These are quiet times for UCLA football. We have not heard from Chip Kelly in person since the day before the aborted Holiday Bowl in late December. We were provided, via email, a perfunctory comment from him when he and UCLA agreed to a contract extension on January 14th. That was a day before both he and the school were to become free agents from one another.
Quiet Times For UCLA Football
Recruiting has been “soft spoken,” to say the least. UCLA signed no high school recruits on the February national signing day. Frankly more than a handful of schools were in the same situation. The December signing period rules the day in this system now. Kelly has quietly gathered a decent haul in the transfer portal. But making a recruiting class off rental players can be a high wire act. And while many coaches talk about the players once they are officially enrolled, there are no expectations to hear from Kelly directly until Spring Camp starts in March.
The 11-signee high school class is ranked 57th in the country and seventh in the conference. On the upside, the Bruins transfer portal class is ranked 15th in the country by 247Sports. UCLA has seven transfers that at their recruiting point were ranked three stars or lower. But even with the plug and play of the transfer portal, there are holes to be filled. The question is, will they be filled? And who will tell us when they are?
The “verbal” confirmations come via social media hits from Ethan Young, the program’s Director of Player Personnel. He sends a “Boom” via his accounts as a head’s up that news is forthcoming. It could be a new transfer, or it could be a commit for a future class. It could be a high end payer from the portal or a preferred walk-on. They all get the same sell from Young. And frankly, UCLA is not in a position to overlook anyone at any level.
Offense Relying On A Few Returnees
There is a wild mix of returning veterans and major holes still to be filled. Two huge keys to what lies ahead are the return of four-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback and Zach Charbonnet at running back. The two will be expected to account for most of UCLA’s offensive production. Scouts tell us in this year’s running back class, Charbonnet would have been a third to fourth round NFL draft pick. His return is a huge boost to the Bruins offense.
A big question to be answered is who will be in front of them. The Bruins lose three-fifths of their 2021 offensive line starters. They have bodies coming back. What they don’t have is a wealth of snaps across the line. Duke Clemens returns for a fourth season, and his third as a starter. Jon Gaines III and Atonio Mafi have been spot starters at different positions on the offensive line. Sam Marrazzo missed all but two games last year with injury. His leadership at center has to come to the forefront this season. Garrett DiGiorgio saw some action in the last three games of the regular season last year. Behind those five is a dearth of experience that comes from not recruiting for the positions on a consistent basis.
If they need bodies, maybe they can look to the tight ends. UCLA has a ridiculous 10 tight ends on the roster, including two highly regarded freshmen in Jack Pedersen and Carsen Ryan. With the transfer portal being a daily constant, it is unlikely all 10 are around come September, but the bodies are there to use when Spring camp starts next month.
They also return plenty at receiver if not a lot of stats from previous years. Kam Brown, Kazmeir Allen, and Logan Loya should provide enough targets for Thompson-Robinson.
Defense Needs Bodies
If the offensive line has issues with depth, they will get no sympathy from the defensive line. Mitchell Agude, Odua Isibor, and Tyler Manoa return for super senior years. They need to be super. The only experienced depth behind them comes from two transfers. Jacob Sykes comes west from Harvard, and Gary Smith III from Duke. While fans like to talk about the success UCLA had with its last Duke transfer, Brittain Brown, it means nothing for Smith until proven on the field. And there has been little recruiting success at the position beyond that.
The linebackers are a mix of UCLA-experienced interchangeable pieces, a small number of experienced back-ups, and new players needing to get snaps. JonJon Vaughns, Carl Jones, Ale Kaho, Kain Madrano, and presumably Bo Calvert will lead the group. Call them the Mike linebacker or Will linebacker if you want, but linebacker coach Don Pellum has always used the grouping as moveable chess pieces.
The defensive back unit got a big boost in game experience when Stephan Blaylock announced he would be returning for a super senior year. Sophomore Devin Kirkwood had a big first year and has the highest ceiling of anyone in the group. Beyond that it is a mix of returning Bruins like Martell Irby, Shea Pitts, Mo Osling III, and Kenny Churchwell III. Kelly also added Azizi Hearn from Wyoming, via the transfer portal. This is his last year of eligibility and he is expected to contribute early.
Overall, the defense lost seven starters but there is still enough experience to get through a transitional year.
Who’s Calling The Shots?
The biggest question surrounding the defense is who will be running it. Every outlet that covers UCLA, and even those that just pop in from time to time reported in one capacity or another in January that defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro was stepping down. Statistically he has a lengthy track record, as a coordinator, of some of the worst defenses in the country. But Kelly has never had a staff in college or in the NFL, that did not include his longtime ally.
And to that end, while the media has been all over it, UCLA has yet to confirm that Azzinaro will no longer be the defensive coordinator. The school could be waiting until his one-year contract is up on February 28th. Including his one year at Cal, when Kelly was working for ESPN, that would give him five years as a UC employee, and his contract allows for a pension, as such.
There are a few potential scenarios. One would be that the entire media industry got it wrong, and he is not leaving. We can’t speak for the others, but this would be the first time our inside sourcing would be wrong. The next scenario is that he is not leaving but will change duties. Maybe he becomes an analyst on the staff. He would still be protected from answering media questions, as analysts don’t talk to the press. Azzianaro has a history of barking at the media from the safety of the practice field, but remained the only offensive or defensive coordinator in the conference never to meet with the media all year. And if this move was what was in play, there would be no reason the change, and Azzinaro’s replacement, could not be announced already.
The third option is that Kelly and athletic Martin Jarmond are waiting for Azzinaro’s retirement date to secure his pension. The problem with that is that is leaves only a matter of weeks for Azzinaro’s successor to be announced, come in and meet with his assistants, and be ready for the beginning of Spring Camp. The eternally upbeat Jarmond has his hands full with a litany of problems within the athletic department. Maybe letting Azzinaro ride off on his terms is the path of least resistance for him. It’s not like Azzinaro has been held accountable for his performance at any point in the last four years.
Kelly likes familiarity within his staff. It is a comfort thing. We have also been told by coaches around the country that, perception or truth, Kelly is not easy to work for. That could be a complicating factor.
The quiet of UCLA football is rather deafening right now. There is so much for them to say and yet so few words are forthcoming.