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UCLA Football: Bruins Nation Pre-Season Roundtable

The writers and editors of Bruins Nation discuss our pre-season expectations for the first year of the Chip Kelly era.

Cactus Bowl - Kansas State v UCLA Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
  1. Let’s start by putting it all out there. What will UCLA’s record be at the end of the season?

Markybcool: I hate to be a pessimist, but I am a realist. I see the Bruins finishing 6-6. This team is too young at too many positions to be any better than that. In addition to that, this team is a combination of Mora recruits and some Kelly recruits, and Kelly most definitely recruits a certain type of player to fit what he wants done. He will need time and recruits to to develop his vision, and this year will be a year in which he starts the process of establishing a foundation of what he wants to do at UCLA.

orlandobruin: UCLA gets seven wins, one of which is a bowl win. So that means 6-6 in the regular season. I think that, although we have a lot of talent, there are some major holes to fill (inside LB comes to mind).

AnteatersandBruins: I think we see progress from last year just due to better coaching and in-game decision making. I think we’ll be bowl eligible this year and actually win wherever we go. I’m going to shoot a little higher and say 7-5. I guess 8-5 when it’s all said and done.

Andrew_goodman3: People might say 6-6 is a down year, but I firmly believe a 6-6 first season under Chip Kelly would be a success. Young teams have trouble winning on the road, which is an area I see the Bruins struggling this season. By all means, I’ll take a 6-6 season all day under a completely new coaching staff/system.

Joe Piechowski: Call me an optimist. I think most people are expecting a 6-6 season, but I’m of the belief that this roster is still loaded with talent. The team’s blue-chip ratio for this season is still above 40%. Combine that with the fact that Chip Kelly frequently did more with less at Oregon and I think it’s a recipe for surprising everyone. 6-6 is acceptable. 7-5 is great. 8-4 is outstanding. I’m going with the “outstanding” and I think that might even be low.

Dimitri Dorlis: I went over my Opponent Preview series predictions, and came up with a 7-5 record. Do I think that is going to happen? Probably not. While I think the Bruins still have a ton of talent and the coaching is vastly improved, the one thing that I noticed with all the teams I picked to beat the Bruins was that they all had continuity that the Bruins currently lack. I think that will play a huge factor, as will the Bruins being shallow at more than a few positions. This team could do all sorts of things - the ceiling is somewhere around 9-3, while the floor is probably around 4-8. I’d say they’re right in the middle or so at 6-6, which would still be a great result, all things considered.

2. Rather than have you guess at who will be the quarterback against Cincinnati, my second question is who will be the quarterback in the Bruins’ final game against Stanford? Will we see the same quarterback all season, or will Chip switch things up? (Editor’s Note: UCLA announced Wilton Speight as the starter after everyone answered this question)

Markybcool: Well, there sure are A LOT of variables that could impact that. My guess would be that Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the quarterback that receives the most snaps as a UCLA quarterback during the 2018 season.

orlandobruin: Yes, PLEASE don’t guess about who will be the QB on Saturday because that will be one of my three guesses in Fridays Pregame Guesses column. I think, at the end of the season, in the Bruins’ final game against Stanford, we will see Dorian Thompson-Robinson under center.

AnteatersandBruins: I don’t doubt that we’ll see a couple of different QBs in the non-conference matchups to start the season, but when it all shakes down, I think DTR is the real deal. I’ll go one step further and say Modster transfers.

Andrew_goodman: DTR will be the starter when UCLA takes on the Stanford Cardinal. He’s legit, and could very well end up being one of the most athletic players UCLA has ever had.It’ll take a few games, and there’s no reason to throw him right into the fire at the beginning of the year.

Joe Piechowski: There are so many different ways things could go. The defense could fail to play up to their potential and it could be a bad season. Or, someone (like Wilton Speight) could get hurt and shake things up at quarterback. Or...the possibilities are somewhat endless at this point. So, I’m not going to predict who the QB will be against Stanford because it could end up being any of the quarterbacks on the roster. It’s just too soon to tell.

But, I will predict that Speight starts this week (again, written before the announcement) and either Modster or Thompson-Robinson starts next week against Oklahoma in order to force the Sooners to prepare for the game based on the tape from Week 1 and force them to adapt to a different QB-style mid-game.

The other thing I will predict is that if we’re crushing Cincinnati (or any team) Chip may not wait until the last seven minutes of the game to get one or both of the other guys some experience and playing time like Jim Mora did.

Dimitri Dorlis: Well, this is a cheat....I usually wait until everyone else has done their roundtable answers before adding mine and getting this thing ready for publishing, and it just so happens that UCLA announces Wilton Speight as the starter for Cincinnati before I had the chance to write this.

Which, honestly, is the right call, and I’d say that (as long as he stays healthy) Speight is the starter for the Stanford game. It’s not that I don’t think DTR is not good - he’s actually fantastic - but I think Kelly is going to pick and choose which games to unleash him in, and take advantage of the new college redshirting rules, in which players are allowed to play in up to 4 games in a season without burning their redshirt. So that’s my actual pick: DTR will start and play in 4 games (probably some combination of 2nd half against Cincy, Fresno State, Arizona State, and Colorado) while Speight and Modster handle the other games, thus keeping his redshirt intact and getting him experience in situations where he can thrive.

3. Who are your breakout stars for the year on offense and defense?

Markybcool: Can Theo Howard even be considered in this question? I guess since he wasn’t a “star” last year he can. I just see Howard excelling in this offense under Kelly. His skill-set will allow him to be used in multiple ways, and I anticipate seeing some highlight reel action from Theo Howard this year, and some kind of recognition on some part of this year’s Pac-12 Football All-Conference Team.

On defense, how about Keisean Lucier-South? This new defensive scheme is going to help both him and Jaelan Phillips excel and be the cornerstones of the defense this year.

AnteatersandBruins: I think on offense, Kazmier Allen will be a breakout star. I’m really excited to have him on the team this year and I can’t wait to see what Chip Kelly can do with him. On defense, I think we’ll see Jaelan Phillips continue to grow, but that’s an easy answer. I think Rahyme Johnson will also have a breakout year and we’ll hear his name more and more on game day.

Andrew_goodman3: Offensively, I could see WR Christian Pabico having a nice bounce back season. He was alright last season, but lost playing time due to dropped passes. He’s a speedster and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was one of UCLA’s leading receivers at the end of the season. Defensively, Nate Meadors will lock down the secondary. He’s been heavily scrutinized by Bruins fans, but he’s their best pass defender (numbers back that up as well). Jaelan Phillips will also be wreaking havoc in the backfield, too.

Joe Piechowski: Wow. Nobody mentioned Josh Kelley? Kelley may prove to be the next great UCLA running back. My other breakout offensive star is not one guy, nor is it a “star”, per se. It’s the offensive line. Justin Frye is going to have those guys ready to play each week and it might normally go unnoticed except for the fact that the offensive line was so historically bad under Adrian Klemm and Jim Mora that people are watching them. Defensively, Atonio Mafi is going to prove to be a big run stopper as long as he stays healthy. Watch for the rest of the defense to finally stop the run.

Dimitri Dorlis: I think there are a few guys on offense who have a chance to shine. All the names already mentioned are good, so I’ll go with Chase Cota, a receiver that came in early this spring and has already cracked the 2-deep, as eventually using his talent to force his way into a ton of playing time. Also, this is unfair, but should Devin Asiasi get out of the doghouse and keep focused after the 3 game suspension, he could give the offense a whole different dimension. I just imagined Asiasi and Caleb Wilson running roughshod against some outmatched linebackers and drooled a little.

On defense, I’d go with Darnay Holmes. This is not to say that Holmes was bad last year - as a true freshman having to play opposite a top-end corner in Nathan Meadors, Holmes was targeted early and often all last year, and did a good job. But I think he takes a big leap forward in year 2. It helps that Paul Rhodes, the new secondary coach, is maybe the best assistant on a very talented staff, but the year of experience is going to pay off a big way with Holmes, and teams are really going to have issues throwing against this secondary.

4. Forget the record, what would it take for you to consider this football season a success?

Markybcool: A clear direction for the UCLA Football Program led by a group of coaches that have the clear ability to coach-up football players to make them better than when they first arrived at UCLA. Elite talent will always show and perform, for the most part. It’s how coaches improve the second tier guys that allows football teams to be better than expected and to be the best that they can be. UCLA has seemingly failed at this the last few years. This year will be our first glimpse to see if Chip and Co. can coach-up players and make them better than what is expected.

orlandobruin: Continued improvement throughout the season and a November that we can be proud of, with games at Oregon, at Arizona State, and at home to Southern Cal and Stanford. A run defense that isn’t at the bottom of FBS schools. Significant improvement against running/dual threat quarterbacks like Khalil Tate. Significant improvement in the penalty department. No off-the-field scandals/embarrassments.

AnteatersandBruins: First off, we need to clean up in game penalties (stupid stuff like having too many guys on the field after a timeout). The easiest thing to say is--beat Stanford, beat SC, and win the Pac-12. But a lot of that may not be realistic this year. I don’t want to be a bottom feeder anymore when it comes to the run game. We need to see improvement in all of these areas, and we also need to stop benching players that play well (Mora always seemed to make guys disappear when they scored too much). We’re going to face Kevin Sumlin again this year, but we have a new coach and he has a new team. David Shaw doesn’t have our number anymore. I want a clean slate and progress on the field.

Andrew_goodman3: A successful season for UCLA would definitely be beating U$C, and Stanford. A win against Southern Cal is huge, but in my opinion, a win over Stanford would be even sweeter since they’ve owned UCLA since the Kevin Craft days (yuck). Also, being more disciplined would go a long way. UCLA has always been one of the most penalized teams in the PAC-12, and they are their own worst enemy. It is very hard to improve when you get called for 12 penalties a game. An improved run defense is crucial, as the Bruins ranked dead last in that category last season.

Joe Piechowski: Putting the “three ships” aside, there are three things that go into a winning football team. One is talent acquisition (aka recruiting). Another is player development. The third is deployment (aka in-game strategy). SB Nation’s Bill Connelly and Bud Elliott make the case that, with the NCAA limiting coaches to 20 hours per week with their players, development is limited, making recruiting more important. But, what if your players practice so fast that you get the same amount of reps as it would take other teams 40 hours to get? You should have close to twice as much player development as you did before.

That’s the basis of Chip Kelly’s tempo philosophy. In Chip Kelly’s world, tempo isn’t just something to be executed on game day. It’s about maximizing the team’s time. It’s as if Kelly has realized that time is the most precious resource a team has and he is determined to make the absolute most of that time, whether it’s on the practice field where it’s limited by NCAA rules or against an opponent in a game where the rules of the game limit the game to two 30-minute halves.

Several of my colleagues mentioned “cleaning up penalties” in their answers to this question. Well, what if the number of penalties stays the same? Can there not be success? Of course, there can be if you adjust your thinking appropriately by looking at the penalties per play, not just the raw number of penalties. All penalties hurt. Kelly said so a few weeks ago. But when you’re running, say, twice as many plays as the team did before having the same raw number of penalties may not hurt as much.

But you have to measure success somehow. So, I will say that I’m going to measure success two ways. The first is by the team’s win-loss record because that’s ultimately the measure of success. The other is whether the team gets better each game. I want to see progress. I want this team to play better against Southern Cal and Stanford in November than it does against Cincinnati and Oklahoma.

Dimitri Dorlis: I’ve been so beaten down over the past years that what I’m looking for, more than anything, is competence. That means looking like you are prepared for every game, and not taking games for granted. That means limiting the silly mistakes that have plagued this team for a decade. That means getting better as the season progresses. This team could go 3-9 (I hope not) but if they showed those things, I’d consider it a success.

5. In more national news, who wins both the Pac-12 North and South divisions, and who comes out as Pac-12 Champion?

Markybcool: I believe that Washington will run away with the North Division. Washington returns almost every single one of their difference makers on both sides of the ball, and their defense will be a juggernaut, not to mention they will not have a strange loss like they did to ASU last year. Washington will win the Pac-12 Championship and be in contention for a National Championship this year.

The South Division is going to be crazy, crazy average. I like Orlandobruin’s pick of Arizona as well.

orlandobruin: I am going out on a bit of a limb here in predict the Arizona Wildcats to win the Pac-12 South. I am not sold on Utah and Southern Cal is starting a true freshman QB, a talented true freshman QB, but a true freshman QB nonetheless. I’m going with the favorite in the north, with the Washington Huskies. Unfortunately, I predict that the north (UW) wins in the Pac-12 Conference title yet again. Other than our crosstown rivals last season, no south team has won the Pac-12 Championship game since it was created in 2011. Thanks, conference realignment!

AnteatersandBruins: I honestly think the south is wide open. I know the kid from Southern Cal is supposed to be a phenom, and every time it’s supposed to be a rebuilding year for those guys, they take a freshman quarterback and make him look like a Heisman candidate. I think they have the best chance to take it though, just building off of last year. But, in some polls (including Vegas), Khalil Tate is actually in the hunt for the Heisman. But so was Rosen until the rest of the team fell apart. I love that anything can happen in college football and that there truly is a chance for a dark horse to win the race. In the north, Washington is, of course, the favorite, but I’m not counting Stanford out. And I think the south wins it.

Andrew_goodman3: I really like Washington to come out of the North, that team is just too talented not to win that division. I like the University of Arizona to come out of the South, though. I believe new head coach Kevin Sumlin will do wonders for Heisman front-runner QB Khalil Tate. Defensively they still have some question marks, but they can put up 40+ points on any opponent. I ultimately believe that the PAC-12 is Washington’s to lose.

Joe Piechowski: Ask me this again after the Oklahoma and Washington games.

Dimitri Dorlis: Washington makes too much sense not to pick them in the North, and I’m not going to buck trends here. But I will go against type with my pick of Utah to win the South. That team has a ton of upperclass talent now, with some actual continuity at the coordinator positions, and with the volatility that all the other South programs are experiencing, Utah’s steadiness should be enough to take the division. Washington still wins the conference, though.