Now that Chip Kelly gets to enjoy the rewards of an 8-4 season with a contract extension, there is a lot of work to do putting together a roster for what figures to be a relatively easy schedule in 2022. UCLA’s roster remake is complicated, as it is in many schools, by Kelly not knowing exactly how many scholarships he has to give.
Teams have to get down from the Covid allowances for a 100-person scholarship roster to the regular 85. Yet, players can still use the 2020 Covid year as a NCAA “freebie” and stay for a fifth or sixth year, as long as they are enrolled in undergraduate or graduate school. Some players are taking advantage of their NFL draft eligibility, while others have that but are coming back anyway.
Who Is Back
Let’s start with who is coming back, because that is really where the headlines are. Running back Zach Charbonnet stunned many when he announced he was coming back for a fourth year. In our conversations with scouts, Charbonnet was highly regarded in the NFL. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Bruins’ primary running back. Most importantly, he never coughed the ball up once all season…202 carries with zero fumbles.
His return is a big boost to returning starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Once Thompson-Robinson announced he was returning, it was assumed Kelly was closing in on a contract agreement. The two have been intrinsically linked for their four previous years at UCLA. Thompson-Robinson had his best season in 2021 in terms of touchdown to turnover ratio, 21:6. It was his second-best year in terms of yardage, and completion percentage.
Offensive lineman Atonio Mafi is returning for a fifth year. So is defensive lineman Tyler Manoa. Defensive lineman Martin Andrus is returning for a sixth year.
Who Is Leaving
The departures are big both in number and impact. To start, there is the long list of super seniors who have exhausted their eligibility. This is a case of the transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away in this age of rent-a-players. Some have made statements about making themselves available for the NFL draft. But in any measurement, their time at UCLA is done.
Defensive backs Obi Eboh, Cam Johnson, and Qwuantrezz Knight are gone. So are linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, offensive lineman Paul Grattan, and running back/receiver Ethan Fernea. They have had their six years and have closed their chapters at UCLA.
Defensive back Quentin Lake declared for the NFL draft. Defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, receiver Kyle Philips, tight end Greg Dulcich, and offensive linemen Alec Anderson and Sean Rhyan are also leaving early for the NFL. Our NFL scout chats tell us Rhyan could be one of the most valued prospects out of the group as a strong and mobile left tackle.
In the last few days, UCLA found out they are losing receiver Chase Cota and defensive back Jay Shaw. The latter had previously indicated he was returning, but then hit the portal and announced for Wisconsin within 24 hours.
The transfer portal has taken defensive linemen Tia Savea, Myles Jackson, Tyler Kiehne, AJ Campbell, and John Ward. The Bruins are also losing defensive backs DJ Warnell and Shamar Martin; quarterbacks Parker McQuarrie and Kajiya Hollawayne; offensive lineman Beau Taylor and wide receiver Keontez Lewis.
Looking At The Impact
So even with the return of Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet, the pair is losing three-fifths of the 2021 starting offensive line that put in the work in front of them. There are bodies to step in, but the depth takes a big hit. Kelly signed only one offensive lineman, Sam Yoon, in the 2022 class.
Thompson-Robinson is also losing his three top receivers in Cota, Philips, and Dulcich, making the return of his top running back all the more important.
That is 26 players out the door thus far either through eligibility attrition, the NFL draft, or the transfer portal. The majority of them played significant roles in the success of the 2021 season. With those kinds of numbers, there is zero chance both sides of the ball are not greatly impacted.
The signed recruiting class in December was all of 11 players. Kelly told the media at that time that he expected to get another seven to eight players through the transfer portal. But the math was tenuous because he did not know how many scholarship players he had returning. Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson were probably surprises.
There are still some players that are in TBD status. Linebacker Bo Calvert told the media back in November that he wanted to come back for a super senior year in grad school. His status is not yet clear. The same goes for defensive backs Mo Osling III and Stephan Blaylock.
And then there is the odd case of Shea Pitts. His name appeared on a list from the UCLA compliance office last Fall. That list was of players who had used up all of their eligibility. But there is zero mathematical accounting to back that up. By any formula, Pitts, who is already in grad school at UCLA, has one year of eligibility left if he wants it and the school grants it. Backup quarterback Chase Griffin also has an option to stay. He did his undergrad degree in less than three years and is deep into grad school, but does have one year left if he wants it.
That is not to say the door is only swinging one way. Out of the seven or eight spots Kelly said last Fall that he wanted to fill, the Bruins have gotten five players through the transfer portal. They have filled two receiver spots, a linebacker spot, an edge rusher position and a defensive back spot. Azizi Hearn, a cornerback from Arizona and Wyoming figures to get snaps the minute he walks on campus in light of the loss of starting defensive backs. He has 106 tackles in his four years of playing. He has one year of eligibility left. Jake Bobo from Duke and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala from UCF join returnees Kaz Allen, Cam Brown, and Logan Loya in a deep receiving unit.
Now if you have double checked our math, you will see the names listed do not match the 26 players we said are gone. That is because the least talked about transfer has yet to be mentioned. Punter Luke Akers announced at the end of the regular season that he was going into the transfer portal. Place kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira was taking Holiday Bowl prep practice as a punter. It was not the long-term answer. The Bruins do still have Collin Flintoft on the roster. Either that or Kelly goes for it on fourth down all the time. That would be relatively Kelly-esque.
Kelly has many needs on both sides of the line of scrimmage and in the defensive backfield, all while only being prepared to offer a few more transfer portal scholarships, pending the TBD players.