Earlier this week, we started the postmortem on the UCLA season with a look at the horrific defensive performance over the course of 2019. It is not a subjective debate. The statistical analysis used to back up the dissection was irrefutable. But the defense was not the only “hot topic” throughout the UCLA season. Some of the other declarations, both from within and out of the program, had to do with the proclaimed youth of the team, available talent, and the cupboard allegedly being left bare by the prior staff. We are going to jump into some of those issues here on the UCLA football postmortem, part 2.
UCLA Football Postmortem, Part 2
Jim Mora Left The Cupboard Bare
No one officially tied to the football program would ever make this proclamation. But it gets thrown around enough in “fan” areas to warrant addressing it quickly. It’s bunk. Just looking at nothing more than what is on the surface. To say that the former head coach left nothing but crumbs for the Chip Kelly staff to use, means you have watched very little UCLA football over the last two years. Mora had a top 25 recruiting class every year at UCLA and many of those players were still contributing in the Kelly era.
Joshua Kelley, only the eighth running back in school history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, signed with Mora. Center Boss Tagaloa was a Mora signee, albeit as a defensive lineman. You have to give Kelly and offensive line coach Justin Frye credit there for taking a very talented player and converting him to a highly valuable center. Linebackers Keisean Lucier-South, Josh Woods, Krys Barnes, Shea Pitts, Leni and Lokeni Toailoa have all been major contributors for the last two years. All came to the program under Mora.
We pointed out how horribly flawed the defense was earlier this week, but as we pointed out that was more a byproduct of the schemes not properly utilizing the talents on the field. The same was true of defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa. The second, third, fourth, and fifth leading tacklers on the team are on the list, thanks to Mora. For that matter, starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a Mora-commit and Kelly-signee. We get that some he may not people’s first choice at the position, but he was there as a Mora-commit.
Any honest assessment of the previous coaching regime will acknowledge that no one did more to damage Mora’s tenure than Mora himself. He went through three offensive coordinators and three defensive coordinators in his six years. The schemes, particularly on offense, were rarely the same from one year to the next, even when there was a returning coordinator. So the staff was recruiting players to run one offense, and ultimately they would be the wrong ones to properly execute a new one a year or two later.
Every team has them. Every team has them during coaching changes. But UCLA has had a particularly high amount. Sixty-four players have left the program in one fashion or another since Chip Kelly got the job in late November 2017. We have always said not all departures are the same and that remains true. Out of the 64, five left early for the NFL. Six medically retired from the game. Thirteen were grad transfers. The reality of that category is that students who have graduated with eligibility remaining rarely stay at their original school. They have one last chance to determine their college destiny and they use it.
That leaves 40 players who left for other reasons. Some went for personal reasons. Others were exiled by the new staff. Many left because they saw their playing time was not going to be there. Brandon Burton is a starter at New Mexico. Will Lockett is third on the team in tackles at Sam Houston State. Brandon Stephens is now a DB for SMU’s nationally ranked team.
And then there are the awkward ones. Former five start recruits from the Mora era, Mique Juarez and Jaelan Philips could not past the medical tests to be cleared to play at UCLA after repeated head injuries. Both left. Both intend to play football elsewhere. Philips is redshirting and awaiting his time at Miami, apparently medically cleared. Juarez is doing the same at Utah.
Others left for other schools but had problems at their new home, whether it be with academics or off-field issues.
Of course it has to be noted that for better or worse, all of the departures were Jim Mora recruits that he brought to the program. It’s tough to say he left the cupboard bare when he had Top 25 recruiting classes every year. Players leaving the last two years is not Mora’s responsibility.
Because of the high number of departures, Kelly took on more walk-ons than is the norm with any program. He needed them to fill his roster. The walk-ons were rarely, if ever, a factor in playing time. They were there to fill out practice rosters and scout team work. They also gave stock to the legacy of UCLA’s youth.
Young, But Not That Young
It has been a two-year long story that UCLA is young. The story is true but also tremendously exaggerated in the larger college football landscape. Over the last two years, Kelly has used the numbers anywhere from 84 to 87 as the amount of freshmen and sophomores on the roster. At times he has said UCLA is the youngest team in the country, to being “one of the youngest teams” in the country.
Again, let’s defer to the actual numbers.
UCLA is one of the youngest teams in the country depending on the metrics. Purdue had just as many freshmen and sophomores. They also struggled just as much on the field. Alabama was close with 78 freshmen and sophomores. Of course, their fan base is also upset. The Tide lost two games this year. Youth is relative when you are stock piling five star recruits every year.
So, what other metric do you want to use to display UCLA’s youth? The number of freshmen? The Bruins’ roster was comprised of 52% freshmen, (including redshirts). Virginia Tech also had 52%. The Hokies are 8-4 and going to a bowl game. Oklahoma State had 58% of their roster as freshmen. The Cowboys are 8-4 and going to a bowl game.
Want to look at a “lack of upperclassmen?” UCLA had 13 seniors on the roster, most of whom saw moderate to significant activity this year. Virginia Tech had six, and we already told you about their season. Texas A&M also had only six seniors. The Aggies are going bowling with a 7-5 overall record. LSU has only 12 seniors on their 2019 team. Hey, wonder how the Tigers are doing?
Now UCLA did rely on some of their freshmen. Offensive linemen Duke Clemens and Sean Rhyan played a critical role for the Bruins. Defensive backs Patrick Jolly and Kenny Churchwell saw more action in the back half of the season. Carl Jones got a lot of snaps in the last three games due to injuries. Kyle Philips, Elisha Guidry, Rayshad Williams were all prominent youth on the team. But they were redshirt freshman who all played last season. It’s not like they were new to the game.
The point of the proclamations about youth were both true and greatly overstated. Certainly, considering other teams were as young, or even younger, depending upon the metric used, it is not a rational path to explain a 4-8 record.
The team is going to get a lot younger next year at positions like linebacker. It’s going to be a tough sell to ask the fan base to be patient again. The Bruins will also have plenty of experience returning and some battles at certain positions. We will look at that in our next installment.