- It is typical this time of year to sort of recap the season just completed. You review what worked and what didn’t and what of those pieces you have coming back for the next year to get a sense of what might be ahead.
UCLA Football; Looking Back And Ahead
It’s different with UCLA though. First year head coach Chip Kelly has professed all year that he does not, look at things “in the macro.” He looks in the micro, the fine points, on a snap by snap basis and does hyper-specific analysis. And frankly, even if he was going to look at the macro just for the sake of the season-end analysis, Saturday after the last game of the season would have been the time to do it.
At that time, Kelly made it clear he didn’t want to. The season finale against Stanford was still too fresh. Never mind that the next formal meeting for him to talk to the fans as a whole won’t be until the early signing period on December 19th. At that point, the topic will be the signees, not the 2018 season, because Kelly will say that is old news and he is about moving forward.
Each week, Kelly needed to be able to look at the film on Sunday before he could have a legitimate accounting of any game. Fair enough. That is the way he works. Anything that came post-game was going to be very generic as a result. Getting his accounting of the 2018 campaign as a whole was just not going to happen. That leaves it to the rest of us amateur sleuths to put together what we saw and what there is going forward, and for Kelly to eventually correct us.
Too Young, Too Soon?
It was impossible to know what to expect in Kelly’s first year. Just the hiring alone last year raised expectations. For some, it raised them unreasonably, with flights of fancy based on Kelly’s four years as head coach at Oregon, forgetting that he had been the offensive coordinator for two years prior to that. Everything he got as head coach, he built as coordinator.
UCLA had some talent left over from the Jim Mora era but it was a young team, replacing a three-year starter at quarterback, getting a new offense, folding in new recruits, while other players departed because of the transition. The only thing that was clear was that we knew what we did not know, which was plenty.
Going 3-9 was a hard pill for most to swallow. Not because they expected championships in year one, but because winnable games were left behind. UCLA opponents finished the season a combined 103-51. Four of the teams that beat them are playing this weekend for conference championships. One is still in the hunt for a national title. The Bruins entered the season playing one of the tougher schedules in the country. At the end, it was ranked the third toughest in the FBS. And it was played by the second youngest team in the country in terms of the number of snaps taken by freshmen and sophomores.
Still, the games against Arizona State, Stanford, and maybe even Washington were there for the taking. Mistakes, fundamental errors, committed by a team that was too youthful, were costly all year. False starts costing the team field goal attempts or killing drives; missed blocking assignments turning into quarterbacks getting blindsided in critical drives. A dozen plays were the difference in being 3-9 and 5-7 or goodness gracious even bowl eligible at 6-6.
So What, Now What?
As Kelly likes to say, “So what, now what?” What is in UCLA’s future? The team likely has most of its key components coming back. There are nine seniors officially leaving. Defensive backs Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors will need to be replaced in the starting line-up. Receiver Christian Pabico departs a very deep receiving corps. Running backs Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi are both seniors but could have redshirted having played in only four games. Olorunfunmi made it clear by posting his workout videos on social media he would not be coming back. Jamabo quietly said goodbye at Senior Day last Saturday.
This doesn’t consider the “other six.” The school awkwardly had a list of 15 players to be announced at Senior Day; the nine seniors plus six redshirt juniors. None of the redshirt juniors had publicly committed to leaving early. Some were reticent to going through the ceremony since they were planning on coming back in 2019, if Kelly welcomes them back. Ultimately, only the nine actual seniors were introduced. The fate of the other six remains a question.
Offense In Numbers
Quarterback will be an interesting spot for UCLA next season. Grad transfer Wilton Speight came in from Michigan, was ordained the starter as the most game-ready at the start of the season, and then missed several games with a back injury. He of course will be gone. The heir apparent is Dorian Thompson-Robinson who is more capable of running the wide, high pace offense Kelly prefers. He was wildly inconsistent in his true freshman season, but when he was in rhythm, the offense provided visions of dreams to come. There is little behind him so the recruiting accomplishments in December will be big for this position.
The offensive line will be back mostly intact. The keys of course are having Boss Tagaloa at center for an entire season and the continued growth of Christaphany Murray at guard. It was with those two as the anchors that the running game opened up for the first time in years. Redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley became the breakout player for the Bruins, (and was named the team MVP at the team banquet Sunday). He is the first to give credit to the revitalized offensive line each week. The ability of Justin Murray to get a sixth year is dubious.
The receivers and tight ends will still have depth. It is conceivable that Caleb Wilson will test the NFL waters. Experts are not impressed enough with his blocking to make him a high round pick as a tight end, but he is an exceptional receiver at the position. Devin Asiasi has worked hard to get the snaps at the position if Wilson does leave. Likewise, Theo Howard has evolved more than most on this team over three years. As a freshman, he was routinely in Mora’s dog house. As a junior he went the entire season without a drop and a career best 677 yards. It would not be inconceivable for him to consider the NFL. While the receiver group is deep with Chase Cota, Kyle Philips, Demetric Felton, and others, the return of Howard would give the UCLA quarterback one of the best go-to receivers in the conference.
The running backs return Kelley, Martell Irby, and Kazmeir Allen, (assuming his dad does not threaten a transfer).
The defense needs help. It’s less about losing Meadors and Pickett than it is about what to do with who is coming back. Injuries hit the defense more than any other part of the team this season. Losing Josh Woods before the season even started hurt all season long. Will Jaelan Phillips ever be able to make it through a full season? Krys Barnes, Keisean Lucier-South, Darnay Holmes and Quentin Lake bring enough talent if the unit has any health in 2019. But the defense lacked an aggressive pass rush through much of the season. It was the one thing Kelly was willing to address, post-Stanford.
“It’s something that we have to look at and work on in the off-season. We have to make sure we do a better job generating a rush so that our DB’s don’t have to cover for so long.”
Don’t expect significant changes in the coaching staff. Most of them just got here and Kelly is going to give them a chance to do what he wants them to do with a full and healthy roster.
The Players Take A Look
Howard is optimistic about the future. “I just think we matured. Obviously, we have a lot of freshmen on the team, and for some people it took them awhile to get adjusted to the game. Some of the young guys on the receiving corps started to make big plays and get more confident. In a couple of years or even next year I think we’re going to do very well.”
Kelley said the team practiced just as hard at the end of the season as they did in week one. “We were 3-8 and practicing just as hard and we really embraced it.”
Speight said he has seen the growth in players learning how to build a successful program versus a successful team. “I think if you look at the growth from Cincinnati to Stanford, it’s a completely different ball club. It was a collective effort all the way across the board at Wasserman that there was some success this year despite the win-loss column.”
Holmes credits the new head coach with the attitude change. “Right when Chip walked in, he came in with installing a growth mindset. There’s going to be a lot of ups and down in life and definitely on the field, so you know he just wanted to see us play our butts off since day one. We came up short several times, but you next year those little setbacks are not going to be setbacks. They are going to W’s.”
In 2019 UCLA will again face Cincinnati (on the road), and Oklahoma (at home), with both having lost their starting quarterbacks. They will also be facing Colorado, Washington State, Arizona State, and Arizona teams that will be rebuilding their offenses with new quarterbacks.
There was a lot of attrition due to the transition at UCLA. With the new mindset in place, as Holmes calls it, there should be no secret as to what Kelly expects. That goes for those that return and those that come in anew. In the closing weeks of the season, the team had only 54 healthy scholarship players for practice, so it is about depth; depth built through retention and recruiting players.
The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is six weeks away. At most, that should impact no more than two current players. That leaves recruiting to fill the holes. That is a unique experience with Kelly, one which will be addressed here in the coming weeks.