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Chip Kelly’s back! And his first UCLA team could be in tight battles every single week.

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The questions are limitless: What does his offense look like after time in the NFL? Does he have a QB? Does he have a defense?

NCAA Football: UCLA-Head Coach Chip Kelly Press Conference Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Five years isn’t that long, but it can feel like it.

The last time Kelly coached a college football game was January 3, 2013. His fifth-ranked Oregon Ducks manhandled No. 7 Kansas State. De’Anthony Thomas returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Marcus Mariota hit Kenjon Barner for another, and the Ducks cruised, 34-17.

At the time the game kicked off, the College Football Playoff hadn’t been named yet. Jameis Winston was a redshirting freshman. And UCLA was just finishing its first season under Jim Mora, an encouraging 9-5. Mora was putting the finishing touches on the top-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12.

Just under two weeks later, Kelly would sign with the Philadelphia Eagles as head coach and de facto general manager, replacing Andy Reid. (A couple of months after that, the NCAA would hand him a moot, 18-month show-cause penalty for his role in getting Oregon put on probation.)

In the five years and four months since then, those stories all weaved together.

  • Winston won a national title and led the Noles to the inaugural Playoff (where they got destroyed by Kelly’s successors), then was selected first in the 2015 NFL draft, one spot ahead of Mariota.
  • Barner won a Super Bowl with Kelly’s Philly replacement, Doug Pederson. Thomas is a Chiefs backup coached by Reid.
  • Oregon has hired three different head coaches, now on Mario Cristobal.
  • Kelly coached two NFL teams (also the 49ers), won 20 games in his first two years, won just six in his next two, and sat out the 2017 season as a TV commentator.
  • Mora produced back-to-back 10-win seasons and strong recruiting classes. He then won only 18 games over his final three seasons.

A lot has changed.

Kelly himself suffered through a bit of an identity crisis in the NFL. As the league began to mimic some of his basic concepts, he began to abandon them. The Eagles fired him and won their first Super Bowl with one of the more innovative, college-themed offenses in the NFL, something Kelly was hired to deliver. Meanwhile, Kelly was waiting for a new opportunity after his 49ers were slow, plodding, and 31st in total yards.

Now comes the ultimate refresh. Kelly is back in the college ranks and back in the conference in which he thrived. He went 46-7 as Head Duck, and now he’s at a school with a much higher recruiting ceiling. It appears he is integrating some of the basic concepts — “It’s a lot of read option, dish-and-dunk kind of stuff” — and he’s breaking in some of the sports science techniques (GPS devices and whatnot) that he’s become known for.

I’m curious about the philosophical changes Kelly’s offense seemed to undergo in the NFL, just how much his new college offense will look like his old one, and most of all, whether he can do what no UCLA coach since Terry Donahue has done: win consistently.

Lots have won once or twice. Bob Toledo went 20-4 with two top-10 finishes, then averaged six wins over his next four. Karl Dorrell rode a brilliant offense to 10 wins in 2005 but otherwise went 25-25. And Mora looked like he had the program on a brilliant trajectory, only to watch all of his progress disintegrate.

Of course, before you can be consistently awesome, you have to be awesome the first time.

Offense

2017 UCLA offensive radar

Being a head coach can end up like that Hoover Dam scene from Vegas Vacation — you stick some chewing gum into one hole, and a bigger one opens up. Even when UCLA sank back to 8-5 in 2015, things were still going according to plan.

The Bruins had survived star QB Josh Rosen’s true freshman season and were ready for big things heading into 2016. But while Mora’s defense rose to 26th under coordinator Tom Bradley, his offense fell apart under Kennedy Polamalu. The running game was downright pathetic, and when Rosen got hurt, UCLA plummeted from 21st to 82nd in Off. S&P+.

In 2017, Rosen was healthy (until the end), and the offense surged back to 15th under Jedd Fisch, but the defense lost a few key pieces, then lost its way.

In Kelly’s first season, he’ll have a pretty experienced defense. But his first offense is missing a lot of Fisch’s pieces: its starting QB (Rosen), its top two receivers (Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews), and five linemen who had combined for 115 career starts. That includes three all-conference performers in tackle Kolton Miller (a top-15 draft pick), center Scott Quessenberry (a fifth-rounder), and guard Najee Toran.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah
Bolu Olorunfunmi
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

So what will Kelly have?

  • Running backs Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo. The two bounced back from a truly horrendous 2016 (combined: 3.9 yards per carry) to provide a bit more efficient production (4.9 per carry). They came up with almost no big plays, but UCLA rose from 121st to 47th in rushing success rate.
  • Receiver Theo Howard. Howard was one of three main Rosen targets, and while his stats weren’t all that hot (his 46 percent success rate was well below that of Lasley or Andrews, and his 10.6 yards per catch were far lower than Lasley’s 18.3), he and former walk-on Christian Pabico could play key roles in a system with lots of quick, horizontal passing. The WR unit is loaded with star recruits (sophomores Damian Alloway and Dymond Lee, freshmen Bryan Addison and Chase Cota) who have proved nothing so far.
  • Tight end Caleb Wilson. With guys like Colt Lyerla and David Paulson, Kelly proved more than willing to work a good tight end into the equation. Wilson was by far Rosen’s most efficient target, finishing with a plus-31 percent marginal efficiency as the team’s No. 4 target. And it might not be too late for Michigan transfer and former blue-chipper Devin Asiasi to work his way in.
  • Um, a lot of quarterbacks. Sophomore Devon Modster looked decent in filling in for an injured Rosen. Incoming Michigan transfer Wilton Speight nearly led Michigan to the CFP in 2016 before succumbing to injuries. Redshirt freshman Austin Burton had a nice spring. Incoming blue-chip freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a Kelly College Quarterback prototype. Throw in sophomore Matt Lynch and redshirt freshman Jackson Gibbs (Joe Gibbs’ grandson), and you’ve got an outright battle royale. Odds are good that at least one of these guys will grasp what Kelly and new QBs coach Dana Bible are preaching, right?

The skill corps are loaded with candidates, even though only a smattering of guys has proved much. I’m betting Kelly will figure out what to do with them, as long as the line holds up.

UCLA does return two 2017 starters up front — junior tackle Andre James and sophomore guard Michael Alves — and defensive tackle and former blue-chipper Boss Tagaloa moves over to offense to fill a role. But while there are plenty of former four-star recruits in this unit, the line has also been a source of stress for quite a while. It was only decent last year with two 2018 draft picks on it (though it showed enough improvement that Kelly retained OL coach Hank Fraley the new OL coach is Justin Frye from Boston College). There’s reason to be concerned that a faulty line will blow up Kelly’s plans.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Southern California
Theo Howard
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 UCLA defensive radar

It’s amazing how much a defense can change in a single year.

  • Success rate: 41st in 2016, 109th in 2017
  • IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays): fifth in 2016, 84th in 2017
  • Rushing S&P+: 21st in 2016, 100th in 2017
  • Passing S&P+: 23rd in 2016, 49th in 2017
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 28th in 2016, 98th in 2017
  • Passing Downs S&P+: seventh in 2016, 47th in 2017

The pass defense got worse, and the run defense disintegrated in the same way that UCLA’s run offense had the year before. Injuries had a role — no linebacker made it through all 13 games, while four regular linemen and four linebackers each missed at least half the season — but with the way Mora recruited, you’d have assumed the floor was much higher.

Kelly is entrusting an old friend to get the ship righted. Jerry Azzinaro was Kelly’s defensive line coach in Oregon, Philadelphia, and San Francisco and spent last season helping the Cal line improve from indescribably awful to below average. This is Azzinaro’s first DC gig since he was at Duke in the mid-2000s, but he knows what Kelly is looking for in a defense.

NCAA Football: Oregon at UCLA
Nate Meadors
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

He’ll also inherit a defense that, due in part to all those injuries, boasts experience. Thanks to all the shuffling (and some position changes), 32 defenders — nine linemen, 11 linebackers, and 12 defensive backs — averaged at least two-thirds of a tackle per game last year. Twenty-two of them return.

That includes seven of last year’s top 10 havoc guys:

  • Defensive ends Chigozie Nnoruk and Marcus Moore, who combined for 14 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Junior Rick Wade tacked on five TFLs, too.
  • DEs-turned-OLBs Keisean Lucier-South and Jaelan Phillips, a pair of former five-star recruits who combined for 12.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks despite Phillips missing six games. They could thrive as edge rushers in a Azzinaro’s 3-4 structure.
  • A trio of DBs (safety Adarius Pickett and corners Nate Meadors and Darnay Holmes) who combined for seven TFLs, five INTs, and 15 breakups. Safety Octavius Spencer and corner Colin Samuel each defensed at least five passes as well.

There’s a decent base of play-makers here, and veteran inside linebackers Krys Barnes and Josh Woods should round out a really nice linebacking corps.

But based on recruiting rankings, the potential of the supporting cast isn’t nearly as high on defense as on offense. Sophomore and former five-star edge rusher Mique Juarez still has a chance to turn into a star, but there aren’t many young former four- or five-star guys on the two-deep, outside of linebacker.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at UCLA
Rick Wade (90) and Jaelan Phillips (15)
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

One thing is certain: there’s no De’Anthony Thomas at UCLA. The Bruins ranked in the triple digits in both kick and punt return efficiency, which dragged their Special Teams S&P+ ranking down despite a top-40 effort from place-kicker JJ Molson. Everyone’s back, including Molson and a decent punter in Stefan Flintoft, but we’ll see if sophomore Darnay Holmes, senior Adarius Pickett, or a newcomer can add some life to the return game.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Cincinnati 88 12.5 76%
8-Sep at Oklahoma 9 -16.0 18%
15-Sep Fresno State 44 3.6 58%
28-Sep at Colorado 89 8.1 68%
6-Oct Washington 4 -15.4 19%
13-Oct at California 65 2.1 55%
20-Oct Arizona 33 0.8 52%
26-Oct Utah 28 -0.9 48%
3-Nov at Oregon 23 -7.8 33%
10-Nov at Arizona State 57 1.2 53%
17-Nov USC 15 -5.5 38%
24-Nov Stanford 20 -3.4 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 39
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 18 / 84
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.4 (26)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 19 / 15
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -9 / -7.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 59% (45%, 72%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.4 (-0.4)

Man oh man, UCLA’s 2018 season could go in about 38 different directions. Per S&P+, the Bruins are projected to rebound from 77th to 39th despite the fact that my S&P+ projections do not incorporate coaching changes. They return a lot of last year’s defensive production, and the fact that my projections take recruiting into account will always mean friendly things for UCLA.

The Bruins play seven other projected top-40 teams, which is unfortunate, but six visit the Rose Bowl. That, combined with tricky trips to California and Arizona State, creates a schedule with only one totally likely win (Cincinnati), two likely losses (Washington, at Oklahoma), and nine relative tossups that are projected within about eight points. Hell, there are six games projected within four points!

The tiniest developments could make huge differences. If the offensive line holds up, and the defense avoids a sustained visit from the injury bug, UCLA could win most of these close games and rebound to 8-4 or even better. If Azzinaro can’t get all of his chess pieces arranged, the OL struggles, or Kelly can’t home in on his QB of choice, then the floor is low.

Because of Kelly, UCLA was assured of being one of 2018’s most interesting teams in the country. Throw in a schedule that teases weekly drama, and the Bruins rise toward the top of the list.

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