When your team is 10-21 over three years, you have no business taking any opponent for granted. UCLA opens the 2021 campaign against Hawai’i and is a prohibitive 17-point favorite. But the Bruins should be wary of Hawai’i.
The Rainbow Warriors are coming into the Rose Bowl Saturday with an attacking style defense and a very mobile quarterback. Since UCLA head coach Chip Kelly does not believe in momentum carrying over from one season to the next, whatever gains the Bruins made at the tail end of 2020 are a distant memory.
Former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is in his second year guiding the Hawai’i football fortunes. The Rainbow Warriors went 5-4 overall last year and 4-4 in the Mountain West Conference. The one non-conference win they got was a two touchdown win over Houston in the New Mexico Bowl. That puts their curve slightly ahead of UCLA’s going into game week.
Kelly said this week he is familiar with Graham’s coaching style, due to Graham coming from Arizona State. The only year the coaches actually faced each was in 2012, Graham’s first year at Arizona State and Kelly’s last year at Oregon. Kelly’s Ducks won that head-to-head match-up 43-21.
What we can say for certainty about Graham’s incarnation of the Rainbow Warriors is that he likes to run an attack, blitzing style of defense, much like he did at Arizona State. The available talent last season didn’t always live up to the desired style. Hawai’i gave up 200 yards of rushing in every game but one. But the Rainbow Warriors return a veteran defense and have added size up front. Zacchaeus McKinney, a 6-4, 300-pound defensive lineman transferred from Oklahoma. He is joined by Pita Tonga, a 6-2, 310 pounder from Utah.
Kelly said, “They are always going to be a hard hitting, aggressive, attacking defense. His, (Graham’s), style hasn’t changed. He’s going to be aggressive.”
A lot depends on the health of UCLA center Sam Marrazzo. He is actively participating in the warm-up type drills, but the media is dismissed from practice before the contact drills start. Kelly said Monday that Marrazzo is taking part in the contact drills but is subject to day-to-day evaluations from the training staff.
UCLA running back Brittain Brown said the attacking style of Hawai’i’s defense has caught his attention. “He, (defensive coordinator Trent Figg) has a lot of chaos going on in that defense,” Brown said. “We’ve got to start on our toes. It’s the first game, so we are both 0-0. Everybody’s going to try to feel each other out the first couple of series. But I am definitely excited to run the ball. Their defense has a lot of high effort guys, so it is going to be fun to play against Hawaii.”
Side To Side Containment
The other side of the ball is a little harder to project. The offensive line for Hawai’i gave up 28 sacks over nine games last season. But, and this is a big but, Chevan Cordeiro is one of the more skilled spread offense quarterbacks UCLA will face. The sophomore ran for 483 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He also threw for a little more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 62% completion clip. “He’s a really athletic quarterback,” Kelly said of Cordeiro. “He can beat you with both his arm and his feet. You have to be really conscious of your rush lanes when you’re rushing a kid like that. We have to be really disciplined, especially on the defensive front.”
Kelly said with a running quarterback it makes the defense have to account for everyone. “They force you to cover the entire field. You have to defend all 11 guys. When you are facing a quarterback like this, you are playing 11 on 11 football.”
Hawai’i’s number two rusher from a season ago, Miles Reed, went to the transfer portal and is still there. Calvin Turner, the third leading rusher on the team last year, now becomes the second choice in the ground game behind Cordeiro. He picked up 331 yards last season on 60 carries. He also adds 27 yards per kick return to the game.
With the spread offense and a dual threat quarterback, depth on defense could be a key for the Bruins. The UCLA defense could be lacking defensive lineman Quintin Somerville. The highly valued freshman has not been participating in the drills that the media has access to, for about five days, as he sits with his lower leg in a walking boot. Kelly would not comment on his injury other than to say he is getting evaluated on a daily basis.
No More Talk
Pre-season evaluations of UCLA 2021 are all over the place. Most Vegas odds makers have the over/under on wins at seven-and-a-half. An under would reasonably put them at 7-5 and a lower second-tier bowl game. Anything above that and the storylines of veteran leadership and “player led, not coach fed” will prove to have some merit. First things first though. UCLA has never won an out-of-conference game in the Chip Kelly era. Saturday starts the “prove it” part of the season.