The exercise last year was to hold fast while the losses piled up for UCLA football. The challenge was to stay rational and analytical enough to understand the team might not win a single game and still be clearly moving in the right direction in the first season under proven head coach Chip Kelly.
Emotionally, that was a big ask and some fans melted under the heat of a few difficult autumn Saturdays with young players fading down the stretch in winnable games.
The UCLA Bruins finished 3-8 on the year as notable chunks of the roster recruited and left behind by outgoing coach Jim Mora decided to transfer out of the program. Calling the season, which built momentum week to week as players learned their roles and began to trust the process, a success is not out of line.
Phil Steele, one of the elite football analysts in America, who for the last twenty-five-years has put out the most detailed and, subsequently, accurate college football preview magazine on the market, agreed with the evaluation.
“Any time you have a first-year head coach, they have to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their players, and the players have to learn new systems. There were changes on both sides of the ball for UCLA, and they were also an inexperienced team last year,” Steele said during a thirty-minute conversation with Bruins Nation.
“Chip Kelly came in with a ‘my way or the highway’ approach and some players left, which in the long run is a good sign, but left only eleven returning starters last year, making them one of the most inexperienced teams in the country.”
But this is year two under Kelly and the Bruins make a huge jump in experience level in not just the current system, but also in terms of the number of snaps played against Football Bowl Subdivision competition and in the number of weight room reps each player has logged.
Steele has ranked the Bruins no. 34 on his preseason Power Poll and put UCLA on his Most Improved Teams list for 2019, but warns the Bruins once again face a difficult schedule.
After ranking second nationally last year, the Bruins play the eighth most difficult schedule this year, according to Steele’s numbers.
“They face a brutal schedule,” he says.
“I have UCLA favored in five. They’re going to have to pull one upset to get to a bowl, and I think they will, especially after last year beating Cal and USC like they did. If they do that, that’s showing quite a bit of improvement over one season.”
In particular, the non-conference scheduling gods had malice in their hearts for the Bruins as the 2018 and now 2019 seasons rolled into existence.
“Dumb luck,” says Steele. “When you scheduled a game at Cincinnati four or five years ago, it wasn’t a great football program. But the Bearcats are loaded again off an 11-2 year and talking to Luke Fickell, they’re going to have another good team.”
And the beat goes on like that for UCLA.
San Diego State, their second opponent and first home game, is in the midst of a semi-regular upswing and, after playing through a spate of bad injuries last year, will contend for the title in the tough West Division of the Mountain West Conference this year.
Oklahoma, UCLA’s third opponent, again has College Football Playoff and national championship aspirations.
The Bruins could play good football on three consecutive Saturdays and start the season 0-3. Or, they could pull an upset or two. You never know in college football, which is what makes it so exciting.
In the Pac-12 conference, the Bruins play five road games against four bowl teams from last year. The one potential break is catching the Arizona Wildcats in the Rose Bowl with the Bruins coming off a bye week. Arizona, in contrast, will be playing its third road game in a five-week stretch and may be weary.
Played Better Last Year as the Year Went On
One important reason for the big-picture optimism is the way UCLA kept getting better last year. The Bruins won three games overall, two against arch-rivals UC Berkeley and Southern Cal and played nearly every other contest close with their extreme youth fading late against more experienced teams.
“They played much better down the stretch last year and arrows are definitely up on both sides of the football,” says Steele.
“Look at the last seven games. Knocking off Cal in Berkeley 37-7 was very impressive. Beating USC in the big rivalry game to end the year. But even go back to a couple of the losses. They were tight with ASU and only lost by three. Tight with Stanford and lost by a touchdown. They racked up a lot of yards and had the yardage edge against a pretty good Stanford defense. They were figuring out Chip’s system toward the end of the year.”
Steele said it was “very unusual” for a team with as poor a won-loss record as UCLA to be nationally ranked the next year amongst his top positional groups, but UCLA is near the top in six of his eight metrics, with only special teams and the defensive line falling outside the top groupings.
But the special teams, in spite of their ranking, could jump up, Steele says.
“[Placekicker J.J.] Molson did a nice job last year but was just one-of-four from fifty-plus yards,” says Steele. “They brought in a Maryland graduate transfer Wade Lees to punt and, if he can keep up his 38.8 net, they’ll be in decent shape there.”
Special teams, while often overlooked, can be not just a great equalizer in an otherwise mismatched game, but they can be the absolute difference between winning and losing.
“One of the most underrated elements in college football,” says Steele. “Iowa is a great example under coach Ferentz. He’s mentioned many times they can’t always match the talent of the big boys like Michigan and Ohio State, but they can be close and, if they win the special teams battles, they can be in position to win close games against those teams.”
Defensively, while the Bruins finished last in the Pac-12 in sacks last season at fifteen, a stronger and more seasoned defensive line should be much more productive this season.
“The one thing that stood out last year was the number of freshmen playing. Generally with underclassmen, what happens is they need to bulk up. They’ll be much more veteran this year. These are sophomores and juniors as opposed to true freshmen and sophomores, and we’ll see a lot of improvement.”
Steele likes both sophomores Atonio Mafi in the middle at 360 pounds and Otito Ogbonnia at 344 pounds, which is respectable size up front, and the second year of experience is going to be huge for this group’s development.
“Chip knows he has to put a priority on defensive line,” says Steele. That’s one of the reasons he brought in Daytona Jackson, a JUCO defensive-end (ranked no. 26 by Steele), to potentially make an impact this year. But recruiting is the key and size is the key.”
UCLA’s offensive line brings back 65 career starts and four returning starters, making them an experienced group that improved steadily last year, particularly after the now-senior Boss Tagaloa returned from suspension to anchor the line at center.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was shoved into the starting quarterback role last year as a freshmen, returns for his second season with a lot of hard-won experience behind him.
“Perfect fit for Chip’s offense,” says Steele. “He has a strong arm. He’s got good mechanics and has become a bit more of a vocal leader. He can use his legs and he’s a dangerous passer. Last year, they didn’t do a great job of protecting him. He was pressured in more than fifty-percent of his drops.”
“I know UCLA fans want to see more touchdowns out of him, and they will,” he says.
Joshua Kelley is a playmaker at running bac and there are more weapons in the receiving corps. Junior Demetric Felton, a slot receiver, and senior Theo Howard on the outside, and the potential for multiple two tight-end formations with juniors Devin Asiasi (the Michigan transfer who was Steele’s 2nd rated high-school tight-end), Jordan Wilson, and Matt Lynch all getting meaningful snaps in the offense.
LIinebackers and Defensive Backs
Defensively, the two linebackers, seniors Keisean Lucier-South and Krys Barnes, should come up big for the Bruins, Steele believes. But all four linebackers are returning starters and the group should be synched up and ready to go for UCLA.
“Darnay Holmes at cornerback has great ball skills and probably a shutdown corner,” says Steele. “He’s relentless and is in for a big season. Quentin Lake at the free safety spot. He can really play anywhere and has NFL potential.”
Pac-12 Conference in 2019
Steele sees the Pac-12 North as wide open, with Oregon the most talented team and the best offensive line in America. But the Ducks have struggled on the road and play a road-heavy schedule.
The Washington Huskies have a better schedule but are returning only two starters on defense.
Stanford is always in the mix with David Shaw and a good quarterback in KJ Costello, but does not appear to have one of their more lethal teams.
Washington State is talented, but plays five road games against bowl-caliber teams.
Utah is Steele’s clear favorite in the Pac-12 South. The Utes boast the nation’s top defensive line as well as a lot of experience and have a real shot at the College Football Playoff. Everyone else appears to be vying for second place.
What About Stanford?
With UCLA potentially looking at returning to a bowl in Kelly’s second season, another solid step in the right direction would be beating Stanford, a school that has shockingly emerged as UCLA’s biggest nemesis, beating the Bruins now eleven straight times, a record for the series that began in 1925. Will UCLA end that skid this year?
“In Vegas, UCLA is a seven-point dog and I’d put it at about that range,” says Steele. “When you factor in past history, home-field edge, and Stanford is a pretty good team established under coach Shaw....“
That’s one prediction Bruins Nation hope Steele gets wrong. No offense.