Spring camp in college football is a numbers game. It is about filling holes left over from the previous season; bringing in new talent; and looking position by position for needs and pieces to fill those needs. At UCLA, the numbers are in the cumulative. UCLA had only 60-some-odd players in each of the last two Spring camps. Head coach Chip Kelly is touting 90+ in camp this year. The Bruins are still well below the 85 scholarship limit. That’s due to the amount of players leaving over the last two years. But the 90+ in attendance means there are a lot of players, returning and new, getting plenty of experience. The idea of young and inexperienced should not be a part of any conversation come Fall.
There are still plenty of questions to be answered in Westwood this Spring. To start with is the status of the coaching staff, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Despite having defenses ranked near the bottom of the entire country over the last two years, defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro got a new one-year contract a couple of weeks ago. But the defense that has shown up for the first two days of spring practice is decidedly not Azzinaro’s old defense.
Kelly has brought in Johnny Nansen as the new defensive line coach. Nansen spent six years as an assistant at USC. He was replaced with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. The Bruins are also bringing in Brian Norwood as the new defensive backs coach after his stint as co-defensive coordinator at the Naval Academy. How much of their influence is on the current defensive set up, compared to what Azzinaro employed, will remain a matter of speculation. But early on in camp, UCLA is not running the 3-4-4 defense that he used for the last two years. The live drills show UCLA in a 4-2-5 scheme.
Part of that could also be a matter of numbers and where the available bodies are. The Bruins lost eight linebackers from last year’s team. That was essentially anyone with any real game experience. It leaves the bulk of the experience with senior Leni Toailoa, senior Shea Pitts, and Junior Bo Calvert. Toailoa and Pitts saw plenty of action in 2019. Calvert is coming off a year where he had an NCAA suspension cost him most of the season. He played in only the last two games of the year. Still, with the losses at the position from last season, that makes him one of the guys who is going to be looked upon to have an impact this year.
Calvert, who will not discuss the specifics of his suspension, says he tried to make the most of having to spend 2019 on the scout team. “I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about this team. It was a humbling experience. I was able to run every defense in this country.”
When you lose so many players who have been together for a long time, there is a gap in the newer players getting in to a rhythm together. “If you can get the language down and everything down, guys can play together pretty efficiently if you have a good relationship,” Calvert said.
If UCLA really does go to more of a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, then clearly there is a need for depth on the defensive line. Yet 2019 starting defensive lineman Atonio Mafi has made the switch to offensive line. Right now he is moving to either guard position. But he is second or third in the rotation in the early part of camp as he learns the new position. Defensive end Elijah Wade has left the program. And lineman Martin Andrus is currently out for spring camp as he recovers from a torn ACL. Subtract Mafi, and new defensive line coach Nansen is relying on Tyler Manoa, Datona Jackson, and Osa Odighizuwa to be the anchors. Manoa credited Nansen with bringing, “positive energy to the table,” in camp.
The other side of the line has numbers questions also. Losing senior center Boss Tagaloa was always going to be a challenge. But when guard Chris Murray also announced he was leaving, some adjustments were needed post haste. Murray had started every game in his two years at UCLA. Jon Gaines and Sam Marrazzo have been rotating at the center position in the first week of camp to see who replaces Tagaloa. Whoever does not get the starting spot could likely be moved to guard. Sophomores Duke Clemens and Sean Rhyan will certainly maintain their starting spots, health permitting. That leaves the other tackle spot likely with Jake Burton.
One position that has no question marks is the quarterback spot. It is Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s job. Kelly said what every coach says in spring camp. He espouses that every position is an open competition. But that does not mean that the position is really available. “Kids know who the best players are. Kids are smart. They know where Dorian is right now, and his progression and what it is.” Kelly claimed they do not talk depth chart for camp. Yet he acknowledged there are reps divided among their number one, two and three groups. The fact that they even have enough players for third team reps means experience should not be an obstacle in the Fall.
Still, with the departure for the transfer portal of Austin Burton, UCLA loses its only other quarterback with any game snaps. The early look at camp, despite Kelly’s claim that there is no depth chart, makes it clear that redshirt sophomore Colson Yankoff is the decided leader in the race for the backup spot. Walk-on Chase Artopoeus is getting third team reps in the early going.
Of course, there is still that one position where the incumbency is in no doubt. With Kelly recommitting to Azzinaro last month, the defensive machinations are still his to determine, regardless of the new position assistants. Oddly enough, Kelly said that he only had to clear the re-signing with associate athletic director Josh Rebholz. In fact, Kelly said that Rebholz is the only one he has ever talked to directly about his staffing decisions. Apparently athletic director Dan Guerrero has not been directly involved in any of it.
Kelly said part of the reason for bringing Azzinaro back was consistency within the program. “This isn’t a finite plan. This is an infinite plan. If you want to sustain long term success, there is a lot of continuity to it. I think when you change everything and just throw out everything and then you have to learn a whole new system and then you need a year or two to learn that new system. Once we do that, we are on the ongoing cycle of changes.”
It’s not clear that continuity of one of the worst statistical defenses in the country is a strong selling point. But if the first couple of days of camp are any indication, there are changes in process, whether they are Azzinaro’s or someone else’s.