Ask most any UCLA player and the fact that it is year three of the Chip Kelly era seems to be a critical point for them. Certainly, the first two years have not lived up to anyone’s expectations. Seven and 17 is not what any coach, player, or fan signed up for. The fact that the team improved by one game in 2019 is of no consolation to anyone. So what is in store for UCLA’s year three?
UCLA’s Year Three Is The Telltale Sign.
Now, entering the most bizarre of seasons in 2020, with a truncated schedule and playing in empty stadiums, the attention of all concerned is divided. There is the safety of the players in the COVID era. There is practice at a time when Kelly admits the season could be interrupted with the first sign of a virus outbreak. And there is trying to actually win games in what is a six + one season. While the season may be a write off to some, the coaches and players still have a responsibility they take seriously.
That gets us to the “Third year” theory. Talk to any of the players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and they will tell you this year is different because it is year three of a Chip Kelly offense. He ran the offense on his own in his first year. Since then, Justin Frye has doubled as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. Regardless of who is wearing what title, it is still Kelly’s offense being run. And it hasn’t been close to good enough. The Bruins were outgained by an average of 50 yards per game each of the last two seasons. That may not seem like a significant amount, but when you have a back-to-back thousand-yard rusher (Joshua Kelley), it means the rest of the production is lagging.
Will Familiarity Breed Success?
Receiver Chase Cota says things are different now. That is a common refrain for most teams in camp. So, what is the difference here? Year three. “The chemistry has gotten better every single year,” Cota said. “I think this Fall we have the most confidence we have ever had as far as a unit. The QB is confident. We are all more confident.”
The receiver position is full of experience. Michael Ezeike, Jaylen Erwin, Kyle Philips, and Cota himself have all played a significant amount of snaps. They have also worked a considerable amount of time with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, now in his third year as well. Cota said there is a bond that develops over time and that starts to bear out results on the field. “Knowing guys and being this close to them, you want to play harder for the guy next to you. Especially with COVID and stuff, all of us have stayed tight.” He also noted that there is a physical maturity that starts to happen. “Everyone is stronger than ever and faster than ever. It has been a development process and that has been what Coach Kelly has been into since day one.”
There are enough options for Thompson-Robinson to work with at the receiver position. He also is getting Evidence Njoku, the 6-5, 235-pound transfer from Miami. His younger brother, Charles, was already on the roster at receiver. Last week, back-up quarterback Colson Yankoff switched to the wide receiver spot. At 6-4, 209 pounds, the first description that is coming out of everyone’s mouth at practice is that he is freakishly athletic.
Getting The Points
Senior receiver Ethan Fernea said year three means a greater understanding of the schemes. “I think DTR is doing really good. It is year three of the offense. I think we are all getting dialed in. We are all on the same page.” Part of that, he said, is a better grasp of the finer points that comes after you have learned the bigger picture. “Our whole receiver corps is coming together. We are holding each other accountable. We are trying to play more physical and be more detailed. It’s year three in our offense. We’re really honing in on the small details.”
Even with Kelly turning over the offensive coordinator reigns to Frye after the 2018 season, it is still the same philosophy. Fernea said the consistency matters. “This is the first time UCLA has had a similar offense for three years in a while. We are really confident and know the plays, and the details. The first two years it’s really about installing plays, installing the offense. Year three it’s about the real minute details.”
Finding a running game is going to be critical, and it seems certain that without Joshua Kelley carrying the heavy load, it is likely to be running back by committee.
The UCLA Ecosystem
The details also revolve around being able to play at all by keeping the COVID virus at a distance as best as possible. UCLA has had one player in isolation (because of contact tracing, but with a negative COVID test) in the last month. Other than that they have had zero positive tests since June. None the less, they have seen what has happened to so many other programs and how a season can get derailed, particularly with no bye weeks for make-up games.
“It’s pretty crazy seeing some of these teams with numbers spiking upwards of 20 cases. It’s a little scary,” Fernea said. “We’re just trying to focus on keeping our ecosystem clean and safe. I think if we do that, we’ll be alright.” Cota said the key has been that they all are living in the same building which has helped keep them isolated and easier to keep track of.
With everything that has changed, even in the short term, year three will certainly be unlike any other.