The Give And Take Of UCLA Football

With all of the coaching shifts and money spent during the off-season, did schools get what they wanted? Certainly, the fan base in Tallahassee did not expect Willie Taggart to struggle to get Florida State to 2-2. Kevin Sumlin walked into Tucson with a $10 million cash buyout in hand from Texas A&M. Arizona is also 2-2 and quarterback Khalil Tate is now a former Heisman candidate with the new offense in place. Scott Frost is getting a pass for Nebraska’s abysmal start because he is a Cornhusker.

Then you go to Westwood where the meltdown over Chip Kelly’s 0-3 start at UCLA borders on unhinged. The criticism is coming from the fan base, the bloggers, and from within. To say it has been a rough start would be an understatement. This is the give and take of UCLA football.

The Give And Take Of UCLA Football

The Defense

Can anyone remember the last time they were completely happy with UCLA’s defense? Rocky Long was probably the defensive coordinator. Since then it has been variances of straight-up 4-3 defenses, bend-but-don’t break philosophies and a list of defensive coordinators so long, it would take up the rest of the word budget in this column. Of course, there have been the great individuals in the last decade, with the likes of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Myles Jack. But with few exceptions, the defensive units have been a roller coaster ride.

See it or don’t, but this year’s defense improved over last year’s. The 2017 unit under Tom Bradley finished the season ranked 117th in the country. The Bruins gave up 483 yards per game and more than six yards per play. Teams like North Texas, Rice, and Florida International played better defense, statistically speaking, than UCLA did.

Enter Jerry Azzinaro and a more aggressive 3-4 flex defense in 2018. The Bruins are now 90th in the country in total defense. They are giving up 403 yards per game and a tick over five yards per game. As is the case every season, injuries are a key part of the equation. Comparing whether the team misses starting linebacker Josh Woods more than it missed Jaelan Phillips most of last season is something fans will debate. But is a non-starter for legitimate season-to-season comparisons.

Kelly admitted after the week one loss to Cincinnati that the defense had trouble tackling. “It’s something we have to continue to emphasize. They played with good effort which is the one thing they can control. As coaches we have to do a better job teaching them.” You would think they have it down by now.

The Give And Take Of UCLA Football
File photo. UCLA coach Chip Kelly. (photo by Tony Siracusa)

No one is suggesting celebrating being 90th in the country, but a 27-spot improvement is not insignificant. The beating at the hands of Oklahoma figured to play a big roll in the low end of the stats. But UCLA actually held the Sooners under the season average for total yards per game, and Oklahoma is 21st in the country in total offense.

The Offense

This is where the conversation turns people sideways. Even as Kelly told us at Pac 12 Media Day, there was no way to connect the dots between what he did at Oregon with what was going to happen at UCLA, Bruin fans still had visions of wild offenses dancing in their heads.

What is lost from people’s memories of the Kelly era in Eugene is that he was the offensive coordinator for two years before taking over as head coach in 2009. The offense he inherited was the one he created. The players that ran it were the ones he spent years recruiting and teaching.

It does not take a long-time football analyst to see there are problems with the 2018 UCLA offense. Its upside comes in flashes, and its inconsistencies are the consistency. They are #118 in the country in total offense, just 11 spots from the bottom. They are 101st in the country in passing with 189 yards per game and 103rd in rushing with 130 yards per game.

Some have surmised that Kelly was using the out of conference schedule to teach the offense and worry less about the win-loss record. That notion is absurdly and easily shot down when you see that grad transfer quarterback Wilton Speight was the starter in the season opener. It was a sign that while freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the presumed future at the position, winning was the point and the more experienced Speight was more prepared to lead.

By playing Speight, it also meant adjustments to the desired offense. No matter how much the staff wants to plead that he is mobile enough to run any offense they want, three years of game films at Michigan say Speight has limited ability to run an offense based on a sprint-out quarterback.

That would be more designed for Thompson-Robinson or the returning Devon Modster, who saw playing time last year when Josh Rosen was injured. Modster, a presumed potential starter before Speight transferred and Thompson-Robinson got on campus was now buried on the depth chart and transferred last week. The much-ballyhooed Thompson-Robinson has been seen as the guy for this offense.

The Give And Take Of UCLA Football
File photo. UCLA freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. (photo by Tony Siracusa)

Like any freshman, and like the offense itself, he has been wildly inconsistent. His 15 of 25 for 117 yards in place of an injured Speight in the Cincinnati game showed some hope. In the loss at Oklahoma, (where he went 16 of 24 with a touchdown), he showed skill if not typical freshman decision making in not getting rid of the ball quickly enough and taking too many sacks. Some were from poor offensive line protection and some were on him. The loss at Fresno State showed how bad things can be. When he connected with his receivers he had laser-like precision. The problem is that it only happened 10 times, (10 of 24 for 151 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions). When Thompson-Robinson was off, he often missed by a mile.

Is the offense too complicated for Thompson-Robinson? Does he just need more time working it to get it down? Are there other parts of the offense that are not working? Certainly, the offensive line continues to be a problem for about the fourth year in a row. Pass protection is erratic and the holes for the running backs are unreliable.

One interested party seems to think he has the answer. Thompson-Robinson’s dad took to his twitter account recently to make his complaints known.

Because his son was too young to pay much attention to the Kelly era at Oregon, Mr. Thompson-Robinson is perhaps unaware that practices at Oregon were also closed. Since the team went 46-7 in four years, we are going to presume it had nothing to do with the quality of the offense. Kelly, for his part, took the comments with a grain of salt. “I have no response. I mean, everybody’s entitled to their opinion; that’s what’s the great thing about sports. When you win, people say good things and when you don’t win, people don’t say good things. That’s life, you know?”

The aforementioned running game continues to languish. The Bruins are averaging three-and-a-half yards per carry despite a stellar amount of backfield depth. Perhaps the depth is the problem. With Soso Jamabo out from under a two-game suspension, Kelly has five running backs in the rotation. He has made it clear the answer is “all” when the question is who gets the carries. Is it preventing any one of them getting in the flow of the game?

This does not sit well with another parent who felt compelled to chime in. The father of freshman running back Kazmeir Allen took to Twitter this week with a cryptic message waxing poetic about Cal being 3-0 and UCLA 0-3, both having recruited his son.

Three games in, Kelly’s offense lacks a visibly clear identity. Is it going to be the offense that has the quarterback throwing on the run as was the case throughout most of Spring camp? It seems to suit the presumed physical skills of Thompson-Robinson. Or will it be more of a drop-back offense with Speight, (assuming his health), because win now is what Kelly promises. The play calling seems limited with Thompson-Robinson. Is he not ready to handle the entire playbook?

Throughout the first month of the season, one consistency within the program is the phrase, “the process.” Kelly uses it. The players use it. They are clearly talking about growth and maturation of a team that is one of the youngest in the P5 conferences. It is playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, (UCLA’s first three opponents are a combined 10-1, although not against a murderer’s row of opponents). But where are they in the process? How do average fans know when all they see is 0-3 and nothing close to a win?

The goal in hiring Kelly was not just about the wins and losses. It was also about the buzz it created and filling seats at the Rose Bowl. One month in, it has turned into a SEC vibe, and not the good kind, with parents feeling free to publicly disparage the staff and a fan base that is vocally discontent. It was hard to miss that at the end of the Fresno State game, the number of UCLA fans remaining was in the hundreds, was a few thousand Bulldogs fans stayed to celebrate with heir band.

As the Pac 12 schedule starts Friday night at Colorado, there now is more than just a win or loss riding on these games. There is the need to find the rails in order to put the program back on them. The sooner the better for all concerned.