As a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder who “can’t move a bit,” Ryan Gunderson admittedly can’t relate when Dorian Thompson-Robinson tucks the ball and takes off.
As UCLA quarterbacks coach, Gunderson appreciates the athleticism and playmaking ability. Even if it’s hard to watch when Thompson-Robinson leaves the ground to hurdle a defender.
“He kinda makes your heart stop sometimes when he is out there, what’s he gonna do?” Gunderson told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone. “He’s courageous. He’s not afraid of any of that stuff and is always looking to make a play. When he’s rolling and he’s confident and he’s feeling good, that stuff tends to happen. It’s fun to watch.”
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The wow plays were part of the reason the Browns drafted Thompson-Robinson in the fifth round, No. 140 overall, on April 29. He’ll be in town with the rest of the draft class and undrafted signees for rookie minicamp this weekend.
The courage in his play led Bruins coach Chip Kelly to call him the toughest kid he’s been around.
“The kid’s just extremely competitive,” Gunderson said. “He just hates losing. He’s got some emotion and some competitive drive to him that’s different.”
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The intangibles are necessary at quarterback. So is natural ability.
Thompson-Robinson (6-1 5/8, 203 pounds) has it as a thrower and a runner. He passed for 10,710 yards with 88 touchdowns and rushed for 1,827 yards and 28 touchdowns in 50 games and 48 starts for the Bruins.
The highlight videos are filled with long runs and the occasional hurdle. Thompson-Robinson wasn’t afraid to leave his feet, which kept Gunderson on his toes.
“I was just trying to get him to not jump over people,” he said. “I guess more so try to talk him into let’s not take any unnecessary contact. Let’s not take one in the ankle or the knee or the shoulder.”
All quarterbacks with an inclination to run must manage the risk. UCLA didn’t call a lot of designed runs, so Thompson-Robinson would create when he felt it necessary.
“We all know the game has changed a lot, where mobility for the quarterback position is crucially important,” Browns director of college scouting Max Paulus said. “He’s very quick, he can escape, create plays with his legs. That is one of the things we really liked about his skill set.”
The pass-run combination is similar to that of Browns starter Deshaun Watson, who trained with Thompson-Robinson during trips to Los Angeles.
“I think I do have some very similar traits and some very special talents of my own, but I think the one thing that me and Deshaun really have in common is how we play the game from the neck up,” Thompson-Robinson said after being picked. “He’s a real smart dude, really knows how to study a playbook, break it down. So he’s like a coach on the field, and I try to come with the same approach.”
Kelly coached in the NFL and runs a system more complicated than many in college. The lessons should serve Thompson-Robinson well as he learns coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme.
“He is smart,” Gunderson said. “The understanding of an NFL offense, I feel like he’s been prepared for that with protection, different types of run schemes, different type of pass schemes that we’ve run here.”
Thompson-Robinson, whose mom was raised near Marblehead, is confident in the base he built with the Bruins.
“I’ve been running the NFL system for quite some time now,” he said. “Coach Kelly has been able to add on more stuff to my plate to make sure that I’m getting as prepared as I can for the next level, and I thank him a bunch for that. So I think I’m extremely prepared just with the offense I ran, the responsibility I had in the offense and then just my head coach trusting in me. I think that’s the biggest part for a quarterback is to gain your coaches’ and your players’ trust. For me to be able to do that, I think was huge.”
The stats prove the Browns didn’t draft just a runner. Thompson-Robinson set school records with 12,537 yards of total offense, 860 completions, 88 touchdown passes and 116 total TDs.
“It’s not the biggest arm I’ve ever seen, but for a guy his size, he can really throw it,” Gunderson said. “And then the ball spins really, really tight. I would think for somebody who’s gonna play in the AFC North and some elements, you’ve gotta be able to spin it tight to cut through wind or weather. He can do that.”
His completion percentage improved from 62.2 in 2021 to a school-record 69.6 last season, his fifth as a starter. The Browns followed throughout his career — led by area scouts Zach Ayers and Josh Cox — and continuing at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas, the scouting combine in Indianapolis and a visit to Berea.
“The big two things that we saw specifically from 2021 to 2022 was decision-making and accuracy,” Paulus said of Thompson-Robinson’s improvement.
Gunderson said the focus was letting the game come to Thompson-Robinson and not forcing things in an attempt to make a play.
“And then when the opportunity comes about, we would talk about having a gear shift,” Gunderson said. “You can just be in second or third and just drive. And then when it’s time to put it into sixth, then go. But we don’t need to live in sixth all the time because we’re gonna burn out. I think he got better at not trying to make a play all the time.”
Thompson-Robinson is expected to compete with Kellen Mond to be the No. 3 quarterback behind Watson and Joshua Dobbs and ideally take over as the No. 2 in 2024.
“I plan on coming in and obviously working as hard as I can to gain the team’s trust, but at the same time, my development is going to be the most important part in this whole piece,” he said. “Obviously you guys have Deshaun and he’s going to do wonderful things this year. So for me to be able to learn from him and then ultimately be able to take the reins later on, I think would be very beneficial for me.”
Thompson-Robinson sees a succession plan, even with four years left on Watson’s fully guaranteed $230 million deal.
“I haven’t met very many quarterbacks that aren’t confident in themselves and that’s probably a good trait,” general manager Andrew Berry said.