If they held a prize for winning the offseason, Bruins fans were sure that the claim on it was theirs going into 2018. The Chip Kelly sweepstakes went in favor of UCLA as the one time college football savant turned over-hyped NFL washout chose to return to the PAC 12.
Upon his arrival, the expectations mounted among fans and analysts alike. Jim Mora had left the Bruins roster loaded with blue-chippers. The southern California recruiting scene was ripe with talent. The setting remains one of the finest in all of college sports. And the Rose Bowl is their home field.
Here is the thing: Chip Kelly never cared.
He never cared about your expectations. He never cared about the media projections. He never cared about your recruiting rankings. And he didn’t really care about Jim Mora and what he may or may have left behind.
Should we then be surprised about what happened during the season?
Oh, the Oregon hyper-speed offense was not reincarnated in Westwood? Chip doesn’t care.
You question the wisdom of naming Wilton Speight the starter ahead of experienced Devon Modster? Chip doesn’t care.
Turning the keys of the car over to true freshman once Speight went down? Chip doesn’t care.
Starting freshman and sophomores all over the place while perfectly fine, talented upperclassmen sat on the bench? Chip doesn’t care.
3-9 and no post-season appearance? Obviously, Chip doesn’t care.
Love him or hate him, Chip Kelly is just one of those kinds of coaches who has the ability to tune out all the noise and commit himself wholly to a single vision. It’s his best trait, but also the one thing most likely to get him fired from any one job. He simply doesn’t compromise.
The real question isn’t whether the Chipster can get his team to execute against his vision. It is whether or not that vision will result in success for the program. And therein lies the question that we will get to in today’s Gekko Files preview.
Let’s dive in and form whatever collective opinion we will. Of course, just don’t expect Chip Kelly to care. He won’t.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that what we all expected to see out of UCLA’s offense in 2018 was hardly what we actually observed. The emphasis of speed across the position groups gave way to more balance. The prioritization of tempo above all other success factors gave way to the idea of “optimal pace”. The notion of a dual-threat QB leading a multi-faceted attack gave way to ... Wilton Speight. It was hardly Oregon circa 2012.
And the results were hardly compelling. With both Speight and true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson manning the QB position, UCLA struggled with overall efficiency. They constantly played behind the sticks, struggled with third down conversions and generated very few explosive plays. In fact, their 18 plays from scrimmage of 30+ yards were second worst in the PAC, ahead of only Cal.
The key for reversing that trend will be the offensive line. On paper, the Bruins look like a team that could take a serious step forward in that position group. Four of five starters from last year return headlined by OG Michael Alves and C Boss Tagaloa, the latter of whom successfully completed his conversion from defensive tackle to become one of the better interior linemen in the conference. OT Jake Burton has demonstrated competency at both tackle spots while incoming 5-star true freshman Sean Rhyan looks like the real deal. There is both experience and talent on this line. The question is whether or not they have turned the corner on the Chip Kelly learning curve.
The quarterback position looks like it will once again fall to Thompson-Robinson. The talented but inconsistent signal caller known to most as DTR returned to the team this summer with a much more developed physique and with a better sense of the playbook. At his best (like he was against UW a year ago), DTR is a multi-tool QB with a big arm and just enough accuracy to make some plays. At his worst, such as against Fresno State a year ago, he’s a tentative decision-maker who locks on to receivers and fails to make use of his athleticism. Keeping in mind that he is still a very young QB and that he played a tough schedule under difficult circumstances last year, there is no reason to think that he can’t take quantum steps forward in his development this season.
But if he cannot, there are a couple of options who will be looking to make a competition of it this fall. Sophomore Austin Burton had a terrific spring as he proved to the coaching staff that he is more than willing to take risks within the confines of the playbook. 5’11” true freshman Chase Griffin is an “it” player that Chip Kelly apparently adores. UW transfer Colson Yankoff is a potential wildcard as he is petitioning the NCAA for immediate eligibility.
The bottom line here is that there is more than enough talent at QB to make Kelly’s offense work, even if the options behind DTR lack real experience.
I’m a bit more concerned about the receiving situation. Theo Howard returns this year and by now has established himself as one of the more reliable receivers in the league. The problem is that he hasn’t really become the playmaker that many people had projected. 6’4” sophomore Chase Cota may still yet become that kind of playmaker, but hasn’t had enough opportunity yet. When he’s been targeted, he’s shown that he has great hands, though not a ton of breakaway speed. Other guys such as the experienced Demetric Felton and twitchy newcomer Jaylen Irwin are around and can help in the speed department.
Michael Ezieke is a name that many fans would like to see fill the big receiver role vacated by the departure of Caleb Wilson. As a 6’5” receiver, he physically fits the bill, but his ability to catch and hold on to the ball needs to improve dramatically. If he doesn’t emerge, the Bruins have some nice TE options to lean on including former blue-chipper Devin Asiasi and Jordan Wilson, though both of these guys are better blockers than pass catchers.
Joshua Kelley is back and will provide stability for Chip Kelly in the running game. The former JUCO transfer surprised everyone last year with both his durability and toughness in picking up the slack with former starters Bolu Olorunfunmi and Sosa Jamabo unexpectedly unavailable for much of the season. He’s more of a workhorse (consider his 40 carry, 289 yard performance against USC in the last game of the season) than a long-range bomber. But he’s one of the best runners in the league and a great piece to build your rushing attack around.
Depth is a real concern should anything derail Kelley. Martell Irby is more than capable as a backup. However, all you’ve got once you get past him is third-down back Kazmeir Allen (at this point more of a track star than a football player) and a handful of players who’ve never taken a snap. Two star, greyshirt backup Keegan Jones may, in fact, emerge as the #3 guy by the time the fall is complete.
On paper, there is no reason that the Bruins shouldn’t take a step-function leap in their overall offensive production from a year ago, even if it remains unclear where the chunk plays will come from. In many ways, it is the South’s facsimile of the Huskies offense: lots of potential just waiting to be unlocked. It is all about growth with the talent on hand - especially from the offensive line and at the QB position. Of course, keeping Joshua Kelley healthy is also important.
Honestly speaking, it is hard to imagine UCLA’s defense being any worse than the stinker of a unit that Chip Kelly and DC Jerry Azzinaro rolled out last year. If your only exposure to the Bruins’ D last year was the Huskies game, let me assure you that that was the highlight of the year. UCLA finished 11th in scoring D, 11th in total D and 11th in rushing D for the season. A severe lack of a pass rush (126th in the nation in sack rate) and an inability to stop opponents in the red zone (a whopping 39 red zone TDs surrendered) were the most eye popping problems.
Check out Bill Connelley’s radar chart on the Bruins’ D from last season:
If this situation is going to improve, the defensive line simply must turn the corner. Azzinaro prefers girth along his three-man front and he certainly has plenty of it to work with. Massive Atonio Mafi (380 lbs), DT Tyler Manoa (310 lbs) and DE Osa Odighizuwa (285 lbs) make up what might be the biggest starting front three in the conference. None of these guys is really going to get after a QB (though Osa led the team with 4 sacks last year). Their job is to crush pockets and gobble up running backs. Both Mafi and Manoa are just sophomores, so it will be interesting to see if they can make big jumps in their development.
If they can, the linebacking corps has some potential. ILB Krys Barnes broke out last season and enters his senior year as one of the top two players on the D. He’s a reliable tackler who demonstrates great versatility. He will partner with fellow seniors ILB Josh Woods and OLB Keisean Lucier-South to form a very dependable if not flashy trio. I should also mention the depth that another breakout from last year - senior Tyree Thompson - brings to the table. Even if KLS can’t get over some of the academic issues he’s dealing with (he’s projected to miss the first part of the season), this is a unit that ought to be able to provide some defensive efficiency for Azzinaro.
The key for this unit is whether or not a true EDGE player can emerge. A fall camp battle between sophomores Elijah Wade and Odua Isabor promises to be the most interesting of the fall. However, the two only combined for one sack last year (and therein lies the problem). Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any ready-made new players in position to step up with incoming freshmen Noah Keeter and Hayden Harris looking like redshirt candidates.
Pass rush struggles might cast a pall over what might otherwise be a pretty decent secondary. CB Darnay Holmes is the unquestioned leader of the unit. A smaller DB, Holmes shows a ton of fight at the LOS and an ability to stick close to his assignment. His 3 INTs and 11 PBUs led the team last year.
Fellow CB Elijah Gates - another smallish kind of DB - looks like he might be ready for a breakout of his own. After taking some lumps as a freshman, Gates played in every game a year ago and proved to be a reliable if not flashy corner.
Behind those two is little proven depth. Sophomore Jay Shaw looks like the main third CB. But a breakout from either 6’3” RS freshman Rayshad Williams or 6’1” RS freshman Patrick Jolly would be welcome to help give that CB group some size.
Safety Quentin Lake looks to provide some muscle on the back end of the defense. He was one of the better DBs in the league against the run last year though he doesn’t generate a ton of big plays. His new partner will be sophomore Stephen Blaylock - an unproven commodity whom most UCLA fans fully expect to blossom into stardom this season. Junior Mo Osling and a handful of freshman are the entirety of the safety depth behind those two. If you are looking for a name to watch in this unit, UCLA fans seem to be hopeful about redshirt freshman Kenny Churchwell III.
There are good players scattered all around this defense, but there are no apparent playmaker candidates who could help to take this unit to the next level. I would fully expect the Bruins to improve in the redzone. However, the pass rush has no obvious solutions and it is not clear to me who will help create turnovers and deliver extra possessions to the Bruins offense. Short of a remarkable breakout coming from a guy like Blaylock or Elijah Wade, I think the ceiling for this unit is no better than a middle of the PAC kind of group.
One Breakout Player
OL Sean Rhyan
It is not often that the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base ride on the shoulders of a freshman offensive lineman. But welcome to the bizzaro world of UCLA.
Fortunately, Rhyan appears to have the kind of shoulders that can carry such expectations.
The young OT prospect is not your typical incoming freshman lineman. He’s a fully formed, 6’4”, 310 lb multi-tooled athlete. He comes to UCLA as an accomplished surfer, an all-state track and field star and a recognized rugby prospect who still harbors dreams of playing for the national team. His wingspan is 6’7”. He has a 34” vertical and can run the 40 at 5.4 seconds. If you were to come across him on campus, you’d swear that he was an upperclassmen both in terms of his physical features and in the way he carries himself.
Quite simply, this freshman has “star” written all over him. I can see him fitting in at LT from day one and quickly climbing the ladder to all-conference consideration.
Projecting UCLA in 2019
I have to admit, I really really want to pull the trigger on calling the Bruins the break out team of the PAC in 2019. There are many good reasons to do so: an offensive line stocked with talent that is starting to mature, depth of talent at QB, a solid running game, stoutness in the middle of the defense and the presence of a shutdown corner.
Those are good things. But, as Chris Petersen alluded to during the PAC 12 Media Day, teams win on plays but lose on potential. That’s where UCLA is right now. It is easy to envision what could be, but it is hard to synch that with what we’ve already seen on the field. Until we see some long distance passing plays ... or pressure in the pass rush ... or forced turnovers leading to short fields for the offense, it will all just be potential with this team.
The schedule provides a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the opening few weeks are brutal. The Bruins out of conference slate includes a trip to Cincinnati followed by home games against SDSU and Oklahoma. One or two wins out of those three is about the best you could expect before UCLA trips to both Pullman and Tucson. That’s a rough first five games.
Things lighten up a little bit after that. In fact, UCLA will only play one game outside of the state of California beginning in October. That will help to temper an in-conference slate that has just four home games overall. The Bruins will also get a little extra steam in their engine by not having to play either Washington or Oregon this season.
I think the net effect of the schedule is positive even if UCLA struggles with the opening three weeks. When you weigh that against where the young Bruins are in their overall state of development, this does feel like a potential bowl team who might struggle to just get over the 6 win line but whose ceiling should be right around the 8 win mark.
I’m not sure if that 6 to 8 win range would satisfy the notoriously demanding UCLA fan base, but I would consider that a big step forward from Chip Kelly’s three-win debut and a positive sign of things to come.