Like the Chilean miners emerging from the depths, college football has returned and. with it, the return of UCLA Bruins football. Last year was a rough year for UCLA fans, as the first year of the Chip Kelly era stumbled out of the gate and finished with a woeful 3-9 record. There were mass player departures, growing pains, and injuries which created something of a Year Zero for the Bruins, akin to a year-long practice session.
But even out of those ashes, a hopeful phoenix is beginning to rise. Because, while last year was bad (and I cannot stress it enough, last year was not good), there were signs that something was building. The offense went from a mess to something that was pretty darn good, rising all the way to a robust 50th in offensive S&P+ and putting up multiple 400+ yard performances to end the year. Joshua Kelley emerged as one of the top running backs in the conference, including his magnum opus where he ran for 289 yards against Southern Cal. The offensive line, long a team weakness, actually grew and turned in a solid performance by the end of the season. The defense.....well it was young and got plenty of experience over the year.
The point being, even following a 3-9 season, there are reasons to believe this year can, and should, be better. Phil Steele believes 6-6 is a reasonable outcome on the year. So, too, does Joe. Getting to a bowl game would represent a significant step forward for such a young team, and is something every UCLA fan should be expecting.
But you didn’t click on this article for the realist part. You clicked because you’re a UCLA fan, which means you’re an eternal optimist.
Optimism is one hell of a drug. It can cloud your vision and make you believe the absolute best thing can happen, no matter what evidence presents itself. It’s what made UCLA fans believe that last year would be a good year despite the mounting evidence that grew during the offseason. Vegas preys on optimism, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just because some dumb schmuck fervently believes that this is the year Arizona State, or Wisconsin, or Missouri or any other number of programs will win a national championship. But we can’t quit being optimistic; it is one of the most inherently human of traits to believe in the best of things.
So, with that idea, let’s do a breakdown of the upcoming UCLA football season from an optimistic viewpoint. I’ll also provide a quick look from a realistic perspective just to provide a neat counterbalance.
Optimist: Hey, you know all of that progress UCLA made on offense at the end of last year? That was just a prelude to greatness.
The offense will be great, bordering on elite in 2019. The only major losses were at left tackle and at tight end. Admittedly, those are big losses, but UCLA is well set-up to weather those losses, being loaded at tight end and having a host of options and schemes to minimize the impact having a new left tackle will have. Everyone else is back; Dorian Thompson-Robinson is no longer a true freshman being thrown out on the field with minimal experience, Joshua Kelley is an all-conference back, and the receiving corps all complement each other. The returning members of the offensive line all gelled by the end of last season, so it’s hard not to see that growth continue in 2019.
Beyond that, 2018 proved two things by the end of the year: that the offensive scheme was much more flexible than the initial outings let on, and that Chip Kelly still understands how to make an offense hum. The first point was certainly a sticking point for many, with some very dumb people going around saying how the entire system was fundamentally broken. But something funny happened along the way: the system clicked into place. Players knew what they needed to do and were fundamentally sound. The same dumb people who were proclaiming that the sky was falling were forced to admit that the offensive system was actually good.
But it also helps that Chip Kelly found his groove with calling the offense. I’m not going to rehash all the ink that was spilled about “Did Chip Kelly lose his offensive touch?” but suffice it to say that, by the end of the season, Kelly was able to dial in the correct play call almost every time. He recognized weaknesses in opposing defenses and crafted gameplans that never strayed from attacking those weaknesses, such as running the ball down Southern Cal’s throat or abusing the middle of the field against Stanford. As much of the optimism in this offense rests on the returning starters, it rests just as much on Chip Kelly remaining a genius.
Realist: Let’s be honest about some things - a 50th offensive S&P+ ranking is good, especially considering the new system in place, but it’s not a number that screams elite offense in the coming years.
And that’s not getting into some of the issues this team can face. Let’s assume the scheme, which by the end of the year had grown into something good, remains more or less intact, and that Chip Kelly is still very good at offense. Both of those are reasonable assumptions, and even a realist wouldn’t take those away based on last season.
But we may be downplaying how big those two losses from last year’s offense are. Caleb Wilson was a gigantic mismatch that opposing defenses had to legitimately scheme for, which opened up the rest of the offense as opponents had to make a choice about which way the Bruins would beat them. Jordan Wilson and Devin Asiasi are both fine and looked decent in limited opportunities last year, but Kelly’s offense seems to utilize the tight end position a ton. So, now, we’re hoping these guys can step up when asked to do more. Left tackle is also a huge concern. Andre James had, maybe, his worst year as a Bruin before he left, but he was still rather good, and left tackle is not a fun position to break in new players. So, it’s more than a bit concerning that the two main options to replace James are true freshman Sean Rhyan or Alec Anderson, who has already had a minor knee surgery during fall camp. It’s not ideal.
And that leaves out the elephant in the room: Dorian Thompson-Robinson. DTR showed spurts of brilliance last year, but also showed off the inexperience you would expect from a true freshman who did not start a ton of games at the high school level. The tools are all there, but a lot of the optimism regarding the offense relies on the assumption that his development will continue. It also leaves out the part where DTR missed part of the year due to injury. At least last year, the Bruins had an experienced grad transfer quarterback in Wilton Speight to fall back on. No such option exists this year. For the Bruin offense to truly shine, DTR has to not only show improvement, but stay healthy, which feels like a lot to unfairly place on his shoulders.
There are other things to monitor. Joshua Kelley injured his knee early in fall camp and, while he finally out of the non-contact jersey, he is wearing a knee brace which could hamper him a bit. Theo Howard spent most of fall camp with an arm brace on. Those are two crucial components to a successful season, and their fall camp was, at the very least, concerning.
Still, even a realist can see this offense should be good. I don’t know if elite is something attainable this year, but top 40 offense should be pretty doable.
Optimist: Last year’s defense was...not good. In fact, it would be fair to describe it as quite bad. But every cloud has a silver lining, and even this cloud has some reasons for optimism. That’s because the defense last year was hurt by a rough mix of youth, inexperience, and injuries.
Let’s start with injuries first, because this year sees the return of two important players: linebackers Josh Woods and Je’Vari Anderson. Now, Anderson is probably more of a backup at the moment, but last year in fall camp he looked to have locked down a starter spot before an injury took away his 2019 season. Woods, meanwhile, brings a host of experience that the linebackers could have definitely used last year, and is a virtual lock to start at one of the outside linebacker spots. Just getting those two back should provide a major boost.
Youth and inexperience tend to go hand in hand, but it can’t be stressed enough just how young the Bruins were last year. The defensive line consisted almost exclusively of freshmen and sophomores. Same with the secondary, where seniors Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors were flanked by Darnay Holmes (sophomore), Quentin Lake (sophomore), Elijah Gates (redshirt freshman), and Stephan Blaylock (freshman). All of those guys now have a year of D1 Power 5 football under their belt. Just as important, they all have a full year of the new strength and conditioning program under their belt. Now you have guys like Atonio Mafi and Otito Ogbonnia, both true freshmen last year, looking stronger and more agile, and more able to hold up over a long season.
The scheme was solid last year. The problem was everything surrounding it. Just having a year to get stronger, more experienced, and healthier should provide the boost the defense needs to ascend to acceptable play, and that’s all the Bruins’ defense could need to make this season a great one.
Realist: UCLA’s defense ranked 97th in defensive S&P+ last year. So, at the very least, there’s not much further it can go down!
I’ll be honest: the defense probably should improve this year. That youth, inexperience, and injury thing up there? It’s all true. Just by improving on those three factors, things should get better, and UCLA’s coaching staff has enough of a track record that you should assume they can coax improvement from this group.
But there’s another factor I left out: depth. UCLA, by virtue of the mass player exodus and relatively small recruiting class, is lacking in solid depth at more than a few positions, which can absolutely create problems down the line. UCLA was very fortunate last year regarding injuries, and even in the realistic view I can acknowledge that the Chip Kelly focus on sports science has helped to drastically cut down on the soft-tissue injuries that plague many teams, but a key injury here or there can expose UCLA’s depth to a worrying degree. We’ve already seen how this unit can look with a lot of inexperience. Injuries could cause a repeat of that in 2019.
All of which is to say that UCLA’s defense should improve this year, but by how much is definitely more of an open question than UCLA fans would feel comfortable admitting.
Optimist: UCLA’s special teams were the definition of special last year and I think Chip Kelly recognized that fact. There’s a new special teams coach in Derek Sage, who has added that to his coaching duties in the wake of Roy Manning’s departure. I don’t know if that will necessarily translate to improved play, especially in blocking schemes and coverage, but it can’t hurt.
The good news is that UCLA still has JJ Molson. Molson’s kicking numbers weren’t the best last year, but he was hurt by a ton of unnecessary penalties that made his kicks more difficult than they needed to be. UCLA has a new punter in Maryland grad transfer Wade Lees who should provide similar kicking output to the now-departed Stefan Flintoft. So, the specialists are set. Really, the best we’re hoping for here is improvement in coverage and more discipline, and the unit should look fine.
Realist: Honestly, there isn’t much of a change in opinions here. Having more bodies with experience should help the coverage units, and the kickers are both solid. And it’s true. I don’t know how much Derek Sage’s promotion will fix things, but early reports from fall camp have shown a solid amount of focus on special teams. So, that’s at least nice to see the coaching staff recognizing a flaw from last year and working to improve on it.
Schedule and Prediction
Realist: I’m going to flip these two for this final section, because the optimistic section just feels better to end on.
As is, though, UCLA has a tough schedule again. The non-conference schedule has once-again done the UCLA rebuild no favors. While the Bruins dodge Washington and Oregon this year, they still have Washington State on the road. So, I break the schedule down as such:
Should win: Oregon State, Colorado
May win: San Diego State, @Arizona
Toss up: @Cincinnati, Arizona State, @Southern Cal, UC Berkeley
May lose: @Washington State, @Stanford
Should lose: Oklahoma, @Utah
Those are pretty fluid, honestly. Washington State could easily move down into the Should Lose category and maybe Stanford should just sit there until UCLA proves they can win that game. Arizona was closer to the Toss Up category until I watched them lose to Hawai’i despite the Rainbow Warriors gifting the Wildcats six turnovers. But that leaves UCLA with four probable wins, four probable losses, and four toss ups. 3-9 is on the table again. 10-2 is, theoretically, on the table as well. But I’d say to split the difference and say 6-6 is the most probable. Still, 6-6 would represent a major step forward. Getting a bowl bid and the extra practice that a bowl allows would be beneficial to the program going forward.
Optimist: And now, let me spin you a tale.
UCLA opens on the road at Cincinnati. Last year, the Bearcats were able to win on the road against a UCLA team with a new coach, new schemes, and having to switch to a true freshman QB midway through the game. Basically, it was less than optimal for the Bruins. Yet despite that, UCLA was able to keep it close in part because their talent level was pretty high. Now, UCLA is more comfortable with the systems and has more experience. I’d expect UCLA to return the favor in the season opener.
From there, UCLA returns home and has a sloppy, but ultimately successful game against San Diego State to move to 2-0. Then, Oklahoma comes to town and, folks, even an optimist isn’t going to predict this as a win. But, I think being at home and Jalen Hurts, not being the aerial assassin that Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, were could help keep it close. At 2-1, the Bruins begin Pac-12 play the following week on the road against Washington State and, again, the scheduling gods do UCLA no favors. This game could be won, but it’s hard for me to pick UCLA again here.
From there, things begin to pick up. Arizona is incredibly beatable, even on the road, and the Bruins follow that up with maybe the easiest game on the schedule when Oregon State comes to town. The Bruins head into the bye at 4-2 and feeling much better than they did last year.
Then comes the Stanford game.
This game being on a Thursday sucks. This game being on the road sucks. I spent a lot of time trying to talk myself into this being UCLA’s best chance in a long time to end the 11-game win streak, yet I just can’t get over my Battered Bruin Syndrome to pick UCLA to win this game. Something about an 11-game losing streak is hard to mentally overcome.
So, after that mess, the schedule eases up a bit. Arizona State should take a step back from last year and the game being at home should aid the Bruins in picking up the victory. Colorado should be noticeably worse this year and the game being at home should aid the Bruins in picking up the victory.
The Bruins, now at 6-3 and with a shot at winning the Pac-12 South, head off to Utah. And they lose. Yeah, I’m not in the business of predicting injuries to opponents and that’s really the only way I can see UCLA beating an older, experienced Utes squad on the road. 6-4.
From there, the Bruins come back to Los Angeles for a “road” game against interim coach Graham Harrell and Southern Cal. The Trojans will be playing for pride at this point after an abysmal 0-5 start quickly took them out of bowl eligibility, but UCLA will be playing for something bigger and come away with the victory. Then, UC Berkeley comes to town, and while there will definitely be a combination of post-rivalry let down and post-Thanksgiving lethargy, the Bruins should still win this game at home. This would leave UCLA at 8-4 on the season, which should put them in line for the Sun Bowl.
Recruiting picks up immensely as top-end recruits realize Chip Kelly’s system works again. Southern Cal once again bungles their coaching search, and instead of Urban Meyer hires Jeff Fisher. UCLA basketball wins the Pac-12. Everything is right in the world.