Chip Kelly makes his return to the college game at UCLA this season, inheriting a program that cratered under Jim Mora. A few years ago, Mora seemed to have the Bruins ready to turn a corner, with consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013-14. He landed quarterback Josh Rosen in the recruiting sweepstakes. But UCLA never won a Pac-12 title, and struggled to six wins a year ago. Now Kelly, whose reputation took a big hit in the NFL, but still compiled a 46-7 career record at Oregon is on hand.
There will be a lot of new pieces on the field, as well as the sidelines. From an experience standpoint, the cupboard is mostly bare. The one exception is the secondary, but given that UCLA’s defense was woeful last season, even that might not be a good thing.
There’s one thing that is on hand and that’s talent. UCLA’s recruiting classes consistently rank second-best in the Pac-12, trailing only crosstown rival USC. That means success or failure this season is going to be defined by whether or not there are breakout stars and the Bruins have some candidates…
*Any success is going to have to start with defensive improvement and Kelly’s staff will changing the Bruins over to a 3-4 scheme. The immediate beneficiary of that will be outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South. UCLA has other highly regarded young recruits at the linebacker spot and this is the position that the 3-4 system funnels playmaking opportunities to.
*With Rosen gone to the NFL after two years, the quarterback job is open. The kid to watch is an incoming freshman, Dorian-Thomas Robinson. He’s a dual-threat, meaning he’s tailor-made for Kelly’s system. Robinson is currently listed second on the depth chart, but with no obvious incumbent that can change in a hurry. In their fondest dreams, UCLA fans hope Robinson can be for them what Sam Darnold was for USC in 2017—the freshman who comes off the bench early in the season and turns an entire program around.
UCLA did not run the ball well last year, which is why the offense was nothing spectacular in spite of Rosen’s best efforts. Based purely on returning starters, there’s no reason to expect otherwise this year. But Kelly always produced potent running games during his tenure at Oregon, and while the ‘18 Bruins might not have a “potent” running game, I think it reasonable to expect that Kelly at least pieces together a functionable ground attack in his first year.
The team’s most proven offensive player, tight end Caleb Wilson, is a good bailout for a young quarterback and for the third-down situations that inevitably arise for teams that try and run the football.
If the tone of this article sounds optimistic about UCLA’s chances, it’s because I am. At least when measured by the expectations of the Las Vegas betting market. UCLA’s Over/Under on wins is 5. Yes, the schedule is challenging—the Bruins go to Oklahoma and host a good Fresno State team, while the Pac-12 schedule is the usual demanding nine-game gauntlet that includes divisional crossovers with Washington, Stanford and Oregon. If you asked me to pick out the needed wins individually, I couldn’t do it. But a bad Bruins team, with a coaching staff and quarterback on their way out the door won six games last year. A committed, focused program can at least match that in 2018.
Meeting the expectations of the Vegas market is one thing. Meeting the demands of the Los Angeles market is quite another. UCLA has its usual fight for headlines with USC. The Bruins also have to fight for space with baseball’s Dodgers, who are likely to be in postseason play again in October. And this guy named LeBron James that just showed up with the Lakers may get a few media mentions.
To run with the big boys, Kelly is going to need 2-3 years and will have to upgrade what are already good recruiting classes. For this year, some breakout players, a bowl game and a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South will be sufficient to gin up some momentum. I think he does at least that.