shown it since he’s been here.”

From the moment he stepped on campus, Moore did not look, sound or act like a freshman, carrying himself with a swagger. He said that assurance largely came from his father, Otha.

“My father just showed me as a young Black man how to really go through life and feel real confident about yourself and always walk with your chest up, just show people that you’re confident in everything,” the younger Moore said earlier this month.

Moore said he canvassed as many teammates as possible in his efforts to learn, asking fellow quarterbacks and defensive backs about concepts and coverages.

“I’m not really worried about who I’m competing with,” Moore said during the first week of preseason camp. “I’m really competing with myself and bettering myself every day, worrying about my things that I have to work on and bettering myself.”

Steady in his mastery of the offense, Garbers gives Kelly a far more known quantity compared with the other contenders. He started one game as an injury replacement for Thompson-Robinson during the 2021 season, losing to Utah, and came off the bench to play after Thompson-Robinson was hurt against Oregon in 2021 and against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl last December. Garbers could not help his team complete a comeback in either of those games, though he did help the Bruins drive for a late go-ahead touchdown against Pittsburgh.

Since transferring from Washington, where he did not play during the 2020 season, Garbers has completed 57 of 88 passes (65%) for 599 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions. He’s also run for two touchdowns.

Garbers getting the start could be considered a victory for those who patiently wait their turn, diligently working behind the scenes to prove their worth. He’s enhanced many aspects of his game, becoming more vocal and studying the nuances of what it takes to become a top quarterback.

“One area I wanted to really key in on is 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 during the first week of preseason camp. Quarterbacks coach Ryan “Gunderson always says, ‘Drive the bus, get the kids to school.’ That’s our job as a quarterback. So that’s the role I’ve been trying to take this fall camp.”

Garbers will get his turn at the wheel, along with two teammates who will undoubtedly want to steer things in their own direction.