The Pac 12 Preview Series rolls on! In its fourth edition, we head back to Los Angeles to find out what kind of team Chip Kelly has in his second season at UCLA.
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (2nd Season)
OC: Justin Frye (1st Season, 2nd overall on staff)
DC: Jerry Azzinaro (2nd Season)
Overall: 3-9 (3-6)
ESPN Football Power Index: 68
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 55
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 84
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 116
Year Two Chip Kelly’s Offense
When UCLA signed head coach Chip Kelly after the 2017 regular season, many presumed big things were coming to Westwood the following year. That was until people looked at their depth chart for 2018 and noticed how unbelievably young his team was. Kelly’s Bruins stumbled into an ugly 0-5 start ushering their path to another substandard losing season. Although the first five weeks of the season were indisputably terrible, the lights started to flicker on for this team week six in their competitive loss to ensuing conference champion, Washington. While the young defense continued to struggle as the year transpired, the offense emerged into a top-half Pac 12 offense in the final eight games of the season. UCLA has a lot coming back on that side of the ball and aims for further improvement as they gear up for 2019.
It was an oscillating true freshman campaign for top returning passer Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He was thrown into the fire week one after starter, Wilton Speight, went down with injury. Thompson-Robinson struggled while learning on the fly but began to hit his stride in his last three starts until an injury vs Arizona. Speight took them the rest of the way but graduates leaving DTR the prime candidate for the job. Much of the offense’s improvement in 2019 will be contingent on the play of Thompson-Robinson and how he orchestrates the passing game to compliment the blossoming running game. The run game made incremental strides throughout the course of 2018 behind budding star running back Joshua Kelley. The UC Davis transfer was the most pleasant surprise of UCLA’s 2018 season and they hope to add some depth to ease his workload. Keegan Jones, Martel Irby, and Kazmeir Allen should get plenty of opportunities in Chip Kelly’s run based scheme. The Offensive Line struggled out the gate last season but vastly improved its run-blocking prowess with the return of Center Boss Tagaloa after serving his opening four-week suspension. Tagaloa heads a group returning four starters constituting a unit critical to UCLA’s offensive success in 2019. Michael Alves and Chris Murray return at Guard with Jake Burton back at RT. Andre James departs at LT, but UCLA is excited about incoming freshman Sean Rhyan and think he has the talent to start early. While the run-blocking was solid, pass protection was still an issue for a group that surrendered 32 sacks last season. Depth may be another question with few proven players in the second-string.
The receiving corps loses college football’s most productive TE, Caleb Wilson but returns a deep group of talent headlined by WR Theo Howard. The Bruins have plenty of potential sidekicks to complement Howard with in likes of Demitric Felton, Chase Cota, JC recruit Jaylen Erwin, Kyle Phillips, and Michael Ezeike. Meanwhile, Devin Asiasi is an alluring candidate to replace Wilson at TE providing a lot of size and athleticism. The Bruins have some depth here too so expect to see some 12 personnel in addition to Kelly’s standard 11-personnel package. Overall, this should be a quality offensive attack and it needs to be successful for UCLA be a winning football team in 2019.
Young Defense Needs to be Tougher up Front
It was another long year for the Bruins’ defense in 2018 and sharp growing pains were endured by their young defensive line. Three true freshmen played extensively on Jerry Azzinaro’s 3-4 front and opponents regularly controlled the line of scrimmage. The Bruins struggled to defend the run and fostered an anemic pass rush. The good news is those guys are not true freshmen anymore and they have a boatload of size to back their experience. UCLA will be better on the DL with nearly every contributor returning including Osa Odighizuwa who is the best of the bunch. The ceiling for this group is higher than last year’s results would indicate, but they are still another year away from being good. The hope this year is they earn respectability and hold the line of scrimmage more consistently. The pass rush is a whole other issue and the answers are less certain. The status of UCLA’s top pass rusher from 2018, OLB Keisean Lucier-South, is unclear after taking time off from football to focus on academics. Finding capable pass-rushers may be a challenge, but the Bruins sport a much deeper, more experienced linebacking corps than they did a year ago. MLB Krys Barnes was their most consistent tackler in 2018 and MLB Tyree Thompson played well down the stretch after early season struggles. There will be plenty of competition and rotating among this group and Josh Woods is a player to watch returning from what has been an injury-plagued career.
The strength of this defense is the secondary. 2018 was not pretty for this group either, but there is good reason to think this will be a strong unit. Those reasons start with CB Darnay Holmes. He is as talented as they come combining bullet speed with flashy ball skills. Elijah Gates joins him at CB after an up-and-down redshirt freshman campaign. His improvement will be key and there is some quality depth beneath them. Quentin Lake is the man to watch at Safety and could be in for big season after steady improvement as a sophomore. He will likely be accompanied by Stephan Blaylock who played plenty of snaps last season spelling departed starter Adarius Pickett. They have some depth here too rounding out what should be a solid secondary. Overall, this defense should make considerable strides in their second season under Azzinaro but will likely not be good enough for the offense to hang its hat on. Meanwhile, UCLA needs to do something about its special teams coverage. It was an inexcusable crack in last year’s team and has to be addressed if they want to win more close games.
UCLA was a much better football team in the final eight games of 2018 than they were in the first four. The improvement will follow them into 2019 and the Bruins should be a much more relevant team in the Pac 12 South. That said, they have a lot of ground to cover before they emerge as a serious contender. A bowl game should be the goal for now as they navigate a challenging non-conference schedule.