A lot has happened in the nearly two weeks since UCLA found out it would be playing North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl on December 28th in San Diego. A few Pac-12 teams have changed coaches. UCLA’s Chip Kelly talked with Oregon about its job opening. Signing day has come and gone. And, based on his conversation with the media Thursday, he went on a steep learning curve about the Bruins bowl game opponents. So, what has UCLA learned?
When UCLA got the call on December 5th that they would be playing NC State in the Holiday Bowl, Kelly said the only thing he knew about the bowl opponents was that Dave Doeren was the head coach and they were named the Wolfpack. We were concerned that a coach would know so little about a team that spent much of the season ranked in the top 25 of both the AP and the Coaches’ Polls. We offered to help educate him. After all, it was known across the country that NC State had one of the best offensive linemen you would see all year. And quarterback Devin Leary, thanks to the offensive line protection is one of the top 15 passers in the country.
Kelly is much more up to speed than he was two weeks ago. “That is 100% true. He [Doeren] is still the head coach and that is still their nickname,” he quipped Thursday. That’s where we left off two weeks ago, but Kelly did prove that he has learned more.
“Really good football team. Their quarterback is outstanding. I think he has thrown 35 touchdowns, and four interceptions,” Kelly said. It is actually 35 and five, but we don’t want to rain on Kelly’s learning curve. “They are a 3-3 stack defense that is kind of all over the place. And they have an inside linebacker who is as good as we will face. They are a good team.”
The inside linebacker he refers to is Drake Thomas. The third-year sophomore has 99 tackles, six sacks, and three interceptions. Yeah, he can play. And that offensive lineman? Ickey Ekwonu was a finalist for the Outland Trophy and is a consensus All-American at left tackle. “He’s one of the best offensive linemen in the country,” Kelly said. He joked, “I kind of look everyday to see if he is going to opt out.” Ekwonu will be there, even as he prepares to become an elite level NFL draft pick.
Learning About UCLA’s Bowl Roster
The only UCLA player who is expected to miss the game is defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia. He has declared for the NFL draft, but Kelly said he is missing the bowl to recover from some injuries. He said he does not expect any other Bruins to miss the game, barring injuries between now and then.
Without naming names, Kelly said any player who has put his name in the transfer portal has the opportunity to stay through bowl practice if they have yet to choose a new school. That means UCLA, for now, still has a punter in Luke Akers for the bowl game.
Learning About Kelly’s Contract
What else was on the learning curve? Apparently not a lot with regards to any contract extension for Kelly. It is still unclear what is holding up what seems to be inevitable. Kelly is just a few weeks away from lame-duck status, going into his fifth year with no guarantee beyond that. “My contract is a personal thing between me, so I don’t need to discuss that publicly,” Kelly said before asking a member of the media what his contract was like. “That’s my choice to not talk about that. You know, some people think that is something that they should know. But that’s a personal thing with me.”
The lesson to learn here is that Kelly is a public employee at a public university, and one of the highest-paid state employees. His contract negotiations, which he claims to know little about, may be personal and private. His contract ultimately is not. When it is done, it will be filed accordingly, and the media will certainly gain access to the details.
Learning About The Coaching Staff
We also learned that there will be no coaching changes prior to the bowl game. Before you read this and think about embattled defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, you can stop now. Kelly was referring to the defensive line coach job, formerly held Johnny Nansen, and the outside linebacker coaching position once held by Jason Kaufusi. Both are now on Jedd Fisch’s staff at Arizona. Nansen has been temporarily replaced by analyst Clancy Pendergast.
“You’re not going to get someone in here who is going to learn your system,” Kelly said referring to the time left before the bowl game.
Learning About Why Kelly Knew So Little About NC State
Lastly, we learned that when Kelly says he operates in a submarine, he means it. The reason he knew so little about the Wolfpack is that he had not seen any part of any game this year. Thankfully, Kelly is not a voter in the weekly Coaches’ Poll. “You can’t tell me that there is a coach in the country who watched all, however many you vote for, 35 teams,” Kelly explained. “I don’t get an opportunity to see those guys play, nor should I. Because I am focused on my team.”
We learned that Kelly can justify what many have claimed for a long time. There is little credence to the Coaches’ Poll. It is likely that many coaches hand the duty off to a staffer. “If you hand it off, who do you hand it off to? And call it the Hand It Off Poll.” He said, “I’ve been offered the opportunity and I turned it down because I couldn’t do a really good job at it. Polls should be some type of media poll because the media has the opportunity to see everybody.”
Bowl time is made for learning.