UCLA Bruins Name Ethan Garbers Starter…For Now

After Taylor Swift’s generational Era’s Tour captivated Los Angeles a few weeks ago, many a Bruin faithful were ready to declare the 2023 season opener as the beginning of UCLA football’s “Dante Moore Era.” Channeling the words of legendary College GameDay analyst, Lee Corso: “Not so fast my friends.”

In slightly surprising fashion, Head Coach Chip Kelly announced redshirt junior, Ethan Garbers, as starting quarterback for the Bruins’ September 2nd season opener versus Coastal Carolina. Kelly also touted Moore alongside fellow redshirt junior and Kent State transfer, Colin Schlee, as the two other quarterbacks expected to see action Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl. But Garbers, anointed as the official successor to the polarizing and electrifying Dorian Thompson-Robinson, is the obvious and delicious headliner. Here are four things to consider with Kelly’s decision to go with #4:

Preparation Meets Loyalty

I’m reminded of the legendary 1996 sports film, Jerry Maguire, when Tom Cruise’s character visits the family home of the de-facto #1 NFL draft pick, Frank Cushman. Maguire is shielding the onslaught from a rival firm to sign Cushman and finally comes to an agreement with his dad, who poignantly says, “I don’t do contracts, but you have my word, and it’s stronger than oak.”

Unfortunately for Maguire, the Cushman family ultimately signed a contract with Maguire’s arch-rival a short time later. Garbers of course is hoping for a different fate than the one incurred by Tom Cruise, but Kelly does possess that “soil of the Earth” integrity upon which classic moral tales are told. For Kelly, who was fiercely and also puzzlingly loyal to DTR for five arduous seasons, the combination of Garbers paying his dues over the past two seasons coupled with his incumbent knowledge of the nuanced, pro-style playbook was too powerful for Kelly to ignore.

Minimizes Transaction Costs

Chip is nothing if not a master strategist and selecting Garbers minimizes transaction costs down the line. By declaring Garbers the starter in week one, while also specifically mentioning Moore and Schlee to get playing time does one thing above all else: it keeps them all supremely engaged. Garbers stays on edge because he knows objects in his rearview mirror are much closer than they appear, Moore knows he’s dangerously close to winning the job with just slight refinements to his playbook knowledge and Schlee realizes that his superior arm strength and longer wingspan can be quickly molded to a power five level.

Even if Chip makes a change later in the year, it’s a fluid wrinkle from this original narrative because each guy knows it’s a very attainable winner-take-all competition from here, and the best man hasn’t been etched in stone yet. Conversely, if Chip selected true freshman Moore as the starter, Garbers begins to seriously assess his options around the transfer portal while Schlee’s confidence as a Power Five starter significantly craters. Thus, in that scenario, if Moore were to struggle as all true freshmen undoubtedly do, and Chip had to make a change, he’d be relying on a quarterback room potentially disengaged and departed. Checkmate Chip strikes again.

Coastal Carolina is No Cupcake

The other element to this decision is a profound respect for quarterback Grayson McCall and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. McCall is a fourth-year starter with 8,086 career passing yards, 78 career touchdowns versus only 8 interceptions, and a 28-5 career starting record. This includes two Top 25 wins, one of which was a nail-bitingly dramatic, ESPN GameDay, New Years Six implication triumph over Zach Wilson and national title contender BYU in 2020.

Coastal Carolina might have a talent discrepancy when they arrive at Pasadena’s breathtaking view of the San Gabriel mountains, but not a confidence one. Kelly, understanding the need to counter McCall’s system familiarity with quarterback experience of his own certainly had to play a role in his strategic decision-making. Had this been last year’s Alabama State or this year’s North Carolina Central as the opener, lack of experience and resulting debut nerves wouldn’t have potentially played as big a role. But not against the “anytime, any place, anywhere” Coastal. Not against the gamer McCall.

Justyn Time For The Exit?

The one glaring omission from Kelly’s quarterback announcement was redshirt freshman, Justyn Martin. The 6’4, 220-pound four-star prospect from Inglewood High School looked like a top-three Bruin quarterback to me coming out of Spring ball. However, Martin’s delegation as QB4 should have his inner circle seriously considering the transfer portal.

After all, including this season, Garbers has two years of eligibility left and will only have more offensive fluency and resilience moving forward. Moore has four years of eligibility left and will only grow more comfortable with his body and the Kelly offensive system. While Schlee has two years of eligibility left and will only get more in sync with the Power Five game slowing down as time passes. All three guys ahead of Martin are going to get better…so how much better does Martin have to get simply to dent further in the rotation?

Unfortunately, the writing on the wall translates to a transfer. Stanford and Cal potentially make a lot of sense given their current lack of quarterback depth, respectively, and the possibility of still playing in a Power Five conference if they can close on their ACC deal.

We’re just entering Week 1, but the storylines surrounding the 2023 Bruins make it already feel like bowl season. Buckle up Bruin fans, the ride is just getting started.