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the Gekko Files: previewing UCLA Bruins football in 2018

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Can Chip Kelly turn around the PAC 12’s most underachieving program?

NCAA Football: UCLA-Head Coach Chip Kelly Press Conference Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few seasons no team better encapsulates the mistrust that college football fans have for PAC 12 football more so than the maddeningly underachieving UCLA Bruins. As Jon Wilner noted a few weeks back, there are only five teams in all of college football (Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson, and LSU) that produced more NFL draft picks than UCLA did during Jim Mora’s tenure. But that raw talent produced no PAC 12 championships and just 29 conference wins over six seasons - less than the totals posted by five other PAC 12 teams: Washington, Stanford, Oregon, USC, and ASU.

UCLA is nestled in Westwood with a picturesque backdrop that includes beautiful beaches and the Rose Bowl. They are blessed with the most fertile recruiting grounds west of the state of Texas and they represent one of the best public universities in the nation. There really shouldn’t be any excuses as to why UCLA hasn’t been able to do more on a national scale. But each season under Jim Mora, and the several seasons before him, just seemed to bring new and maddening excuses as to why the Bruins hadn’t been able to break through. Their program has constantly been the one that does the least with the most when it comes to resources and talent.

The Jim Mora era is now mercifully over. But for a program that has seen a seemingly endless procession of mid-tier or washed-up coaches since the glory days of Terry Donahue, does that portend a reason for optimism? The arrival of Chip Kelly as Mora’s replacement has certainly stimulated the fan base. But is Kelly really the missing piece? Will his innovations from a decade ago still resonate in a conference that has adapted and moved forward? Is there really enough talent on this roster to compete for a South title right now?

It’s “sun’s out, gun’s out” time as we start our annual PAC 12 preview series with a look at UCLA. The Gekko is back and ready to do some work. Let’s get started.

UCLA’s offense

UCLA Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
RB depth OL depth RB Soso Jamabo TE Devin Asiasi (txfr)
playmaking potential QB question mark TE Caleb Wilson QB Wilton Speight (txfr)
Chip Kelly WR Theo Howard WR Brian Addison (TFr)

Despite the fact that defense has and will continue to be the biggest concern for this team, all eyes will be glued to the offense this fall. There is good reason for that, not the least of which is the fact that offensive innovation is Chip Kelly’s hallmark. We’ve got all sorts of intrigue happening here: high-level recruits, incoming transfers, position switches, new coaches and playbooks...everything that a sports blog needs to keep clicks high in the doldrums of the offseason.

Cactus Bowl - Kansas State v UCLA
Will Devon Modster emerge as UCLA’s QB?
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

We have to start with what turned out to be the true bugaboo for Jim Mora: his offensive line. Despite the fact that several high-level players have been drafted off UCLA’s line, dramatic underperformance as a unit has been an ongoing theme. Last season, UCLA finished bottom-of-the-NCAA results in key line metrics such as rushing points per play (118th in the nation), adjusted line yards (105th) and stuff rate (98th). This despite the fact that UCLA produced three all-conference level players.

The Bruins are rebuilding everything on the line. They return just two starters - though they look like a couple of good ones - in tackle Andre James (junior) and guard Michael Alves (sophomore). Beyond those two, who knows?

Junior Josh Wariboko-Alali is a guy to watch. He’s an interior lineman who has been biding his time and could have breakout potential in Chip Kelly’s offense. Former DT Boss Tagaloa has made a position switch to offensive center in order to help out with depth concerns and could have an immediate impact on the starting lineup. Once you get past those guys, you are looking at a ragtag group of transfers, former d-linemen, and incoming true freshmen to flesh out the remainder of the two-deep.

Fortunately for Chip, the o-line seems to be the only position where depth is a real issue. Everywere else there appear to be ample bodies, if not experience. Take QB, for example.

Even following the “transfer surprise” of former UW QB K.J. Carta-Samuels, the Bruins expect to have a spirited competition this fall. The incumbent is sophomore Devon Modster. The 6’2” 210lb junior has a strong arm and the kind of mobility that Kelly values, but he’s not been a big play producer. That opens the door for others.

Michigan graduate transfer Wilton Speight is a former high-level player in his own right. His physique resembles Ben Roethlisberger - 6’5”, 243lbs - which would seem to be a poor fit for Kelly. But he has a cannon and a ton of experience. He’ll compete with Speight and incoming super-recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson - one of the highest rated dual-threat QBs in the 2018 class.

If I had to bet on the outcome of the fall competition, I’d still wager on Modster even after a rocky spring. But I’d hedge that bet. The truth is that it is going to be an all-out position battle where fans will even hear names like Matt Lynch and Austin Burton as legitimate challengers.

The rushing attack features a couple of names that most PAC 12 fans will recognize: senior Bolu Olorunfunmi and senior Soso Jamabo. Each of these guys is brimming with talent, but neither has really translated those talents into production. In a high-tempo Chip Kelly offense, it is reasonable to assume one or both of these guys will emerge as significantly better than what we’ve seen to date. But there are questions here, especially given that neither really took over during the spring.

UCLA’s receiver situation is in some flux. Gone is the highly productive duo of Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews. Junior Theo Howard will have a great opportunity to pick up the slack as the “big play guy” while former walk-on Christian Pabico fills the “possession guy” role. There isn’t a ton of experience after those two, but there are some very interesting recruits coming in to complement current players who are looking for their first opportunities. I’ll be keeping my eyes on a few of those players including slot guy Demetric Felton, freshman Bryan Addison (6’5” 185), and freshman Chase Cota (6’4” 195). The breakout of any or all of these guys will depend greatly on who wins the QB competition and how Chip Kelly decides to attack PAC 12 defenses that increasingly use five DBs in base sets.

Tight end is an interesting situation. Caleb Wilson returns fully healthy as one of the best, if not the best, receiving TE in the conference. Former Michigan star Devin Asiasi is now eligible after sitting out his transfer year and will have a great opportunity to step in as a blocker and outlet receiver. This could be a real position of strength for the Bruins.

UCLA’s defense

UCLA Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
returning talent middle line depth S Adarius Pickett ILB Tyree Thompson (Txfr)
pass rush potential rush defense overall DE/OLB Jaelan Phillips DL Moses Robinson-Carr (RFr)
leadership OLB Kesian Lucier-South DB Stephan Blaylock (TFr)

The defensive side of the ball is where the fate of the Bruins’ 2018 season will be determined. While there is a stockpile of good recruits littered throughout the various classes, there is also a track record of a lack of development, poor fundamentals, and health concerns. Mix in a shift from a four-lineman to a three-lineman configuration and some position changes, and you have a recipe for a rebuilding year.

California v UCLA
The Bruins need to see a lot of Jaelan Phillips doing this to quarterbacks in 2018.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Nowhere is that more obvious than on the defensive line. The unit loses only DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (graduation) and Tagaloa (position switch) but still carries with it significant questions. The Bruins don’t really have a true anchor nose tackle to build around, but they will likely try to mold junior Chigoze Nnoruka (6’2” 300 lbs) into that guy. Nnoruka plays high and has been used more as a defensive end, so this may be a difficult transition. Beyond him, you are looking at a young guy in Martin Andrus and a couple of true freshmen as real middle-of-the-line kinds of options. This is a situation to watch.

The Bruins look better stocked at the defensive end positions. Junior Rick Wade and sophomore Marcus Moore are both capable and experienced players. Both of those guys may be a little undersized for setting edges, but were very productive a season ago. Sophomore Osa Odighizuwa is another guy to watch. At 6’2” and 280 lbs, he has the right kind of measurables to man the position and is seen by many UCLA watchers as a breakout candidate on the defense. I’ll also be curious to see how converted tight end Moses Robinson-Carr pans out as an inside/outside kind of rotational player.

The pass rush will be super-charged with the moves of former d-linemen Jaelen Phillips and Keisean Lucier-South to rush-end roles. Both players are supremely talented, tall and fast. I can really see this pair becoming the premier pass-rushing duo in the conference, especially if Phillips can get and stay healthy following a choppy true freshman campaign. Former five-star recruit Mique Juarez - now a 6’2” 260 lb sophomore - may get some run as a pass rusher in addition to his duties as an OLB.

UCLA’s linebacker situation is an interesting one above and beyond the position moves. On one hand, you have to like the talent that is on hand. Inside guys like Lokeni Toailoa (junior), Krys Barnes (junior) and Josh Woods (senior) have game experience and inherent talent. On the other hand, their productivity to date doesn’t really spark a ton of confidence. As such, I expect transfer Tyree Thompson and young players like Juarez and freshman Bo Calvert to get some opportunities.

The best news on the defense is likely the secondary. While several players here have demonstrated a penchant for getting burned, the reality is that Chip Kelly inherits a lot of players with experience and some accomplishment.

The core of the unit is built around a bunch of upperclassmen. Safety Adarius Pickett is more of a run-game enforcer. He’ll partner with fellow senior Octavius Spencer and junior Will Lockett to make up the safety rotation. Senior Nate Meadors leads the cornerbacks and is joined by the rising Darnay Holmes - a talented true sophomore that definitely took his licks last year but still managed to lead the team in INTs (3). If you are looking for a possible young player to break onto the scene, keep a lookout for true freshman safety Stephan Blaylock.

It’s hard to get a handle on how all of this will ultimately net out for UCLA in 2018. The talent is there, but so much depends on players that just haven’t produced in the snaps that they’ve been given up to this point. I have to think that we will see a definite improvement in the rush defense, even if it is just getting to “average” standards. The real key will be whether or not UCLA can create some possession changes and turnovers out of the strength that I see in their pass rush capability.

One Breakout Player

WR Demetric Felton

I thought really hard about putting either Tagaloa or Holmes into this spot. But I kept thinking about how Chip Kelly will likely impact this team with his philosophy and who will likely most benefit from that. My conclusion is that the unheralded slot guy who is willing to move around the line, run routes inside, and make plays in space is the best answer.

And Demetric Felton - a former four-star recruit whose measurables look much like former Oregon star De’Anthony Thomas - is probably that answer for Chip Kelly.

Like so many others, Felton hasn’t really shown it on the field yet. But the sophomore had a good spring and positioned himself to take over from Darren Andrews as UCLA’s slot guy. With opposing defenses likely to focus on Theo Howard and Caleb Wilson, Felton ought to have the chance for a real breakout.

Projecting UCLA in 2018

I don’t love UCLA going into year #1 of Chip. While there is clearly talent on the roster and opportunity for improvement all across the board, this feels like Chris Petersen’s inaugural season at UW (to put it terms that Husky fans will recognize). There is uncertainty at QB. There are a lot of position changes happening. Questions exist along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. And, of course, there are whole new playbooks and schemes to digest.

It doesn’t feel like a recipe for success for a program that already has issues with execution.

The UCLA schedule looks tough. The out-of-conference features a road trip to Norman, Oklahoma sandwiched between a couple of tough outs in Cincinnati and Fresno State. The conference schedule does have five home games, including a visit from UW on October 6th. But their rotational misses are Oregon State and Washington State - two teams that I’m sure Chip Kelly would prefer to see (as opposed to UW and Oregon) in his first year.

The other thing that really jumps out here is the timing of the bye, which leads to a nine straight conference game stretch. That seems particularly brutal to me.

When you add it all up, I think that UCLA ends up in the middle of the South with a near .500 record. There are just too many learning curves to traverse against a less-than-forgiving schedule to justify a more generous projection. That said, I think we’d be foolish not to acknowledge what capable coaching can bring to the table and it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see a major upset or two along the way.

Let’s just hope it isn’t the first weekend of October.