Nothing is going to come easy for UCLA this year. There was the shutting down of Spring camp after just a few workouts. There was the clearing out of campus. They got outed by the LA County Director of Health for having positive COVID cases that were actually months old, at a time when there no positive tests on the team. Revised schedules were put out for conference only games. And then about a week later, the season was “postponed.” Now, like the rest of the Pac 12 Conference, the Bruins are scrambling to have a camp and practice sessions with less than a month before their season opener at Colorado.
Head coach Chip Kelly was always going to have holes to fill on both sides of the ball this season, but now he is doing it in short order.
The offensive line lost center Boss Tagaloa to graduation and Chris Murray to a transfer well before any of the COVID events. And then Jake Burton transferred to Baylor as soon as the Pac 12 conference shut down. He wanted to play. Ironically, Baylor has played only two of its scheduled five games because of COVID outbreaks either within their own program, or with their opponents. This week’s game against Oklahoma State has already been postponed. Baylor has 28 players and 14 staff members with positive tests. They are linked to a player getting a false negative test, and then spreading the virus. So Burton is not playing the way he thought he would when he left Westwood.
None the less, gaps need to be filled on the offensive line. To start with, junior defensive lineman Atonio Mafi has been moved to the offensive line. He played in all 24 games of his UCLA career thus far. At 6-4, 355 pounds he has the size for the offensive line. He also has mobility, as confirmed by all who have seen his dance moves to the music played over the sound system at practice. It is about technique and schemes now.
The Bruins are also getting Paul Grattan, the grad transfer from Villanova. He played both center and guard for the Wildcats. He was all conference last year, but that was the Colonial Athletic Association, and this is the Pac 12. Still Kelly has been impressed with what he has seen so far. “He’s a very quick study. He has picked things up very rapidly, and we are excited about that.”
Mafi and Grattan will join Sam Marrazzo, Jon Gaines, Duke Clemens, and Sean Rhyan as the most likely rotation at camp.
The linebacker spot got hit hard with departures after the 2019 season. Je’Vari Anderson, Lokeni Toailoa, Keisean Lucier-South, Krys Barnes, and Tyree Thompson are all gone. Bo Calvert, who missed much of last season with a NCAA suspension is going to be counted on heavily to be a body with skills in the linebacking unit. In the one game he played in 2019, he showed why he was so touted out of Oaks Christian in the freshman class of 2018. He had five solo tackles and two assists in the game against Cal. He will join Shea Pitts, Leni Toailoa, and Carl Jones as the four linebackers with any real game experience.
It could cause UCLA to go to a nickel package with a little more frequency since they have the depth at defensive back. Kelly said this week, with Pac 12 offenses being what they are, it should not surprise anyone to see more nickel packages.
On paper, tight end might seem to be a little thin. Devin Asiasi is in the NFL. Jordan Wilson transferred to Florida State. And Matt Lynch transferred to Colorado. But Kelly says he is happy with the depth he has. Sophomore Greg Dulcich saw action in five games last year at tight end. He finished with eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. The Bruins also return Mike Martinez who played in three games in his freshman season.
Running back is where the most obvious hole is. Replacing Joshua Kelley is a task not meant for a mere one person. “Everybody understood Josh was our true number one,” Kelly said. “And it turns out he is a true number one for the Chargers now.” UCLA returns some running backs that have been role players behind Kelley the last two years. Kazmeir Allen had 188 yards on 30 carries in nine games as a freshman in 2018. But he appeared in only three games in 2019 with 13 carries and 63 yards.
Early in camp, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said Bruin fans need to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Keegan Jones. UCLA also added Duke transfer Brittain Brown. He had his best season in 2017 as a freshman. He had 701 yards and a touchdown on 130 carries. Brown had shoulder injuries over the next two years that caused him to miss 12 games total. He managed just over 400 yards over the two seasons. Kelly, the coach, said Brown is built like Kelley, the running back.
And then of course there is Demetric Felton. Kelly called him a, “Jack of all trades, that can play receiver, can play running back, catch the ball out of the backfield, and do everything you want as a running back.” In 2019, Felton had a combined 925 yards rushing and receiving with five touchdowns. Being a hybrid player makes him the most logical go-to player for Thompson-Robinson.
Most Pac 12 schools are flying on the unknown right now. UCLA already had more holes to fill going in. So maybe their task is a little easier, because they knew they had this coming if there was going to be a season. With only four weeks of camp/practice and only seven games total to play, there is little wiggle room to not get it right.