Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly didn’t have a great start to his tenure with UCLA - a 3-9 record after losing their first five games. To me it looked like they were dealing with talent and experience deficiencies on both lines, difficulty figuring out their offensive and defensive philosophies, and a brutal schedule.
Interestingly, I think there’s a good chance all three of these factors reverse in 2019, and the Bruins have a one-year window in which they might post a pretty solid record … before Coach Kelly’s lackadaisical attitude towards recruiting (and hiring proven assistants) really catches up to them. A quick glance at UCLA’s conference schedule -- particularly whom they miss from the North and where they play their toss-up games -- will explain why I think it sets up nicely; I’ll detail below the challenges the Bruins face and the personnel-related reasons why I think 2019 might be a better year.
Thanks to Nathan Eberhardt of GoJoeBruin.com for his insights into the team. Be sure and listen for an extended discussion of Kelly’s system, quirks, assistant hires, and approach to the transfer portal - there’s some pretty great stories that should be of special interest to Oregon fans.
Offense - #50 in S&P+
I watched five of UCLA’s games in film study last year and I still couldn’t tell you what their offense is. They’ve retained the zone-read option as their primary rushing concept, but by far their most effective run play is an old-fashioned Power O with two pulling linemen. They don’t huddle, but I wouldn’t call it uptempo either (they’re #27 in Adjusted Pace; by comparison, Oregon is #12). They split QB time between a 3-star pro-style grad transfer from Michigan and a borderline 5-star dual-threat true freshman; their stats were virtually identical. UCLA fans are excited by clear signs of offensive improvement at the end of the year; none of those games were quarterbacked by a player still on the team.
It’s difficult to get a read on #7 QB Thompson-Robinson, I only watched him in one full game plus some pieces of others before he got hurt. He strikes me as athletically gifted but prone to freshman mistakes.
The Bruins lost #81 TE C. Wilson to the draft (he was a higher quality contributor than his final selection indicated, I thought that was a mistake by the pros), as well as #17 WR Pabico who was a decent perimeter blocker and underperforming backs #1 RB Jamabo and #4 RB Olorunfunmi. The transfer portal is filled with a bunch of highly ranked receivers and tight ends leaving Westwood, but I don’t believe any of them recorded any stats - there’s an interesting discussion of this with Nathan on the podcast.
But beyond that they’re returning about three-quarters of their offensive production, including almost 95% of their rushing yards most of which are from the excellent #27 RB Kelley. There are two more great backs behind him in #19 RB Allen and #15 RB Irby. They return four of their top five wideouts, the best being #14 WR Howard (who’s built like a flanker but interestingly usually lines up in the slot or tight against the line), plus talented contributors in #10 WR Felton, #23 WR Cota, and #21 WR Ezeike.
I’m less sold on the returning tight ends, #86 TE Asiasi and #87 TE J. Wilson. For a team whose top receiving target was a TE, I would have expected more systemic rotation between them if they had the hands for it ... but both were used primarily as blockers, and from the games I saw, the TE passing options disappeared from the playbook when those guys were the only ones in.
The good news is that the offensive line returns almost everybody, and they played together for basically the whole year excepting a 3-game suspension to start the season for the center. #77 LT James declared early for the draft, and #74 OL Murphy (the 6th man who filled in at guard during said suspension) has departed as well, but #55 LG Alves, #75 C Tagaloa, #76 RG Murray, and #73 RT J. Burton are all coming back.
The bad news is that I don’t think these guys played very well in 2018, and I thought it was the biggest reason for the offensive problems (it certainly wasn’t the skill talent and I doubt the issue was Kelly’s playcalling). Two of the returners are converts from the defense, and Nathan tells us the battle for the LT spot is between two freshmen: R-Fr #70 OT Anderson and T-Fr Sean Rhyan (to whom UCLA hasn’t yet assigned a jersey number).
Nathan and I spent quite some time on the podcast discussing the o-line coaching. In my opinion, the offense’s secret weapon during Kelly’s time at Oregon was OL coach Greatwood (now at Cal), who turned undersized linemen into formidable blockers. Nathan tells us that OL coach Frye -- who this season has been officially titled the offensive coordinator and even called plays during the Spring game -- has improved the line immensely, and highlighted Frye’s coaching at BC when the Eagles produced Heisman finalist RB Andre Walker in 2013 and ran all over USC in 2014. I’m generally skeptical of quick turnarounds at the line and don’t think he’s had enough time with a group lacking an abundance of top-end talent; UCLA has had four different OCs in the previous four years (five in five if you count Frye separately) and that much constant reversal in blocking systems wreaks havoc in development.
I’m also concerned about the perimeter blocking from the returning skill players. Nathan disagreed with me about this and thinks it’ll be fine, but in my opinion the blocks I was seeing in film study out of both the WR corps and the returning TEs didn’t meet the standard I had gotten used to from Kelly’s time at Oregon. This was the key aspect of wideout playing time -- no block, no rock -- and I wasn’t seeing guys like Lavasier Tuinei, David Paulson, Jeff Maehl, or Keanon Lowe out there.
Defense - #97 in S&P+
This unit is coached by longtime Kelly assistant DC Azzinaro, and it resembles Nick Aliotti’s 3-4 with a drop end. The adv stats back up my observations of this squad - fairly good explosive-play defense reflecting fast, hard-hitting DBs, but otherwise pretty awful across the board.
This group is fairly talented and returns much of its production. They lose a good corner in #22 CB Meadors and the team’s leading tackler in #6 S Pickett. I thought Nathan had a smart response when I asked him about issues the safeties had in tackling, in that the fact that the safeties were being asked to tackle that much was the real problem and had more to do with the front end than the back.
They return #1 CB Holmes, #18 CB Gates, #4 DB Blaylock, and #37 S Lake; Nathan tells us that #7 DB Osling will probably get the fifth spot in what’s typically a nickel defense. I didn’t see Osling much but his stats indicate he got a good deal of playing time, which is true of all these guys. I also think DB coach Rhoads (the former Iowa St head coach) was a smart hire and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a DC offer soon.
The concern I have (other than the fact that the near total absence of a pass rush leaves them running around the field way too long) is that Lake was often the force man in rush defense and I saw him get burned a lot by a quick-stepping back - for example, Tony Brooks-James put a fairly humiliating move on him when they played Oregon.
I thought this unit wasn’t very good, and far more than the offensive issues, was the key reason for the Bruins’ poor record. There were widespread reports prior to the 2018 season that former coach Jim Mora had left the roster depleted, and I think this was the unit most affected. In 2019 the Bruins return #11 OLB Lucier-South, whom I liked a lot last year, as well as #14 ILB Barnes, who was fairly productive (curiously, he was almost the only guy in the conference capable of bringing down the Huskies’ RB Gaskin on first contact). But beyond those two it gets real dicey.
First, I was surprised how many 3-stars this program had in the rotation here, notably: #44 DE Andrus, #92 DE Odighizuwa, #97 DE Isibor, and #26 LB Toailoa (all of whom return in 2019). Second, several 4/5-star linebackers who only rarely saw the field are transferring out -- #12 LB R. Johnson, #15 LB J. Phillips, and #32 LB Juarez -- plus three more defensive linemen who weren’t as highly ranked but did see the field last year have also left the team - #93 DL Nnoruka, #90 DL R. Wade, and #95 DL Moore.
Third, UCLA gave significant playing time last year to six true freshmen in the front seven: #50 DT Manoa, #56 DT Mafi, #91 DT Ogbonnia, #25 LB T. Thompson, #33 LB Calvert, and #99 LB E. Wade. The silver lining is that several of these guys are 4-stars and they’re all returning in 2019, so it’s possible that experience could make for a big improvement in this unit’s performance. And Nathan tells us that several of the defensive transfers were for roster management reasons, so it’s possible a healthier locker room culture might be a result.
In addition to personnel issues, I think this unit represents a hiring problem as well. DC Azzinaro does not, in my opinion, have a great track record in that role during his time at UMass and Duke, and while I think he’s a great DL coach, those duties are going to a newcomer to the job and one of Azzinaro’s former players from Duke in 2006, DL coach Oghobaase. The outside linebackers were coached by Roy Manning, whom UCLA let go in the offseason (he was also responsible for special teams, which were atrocious, and may have had more to do with it); the inside linebackers have LB coach Pellum, to whom I’m sure Oregon fans need no introduction.
None of these four responsible for the front-seven were highly sought after, and I believe UCLA could have afforded to bring in more accomplished defensive coaches. But instead, as Nathan put it, “You know how Chip is: he has his network, he likes his guys.” I think that hiring familiarity instead of proven competence is a fair knock on Coach Kelly - we have no evidence he knows how to build a college program in general or a defense in particular, and the single prior line on his resume had him taking over a well stocked team with a longtime DC running a system that complemented his offense. It remains to be seen if this collection of unheralded defensive assistants can turn their squad into something more than a liability.