As UCLA hired Chip Kelly to revitalize a stagnant football program, they garnered the national headlines for a 72-hour period. But what happens after that? Since Kelly has not coached at the college level since the end of the 2012 season, there has been a reach, including in this space, to try to connect his success at Oregon with what he could potentially do in Westwood. Kelly says we need to stop trying to connect the dots from the past. Maybe UCLA football needs its own Chip Kelly dots to connect.
UCLA Football Needs Its Own Chip Kelly Dots
Kelly had a magnificent run in Eugene. In his 2009-2012 span at Oregon, he went 46-7 overall and 33-3 in conference. He took the Ducks to the BCS Championship game, two Rose Bowls, and a Fiesta Bowl. He also pulled in a national Coach of the Year. During that same time frame, UCLA was 26-27 overall and 16-20 in conference. Those were the combined efforts of Rick Neuheisel, (three years), and Jim Mora, (one year). Let’s help with the math. They were 20 games worse than Oregon overall and 17 games worse in conference in that four year period.
It’s easy to understand how UCLA fans, in their giddiness over the uncontaminated potential, want to see how the Oregon years under Kelly can translate to possibilities in the here and now. With Kelly limiting media access to pre-season camp practices to 15 minutes of drills and warm-ups, it’s easy to see how others try to draw correlations between what was, in his coaching past, with what little they can see now.
Is The Future Visible In The Past?
One intrepid reporter spent weeks combing through old Oregon game tapes from the Kelly era. There was a lot of looking at the receivers in the lineup each year. The stats the reporter found were bearing out that depth in the receiving corps and running backs was key. Kelly’s response? Man, did you overthink that? Ok, what he really said was, “That was a good thought, but you can get fooled by statistics. We had so many receivers catching balls because we blew so many people out. Our backup receivers played a ton because we were in the first quarter of a game and it was 35-0, so we were like let’s get the backups in the game. When we were beating people 40-0 at halftime, the starters are drinking Gatorade the rest of the day. Check the Gatorade consumption stats.”
Kelly’s point was clear in that all things must be taken in the bigger context. The running backs are getting tons of carries? Check to see when the carries are coming. It could just as easily be they are in the second half when the team has a big lead and he is looking to shorten the game by killing some clock. A receiver has 67 catches? He could have 90 if the team is playing in close games and the starters are getting more snaps.
Kelly also cautioned not to put too much emphasis on the offensive stats reminding us that it was his defense that was dominant enough to give the offense all the opportunities it needed to put up the big numbers in efficient fashion, and average 15-18 more snaps per game than its opponents over those four years.
So, we are warned by Kelly that the past is the past. The game has changed in the six years since he last walked a college sideline, and the future at UCLA will be one of its own creation. But with practices closed for all but 15 minutes of drills and some vague sound bytes, anyone looking for some thoughts on the season is left to, you guessed it, connect some dots. If the past is any indication of the future, it is very possible that at any moment, Kelly will completely close practices as he did at Oregon in the week leading up to the season opener.
Connecting Dots Where We Warned Not To
That leaves us with what little we have seen thus far and what we have from Kelly to connect anything at all.
It is logical to assume it is a two-man race for the quarterback job between “incumbent” Devon Modster and freshman phenom Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Modster can run a Kelly-style offense, and “DTR” has been drawing rave reviews from his teammates going all the way back to the Summer workouts. Wide receiver Theo Howard referred to him as a “freak of an athlete” when we spoke during the Summer. But Kelly made it clear to us that he is more married to wins than he is shoving his offensive round peg into a square hole. If that means adjusting because he can win more now with graduate transfer Wilton Speight from Michigan, then that is what he will do.
There is plenty of depth and diversity at running back, receiver and tight end for Kelly to implement whatever offense he wants with whichever quarterback. Spring showed a lot of rolling out of the quarterback and running backs catching the ball out of the backfield. Now? Don’t try to connect any dots because there is no one watching any live-action play. But Bolu Olorunfunmi, Kazmeir Allen, and Brandon Stephens should be enough. The receiving and tight end groups have speed, height, hands and better blocking than in previous years.
The offensive line is razor thin in terms of depth. Boss Tagaloa was already moved from the defensive line in the Spring to play center. Now he may be moved again as freshman Chris Murray also gets a shot at the starting lineup. Injuries during the season are going to be a headache.
The Defense Has The Numbers
The defense has a lot of bodies. Where they go and how they are utilized are dots that are still up in the air. The Spring loss of Greg Rogers cost the defensive line an impact player. Last week’s season-ending knee injury to starting linebacker Josh Woods will cause a lot of shuffling. The removal of defensive back Octavius Spencer from the program will diminish depth.
Because the Bruins will be in a 3-4 Flex defense, it means there is a bigger role for a healthy Jaelan Phillips. It means an active Keisean Lucier-South is going to be moved a lot. A returned and rejuvenated Mique Juarez will have a place. Junior college transfers Je’Vari Anderson and Tyree Thompson will be in the mix a lot. They both performed very well in the Spring. The defensive secondary is also deep now. But what happens by week five after injuries set in remains to be seen.
One Oregon dot that does not belong with UCLA, for this season at least, is the game results. Kelly reminded us that the Ducks were blowing teams out on a weekly basis. That is not going to happen in the 2018 Bruins world. Not with Oklahoma, Stanford, USC, Washington, and Oregon on the schedule. Not with question marks at quarterback and thin margins for error on the offensive line.
A seven-win season with a second-tier bowl game would be a success for UCLA. It would bring down Kelly’s win percentage, but those are some connections that belong in the past. Kelly wants UCLA to be able to distinctively create its own dots to connect in a successful future yet to be built.