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Chip Kelly probably won’t have UCLA turned around just yet in 2019

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An innovator through and through, Kelly will probably need until at least year three to get everything situated where he needs it.

NCAA Football: Arizona at UCLA
Chip Kelly
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

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

It takes a certain anti-social — damn near sociopathic — tendency to commit to new ideas the way Chip Kelly does. In both success and failure, his commitment to a plan has defined his career.

For a while, Kelly made a hell of a living off of the merciless tempo-and-read-options system that he had helped to conjure as New Hampshire’s coordinator. He spent six years at Oregon (two as coordinator, four as head coach), and his offenses never ranked worse than 16th in Off. S&P+. They were in the top five in each of his last three years. He took that approach to the NFL, and while he didn’t see loads of success, he served as a Hal Mumme type, influencing winning coaches.

Kelly’s impersonal manner, as both coach and head of football operations with the Eagles, seemingly resulted in him getting less rope, and he was fired after one season below 10 wins. His time with the 49ers was disastrous. But he got a chance to dive into technologies related to player development — GPS tracking and whatnot — and he has continued that since returning to the college ranks. He’s developed some unique/strange approaches to recruiting offers. He’s also hired nerds. Quite a few nerds.

Kelly’s last winning season as a coach at any level, though, came in 2014. His triumphant Pac-12 return produced a 3-9 record. As he enters his second season at UCLA, his approach remains as fascinating as ever, but he doesn’t have nearly the same level of benefit-of-the-doubt that he used to.

To be sure, Kelly commandeered a listless ship last year. It takes a while to get things turned around.

Per S&P+, UCLA had regressed for three of Jim Mora’s last four seasons after an early-decade rise, and last year’s two-deep ended up without 2017’s top two QBs (Josh Rosen was drafted, and Devon Modster transferred), top two RBs (Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo combined for 36 carries), top two receiving targets, four offensive linemen with 112 career starts, three of the top five defensive linemen, and three of the top five linebackers. Only the secondary enjoyed any continuity.

In this context, a 3-9 season was almost predictable. Wilton Speight (a transfer) and Dorian Thompson-Robinson (a freshman) took the snaps, and returning players who were freshmen and sophomores last year accounted for 194 passes, 117 carries, 156 pass targets, 32 offensive line starts, 304 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 36 passes defensed, and a punt return touchdown.

This was a gut job. UCLA started 0-5 with blowout losses to Oklahoma, Fresno State, and Colorado but became more competitive, if still inconsistent, as the year went on. The Bruins lost to Washington and Stanford by only seven points each and beat Cal, Arizona, and USC. But they still finished just 76th in S&P+, producing almost no big plays on offense and showing no signs of efficiency on defense.

There’s still a ways to go, perhaps, but the continuity is infinitely stronger heading into year two. Thompson-Robinson’s back (though he’s got some new names to fend off), as is most of last year’s two-deep. Maybe the only true difference-maker lost is tight end Caleb Wilson, now an Arizona Cardinal.

The familiarity and continuity are there. Now we just have to see if Kelly’s army of nerds will produce the desired effect against a challenging schedule. Improvement or no, the Bruins play only two teams projected lower than 60th in S&P+ and are a healthy projected favorite in only one game. Only maybe two or three games are out of reach, but there are no slam dunks either.

Offense

By mid-October, it looked like Thompson-Robinson had turned a corner. The blue-chip true freshman went 27-for-38 for 272 yards against Washington, then 13-for-15 for 141 in a surprising 37-7 pounding of Cal (the Bruins’ first win of the year). He was 5-for-8 for 103 yards and a touchdown early against Arizona, too — well on his way to his third straight strong performance — before the Wildcats’ Colin Schooler drove him into the ground on a sack, and he left the game with an injured shoulder.

He missed the Utah game the next week and went just 9-for-23 against Oregon. Speight ended up starting the rest of the year. It was a frustrating end to a season that featured plenty of growing pains and hints of promise.

Kelly and Thompson-Robinson both said all the right things about his development this spring, but Kelly isn’t exactly handing him the starting job. Sophomore Austin Burton had a solid spring as well, and Kelly recently added four-star redshirt freshman Colson Yankoff in a transfer from Washington. We don’t yet know whether the NCAA’s Random Wheel of Destiny will render him immediately eligible this fall. (My guess is no, but let’s not pretend there’s any sort of consistent logic in these decisions.)

NCAA Football: UCLA at California
Dorian Thompson-Robinson
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson-Robinson is a stellar athlete, but maybe the most interesting part of Kelly’s first UCLA offense is how little the QBs ran the ball. Speight carried just 26 times, which wasn’t a surprise (he’s not the most mobile guy in the world), but Thompson-Robinson’s 31 carries weren’t much better.

Of course, that didn’t stop Joshua Kelley from producing strong efficiency numbers. The UC Davis transfer had a stellar 48 percent success rate, and he didn’t move backwards much. Big plays were minimal, but UCLA’s efficiency game showed promise despite both Olorunfunmi and Jamabo dealing with concussion issues.

Kelley took over as feature back in the fourth game of the year, rushed for at least 90 yards in seven games, and destroyed USC with 40 carries, 289 yards, and two scores. And then he elected to return for his senior season.

USC v UCLA
Joshua Kelley
Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

There aren’t all that many Mora-era blue-chippers left on the roster, but there are a few on the offensive line. Senior center Boss Tagaloa and sophomore guard Christaphany Murray both qualify, and they’re two of four returning starters up front. Incoming freshman Sean Rhyan was the jewel of the 2019 class, as well. And Kelly was happy enough with his offensive line to promote OL coach Justin Frye to offensive coordinator, replacing, well, Kelly.

We’ll see if Frye affects any philosophical changes. UCLA threw the ball quite a bit on standard downs and ran quite a bit on passing downs — a pretty common “protect your young QB by keeping the defense off-balance” approach — and with a deep receiving corps returning, passing on early downs could pay dividends.

Wilson’s gone, but the QB of choice will still have nice efficiency options in senior Theo Howard and sophomore Chase Cota. And young former blue-chippers like sophomore Michael Ezeike, redshirt freshman Kyle Philips, and tight end Devin Asiasi still have time to live up to potential. The Bruins could use a few more big gashes through the air, though.

Defense

Kelly will forever be known for his new-school offensive contributions, but he went decidedly old-school with his defensive hires, bringing both defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and linebackers coach Don Pellum to town upon his hire.

Azzinaro’s first DC gig was at American International College in 1987, and he coached Kelly’s defensive lines from 2009-12; Pellum, meanwhile, was an Oregon assistant for more than 25 years, including all of Kelly’s time in Eugene.

These guys have lived long football lives, but they didn’t have many ideas for stopping opponents in 2018. With injuries playing a heavy role in the front seven and a super-young secondary attempting to hold the fort in the back, the Bruins could only try to play a bend-don’t-break style. They bent a little too much: they were 64th in marginal explosiveness but 101st in marginal efficiency. They were also a sieve near the end zone: 117th in inside-the-10 success rate, 104th on the goal line.

Stanford v UCLA
Darnay Holmes
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Again, experience will be UCLA’s friend. Quite a few of the young DBs showed high ceilings, especially junior safety Quentin Lake, and corners Darnay Holmes and Elijah Gates combined for 20 passes defensed. Throw in sophomores Stephan Blaylock (safety) and Jay Shaw (corner) and a huge class of true and redshirt freshmen, and you’ve got a secondary that will probably be quite good in 2020, at least. They all still have room to grow.

By 2020, UCLA might maybe have a pass rush, too. The Bruins were an abysmal 126th in sack rate, 120th on blitz downs. Granted, they didn’t force enough passing downs to worry too much about blowing them, but when they did, they blew them: they were 120th in passing downs marginal efficiency and 117th in blitz downs success rate.

Outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South led the team with just four sacks. End Osa Odighizuwa was sturdy in run support but managed just three sacks. Granted, that was two more than anybody else on the line managed.

NCAA Football: UCLA at California
Krys Barnes (14) and Keisean Lucier-South (11)
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The class balance is a little bit off with the defense. The secondary will feature no seniors, and the line will have one, at most, if Illinois State transfer Jason Harris ends up in the rotation. That suggests lovely continuity moving forward. But it’s possible that the top five linebackers will all be seniors.

Lucier-South and Krys Barnes combined for 21.5 TFLs, 25 run stuffs, and 14 passes defensed, and they could be key pieces in a revived run defense. But they’ll be gone just as the front and back of the defense have fully matured.

Special Teams

Despite getting about one good return all year, the Bruins ranked a healthy 19th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to a solid pair of legs in place-kicker JJ Molson’s (100 percent inside 40 yards, 7-for-12 beyond) and punter Stefan Flintoft’s (30th in punt efficiency). Molson’s back, and while Flintoft isn’t, Maryland transfer Wade Lees produced similar efficiency numbers. Flintoft averaged nearly five more yards per punt (45.8 vs. 40.9), but their net averages, after returns and touchbacks, were nearly the same (38.6 vs. 38.2).

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Cincinnati 44 -6.5 35%
7-Sep San Diego State 54 0.7 52%
14-Sep Oklahoma 5 -19.4 13%
21-Sep at Washington State 36 -8.3 32%
28-Sep at Arizona 52 -4.9 39%
5-Oct Oregon State 105 15.0 81%
17-Oct at Stanford 32 -9.5 29%
26-Oct Arizona State 49 -0.3 49%
2-Nov Colorado 68 3.8 59%
16-Nov at Utah 17 -14.8 20%
23-Nov at USC 29 -10.2 28%
30-Nov California 60 2.1 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 63
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 50 / 72
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 10.0 (33)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 34
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 1.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (61%, 81%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 3.3 (-0.3)

This would be a great year to ease into your schedule. Get your offense some big plays and confidence with an FCS opponent in week one, maybe take out a lower-level MWC opponent or two to finish non-con, then take on one of the worst Pac-12 teams to start conference play.

UCLA begins the season as follows:

  • at Cincinnati. The Bearcats beat the Bruins, 26-17, in the Rose Bowl last season.
  • San Diego State. The Aztecs beat Arizona State in 2017 and 2018, Stanford in 2017, and Cal in 2016.
  • Oklahoma. The Sooners beat UCLA by four touchdowns in Norman last fall.
  • at Washington State. The Cougars are coming off of their first 11-win season ever.

This might not be a Texas A&M-style murderer’s row (the Aggies played both Clemson and Alabama in the first four weeks of the 2018 season), but it’s not easing in either. With just a couple of bad breaks, an improved UCLA team could start 0-4.

They probably won’t. From the perspective of culture and player development, I would expect decent improvement from the Bruins this year. They aren’t South division contenders or anything, and they’ll have to be really good in close games to threaten bowl eligibility — Kelly is 22-19 in one-possession games as a head coach (3-8 in his last two seasons), and there are six projected one-score games on the schedule — but he’s made clear just how much he’s attempting to reset in Westwood, and I think he still carries enough clout to not lose the boosters just yet with another sub-.500 season.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.