UCLA’s Next Two Weeks Weigh Heavily

UCLA’s next two weeks weigh heavily
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Now that the 2021 Bruins football season has come to an ignominious ending, it’s time to ask what’s next for UCLA? There are so many unknowns right now from the status of the head coach to which players will return and which will take their leave. Will the Bruins be forced to overload on the transfer portal? UCLA’s next two weeks weigh heavily on the coming years for this program.

Wrapping Up

It is clear that it is time to move on from what happened in San Diego. We reported active Covid cases in the program before the team ever got on the bus for the Holiday Bowl festivities. It is equally clear that no one in the administration is going to make any statements or take public responsibility for whose idea it was to keep the Sea World trip on the schedule. No player is going to publicly speak out and say, knowing there were active cases in the program, they should not have been mugging for cameras with their masks off. It is easier to shrug the shoulders and write it off to that horrible Omicron variant and leave the responsibility at Covid’s doorstep. So we instead move on to what is ahead that will shape the future of the program.

The Coach

Perhaps there is no bigger question that both sides refuse to address. Chip Kelly is about to enter financially unprotected, lame duck status. He now goes into the final year of his five-year contract. His $9 million dollar buyout goes away in two weeks. Our sourcing has told us that UCLA essentially committed to bringing Kelly back with a contract extension after the Bruins blew out USC in the third week of November.

So, what is the hold up? That is the biggest issue in the football program right now. Sources who spoke on the insistence of anonymity have told us that Kelly has an offer for a three-year extension at a reduced buyout. The buyouts are of course the real security in any deal. The higher the buyout, the more difficult it is for a school to cut a coach loose. Kelly’s would seem to be going backwards.

Athletic director Martin Jarmond came to UCLA proclaiming an expectation of elite results. When he was at Boston College he fired Steve Addazio for being 20-18 with three consecutive bowl trips in Jarmond’s three years as AD. That is far better than what Kelly has produced.

Despite any public proclamation by school officials of being pleased about the season just concluded, the 18-25 record over four years is below expectations for the guy who was the 12th highest paid coach in the country before the recent merry-go-round of jobs changes. The 8-4 2021 includes no wins against teams with a winning record. Giving Kelly the extension is not a reward so much as it is an acknowledgement that both sides are backed into a corner.

Lacking Leverage

There were plenty of coaches that were up for grabs during the tumultuous last two months. There is no verifiable  indication that UCLA attempted to lure any of them. Kelly’s options are also limited. With more than 15 openings over the course of six weeks, he got zero offers. He was called by Oregon, but they only offered Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, and he accepted. Case closed.

Kelly’s only real option left is to leave with no other job in hand. He can wait by the phone or take the lower offer in the name of job security. Why two sides with minimal options can’t get together is anyone’s guess. That’s not to say UCLA does not have coaches they can call should a change be needed. But the number has dwindled in recent weeks. We have spoken with a bevy of former players who have given us a list of names that is remarkably consistent from one phone call to the next.

If the stalemate really is over staffing as many in the media have speculated, and the future of defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, it is a losing battle for Kelly. His loyalty to a coordinator who has produced one of the statistically worst defenses in the country for four years running gains him little, even from those who are adamant supporters of his.

Kelly has been asked what the status of his contract is. He claims to not know. That’s an answer that strains the bounds of credulity for anyone paying any attention. It is one thing to say his agent is handling the details. It is another to suggest he is out of the loop on the very thing that controls his future.

Everything plays out on this category over the next 13 days. It remains our suspicion that Kelly will be on the UCLA sidelines for 2022.

The Roster

This is a daily moving target. UCLA knows it is parting ways with super seniors Brittain Brown, Ethan Fernea, Paul Grattan, Datona Jackson, Jordan Genmark-Heath, Qwuantrezz Knight, Cam Johnson, and Obi Eboh. Defensive back Quentin Lake will also likely be gone. They are losing starting defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia and starting offensive lineman Alec Anderson. As projected some time back in this space, those two are leaving early for the NFL. There will be others. There are a few players well thought of by NFL scouts we have spoken with. If correct, our projections would deal a significant blow to the offense.

The deadline for underclassmen to apply for early entrance into the NFL is January 17th.

Some seniors can apply for the Covid extra year, whether it be their fifth or sixth year. Therein lies the tricky math. Kelly does not know how many scholarships he has available until those players make their decision.

Defensive lineman Tyler Manoa and offensive lineman Atonio Mafi have announced they will be back in 2022. Linebacker Bo Calvert said he is hoping to return to the Bruins next year as well.

The Wild Card

That leaves a lot of question marks. The biggest is quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He has been the starter for three-and-a-half years and 2021 was his most productive year by far. We talk to NFL scouts regularly. We cannot use their names as they are not authorized by their franchises to go on the record. Over the course of the season, we have heard that Thompson-Robinson is anything from a sixth-round draft pick to someone who gets an undrafted free agent contract. One scout told us Thompson-Robinson’s development was hampered by Kelly’s never really making him go through a real in-camp quarterback competition the last three years, but essentially anointing him as THE guy going forward.

On his side, it is a wild ride of mixed messages. Bruin Report Online recently posted an article on the UCLA roster and indicated what most think, that Thompson-Robinson is done at UCLA. His camp responded on a Facebook fan board, “Don’t believe everything you read.” Then there were zero answers to any follow-up questions. The hit-and-run commenting has been a consistent response from those in his inner circle who claim to dislike the world of social media.

The night before the cancelled Holiday Bowl, Thompson-Robinson posted a meme on Instagram that included an indication that he could be back in 2022. What he did not say was that the meme was from an account focused on mental health and had nothing to do with his UCLA future. The musings from any QB1 at a major program get attention and carry meaning to fans. Trying to ascertain whether Thompson-Robinson understands that, or whether this cat and mouse game is intentional is a daily task for reporters.

There will be just a lot of waiting for the actual words from him directly.

Who’s In?

UCLA had a mediocre recruiting class in the December signing period. It is ranked 45th in the country. There is a little hope of significant gains in the February signing. Most high-end talent is now spoken for in December.

The Bruins signed 11 players in December. Most teams can sign 32, but UCLA does not have that many scholarships available as all schools must return to the pre-Covid limit of 85 scholarship players. Again, how many Kelly has to work with depends greatly on how many players are leaving for the NFL, or elsewhere. He estimated last month that he had another seven or eight at his disposal. That number goes up as more players depart.

That leaves the rest to the transfer portal. The Bruins have prospered in that system for the last two years. Brown, Genmark-Heath, Knight, and others like Zach Charbonnet have been productive assets for UCLA. But it is a double-edged sword, particularly for a program whose head coach is in limbo. Large-scale use of the portal leaves a theoretical future coach hamstrung. They will have a bunch of rental players for a year with no real growth and development of local recruiting classes.

The Portal

So far, the Bruins have transfer commitments from four players. First and foremost, they have Dillon Gabriel, the quarterback from UCF. It is hard to believe he would have committed to UCLA if he thought Thompson-Robinson was staying. Then again, we do not have confirmation that he has signed his grant-and-aid package yet. They also got Jake Bobo, a receiver from Duke, Darius Muasau, a linebacker from Hawai’i, and Laiatu Latu, an edge rusher from Washington.

Two notes about the last two names. Muasau was only a two-star recruit coming out of high school but has developed into a significant player for the Rainbow Warriors over his three years. In the game at UCLA in August, he recorded five solo tackles and 10 total tackles. He had 108 total for the season.

Latu’s future at UCLA will be a journey. He has not played in two years and has been in medical retirement in Seattle. He suffered a severe neck injury and had surgery last Spring. His surgeon told him a return to football would risk paralysis for him. After his rehab and further medical exams, he has chosen to come to Westwood to play. He will have to undergo tests to be cleared by the UCLA medical team.

Seeking Answers

UCLA heads into the off-season with more questions than answers. On the other hand, a post-game press conference after the Holiday Bowl would have predictably gone something like this:

Media: Chip, can you give us an assessment of the season, and how you think it went?

Kelly: I know you guys like to think big picture, but right now we are living in the here and now and celebrating this win. We will get to the philosophical narrative you want in the off-season.

Media: But Chip, we won’t be afforded the chance to speak with you again until February signing day, and on that day, we will be limited to signing day questions. And then the next time will be Spring Camp and you will tell us 2021 is in the past and you are about looking forward. Can you not give us something on this season?

Kelly: It was good. Enjoy the off-season folks.

So many questions to be answered in a short two weeks. We just have to wait to see who is going to take responsibility for answering them.