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UCLA Football: End of 2018 Football Season Roundtable

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The writers and editors of Bruins Nation gather to discuss the 2018 football season.

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Let’s start with the offense. How do you think the offense progressed this year? Did it succeed or fail to meet your expectations?

orlandobruin: I think that, in order for these end of the season discussions to have context, I must disclose that I thought that the UCLA Bruins would win six games this year. So, to have started 0-5, essentially rendering nugatory the chance of a six-win season, I lowered my expectations. So, really, for me, I am answering this question after the rock bottom start, and encompasses the 3-4 “rebound” from it.

Starting there, I think that the offense progressed in several areas. First, the offensive line improved drastically, probably the most improved unit on the squad. Hand in glove with that was the breakout season of Joshua Kelley. Simply outstanding work and can’t wait to see him as a senior. We also got better QB play, both from Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight, who will always be 1-0 against Southern Cal.

On the flip side, with Speight (and Devon Modster) gone, DTR is the only experienced QB left on the roster. And the receiving corps, aside from TE Caleb Wilson and wide out Theo Howard, did little to distinguish themselves.

So, from 0-5 forward, I give the offense a B and met my expectations.

Markybcool: Along with Orlando, I had this Bruin team winning six games as well. So, with that in mind, the offense failed to meet my expectations. Early on, I felt like the offense was as vanilla as a college offense could possibly be. Did that have to do with the players, the amount of time a coach now has to insert an offense, and other factors? Yes, of course, it did, but it still was not what I expected to see.

However, as the season progressed and the offensive line started playing better, Joshua Kelley was unleashed, and DTR and Speight played better, I saw progression and I got excited for what the future will hold.

AnteatersandBruins: At first, I thought this year was going to be absolutely abysmal. When the Bruins lost to Cincinnati and then lost four more after that, I was beginning to question the hiring of Chip Kelly. Not that he wasn’t qualified—it was like UCLA wasn’t ready to make that leap. The culture of UCLA has not demanded excellence in football in recent years. But, after seeing what Chip brought to the table and how it really started to gel at the end of the year, the team met my expectations, in an edited sort of way. I still believe in my hockey stick theory, and that we’ll continue to improve in year two under his tutelage. We know this team is capable of so much more and the bright spots we saw need to become the norm, not the exception.

There were massive improvements on the offensive line and Josh Kelley’s performance against Southern Cal was something of a dream. The personnel changes were appropriate and worked out really well. I’m excited to see what materializes in the next nine months.

Dimitri Dorlis: It’s hard to say the offense met my expectations from the beginning of the year, because the offense was so wildly different from what I expected. And that’s not a bad thing! I went into the season expecting some sort of new variation of the Blur offense, but what we got was a more multiple look, pro-style offense that by the end of the season was able to shift and adapt to take advantage of opposing defensive weaknesses.

That “by the end of the season” bit is the most important, because the offense grew by leaps and bounds over the course of the year. The growth wasn’t linear, but, if you look at where this offense was against Cincinnati and compare it to what was happening against Southern Cal and Stanford, the differences are noticeable. Clearly, there was a plan on offense and I’m excited about what the future holds.

Joe Piechowski: I don’t think anyone would have predicted the 0-5 start. I, too, was expecting at least six wins. I expected a rapid turnaround of the kind that we saw with Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

I also don’t think anyone anticipated the kind of talent drain we saw after Chip Kelly arrived. Sure, there are usually some guys who will opt to leave a program when a new coach arrives, but it seemed like the arrival of Kelly had a much bigger group of guys leaving for various reasons ranging from the NFL Draft to medical retirements to transfers.

Overall, it seems like the team was much more competitive in the final seven games than the first five. Maybe that’s due to the fact that the team won three of the final seven, but maybe I’m just entirely wrong.

In general, I do think the team has made significant progress from the Cincinnati game to the Stanford game. It certainly wasn’t linear, but there was progress, for sure, and that’s not something we can say about years past. So, while I expected three more wins, the more important expectation — progress — was met.

And, before I forget, Justin Frye deserves a big raise. The progress of the offensive line was significant and exceeded my expectations.

2. How do you think the defense progressed this year? Did it succeed or fail to meet your expectations?

orlandobruin: The team was still have tackling issues late in the season that cost it a victory or two. Aside from the Cincinnati game, the squad really did not generate pressure on the QB. I guess we all learned the value of healthy Jaelan Phillips, didn’t we? The front line was young, the linebackers were decimated, and the secondary was asked to do too much. But excuses are for . . . well, you know.

Simply stated and excuses aside, the defense did not meet my expectations. The defense gets a C-.

Markybcool: The defense was a huge issue all year, DL, LB, and DB positions were overall below average. So, if every part of your defense performs at a below average level. you’re going to give up about 34 points per game, basically give your offense very little chance, and lose a lot of games.

So, the defense failed to meet my expectations and was the major problem with this team and did not show enough progress to give me a lot to look forward to next year.

AnteatersandBruins: Defense remained flat all season and definitely did not progress as much as the offense. If the defense is still getting burned and can’t turn around to avoid a PI call in the secondary in November, how can you call that progress? I know the team had injuries and maybe the defense needed more work than the offense, but they couldn’t sack a QB to save their lives and they allowed long passing plays and that resulted in a lot of points by opponents.

Toward the end of the season I was questioning whether UCLA needed a new defensive coordinator or if it was the position coaches that needed changing. Since no one has been let go yet, I can only assume that the staff will remain the same and it’s probably too soon to make any changes. But if we’re looking this way next year, Chip is going to have to give someone their pink slip.

Dimitri Dorlis: Yeah, I don’t know how much I can really blame the coaching staff here. The defense looked like a younger version of last year’s defense, which makes sense. There was a lot of mismanagement on the defensive side, especially at linebacker, and one offseason wasn’t going to fix it. Certain units definitely looked improved, but it was a repeat of last year where the secondary was forced to do too much to try and cover for weaknesses in the front seven. That said, I liked the flashes that I saw from some of the younger performers, so things should theoretically improve next year.

Joe Piechowski: When the middle of your defense has depth issues, you’re going to have big problems. When you can’t get to the quarterback, you’re going to have problems. I don’t know if the defensive coaching staff had to scale back their plans due to the depth chart or what the root of the team’s defensive woes really was, but the defense definitely did not meet expectations and it needs to be fixed.

3. How do you think special teams progressed this year? Did it succeed or fail to meet your expectations?

orlandobruin: This grade was easy. F, as in failed to meet my expectations. Our punting was atrocious. Our kick and punt coverage was even worse. The Bruins could not catch a punt. They were beaten on trick plays. Technically, it is an F+ because JJ Molson had a pretty good year (could have had a great year had a he made one or two more kicks, like the missed one at ASU).

Markybcool: Why even ask this question? Orlando said it all. Thanks for saving me the keystrokes, Orlando.

AnteatersandBruins: Dear God, could it have been any worse? Special teams was an absolute shit show and I’m shocked that the team still doesn’t have a dedicated special teams coach. This is a huge oversight/mistake, whatever you want to call it, and it needs to be fixed. Like Orlando said, JJ Molson was the only good thing the Bruins had (and to Orlando’s point, Molson actually had food poisoning at ASU...he may have made that kick healthy!).

Dimitri Dorlis: Exactly, what jerk would ask this question. (Editor’s note: it was you, dummy!). Special teams were a problem all year and spoke to a lack of attention paid to it by the coaching staff. That will need to change next year.

Joe Piechowski: Special teams were awful all year. There was no progress made. JJ Molson wasn’t the only bright spot. Stefan Flintoft also led the conference in punting average. Unfortunately, the rest of their units let the team down big time.

Is a dedicated special teams coach the answer? I’m not sure, but it can’t be any worse. It’s true that a lot of teams don’t have a dedicated special teams coach and there isn’t any conclusive indication that would suggest that a dedicated special teams coach could solve the Bruins’ special teams issues. It is clear, however, that Chip and his staff need to fix special teams between now and August 31, 2019.

4. Who was your offensive, defensive, and special teams MVP of the year?

orlandobruin: Offense is easy: Johsua Kelley, with a special runner up to Boss Tagaloa. On defense, I’d have to say Adarius Pickett. Special teams is also easy, Molson.

Markybcool: Offensive: Joshua Kelley. Defensive: Adarius Pickett. Special Teams, JJ Molson

AnteatersandBruins: Offensive: Boss Tagaloa. You can’t have time to pass or room to run without a solid anchor and he was it for sure. Defense: Atoni Mafi. What a beast, and he’s only a freshman. Special teams: JJ Molson because there literally is no one else (but he earned it!).

Dimitri Dorlis: Offensively, while Kelley put up the big yardage, you have to go with Boss Tagaloa, who almost single-handedly changed the trajectory of the offensive line when he returned from suspension. Defensively, Adarius Pickett makes too much sense, as he led the team in tackles. And special teams, I’ll actually go with Stefan Flintoft, who was the most consistently good performer.

Joe Piechowski: I’m going to split the difference on offense and special teams by choosing Josh Kelley and Boss Tagaloa co-MVPs for the offense and JJ Molson and Stefan Flintoft as the co-MVPs on special teams. On defense, there’s no question it is Adarius Pickett. Special teams

5. How would you grade Chip Kelly’s first year at the helm of UCLA? What were the positives and what were the negatives?

orlandobruin: Well, the jury is still out in some respects, like recruiting, where UCLA appears to be lagging behind most of the Pac-12, most the Power 5 schools, and many non-Power 5 schools.

Putting that, aside, I think the Bruins were hamstrung a bit when their most experienced QB Wilton Speight was hurt in the first game and Dorian Thompson-Robinson was thrust into the spotlight sooner than he should have been. Maybe that is a problem right there, as maybe Devon Modster would have won more games and stayed in the program had he stepped in. On the other hand, maybe these snaps in a “practice season” make DTR a much better player next year and the year after that. That also remains to be seen.

The positives were this: the return of the running game; and game planning and play calling were improved as the season progressed

The negatives were: special teams mismanagement and the fact that defense could not generate pressure.

How much of that is on Kelly? I don’t know. I do know this: 3-9 is not acceptable at UCLA. But, considering what needed to be torn down, and the youth being used to build it back up, I did see some positive signs late in the season that barely moves this grade to a Spicoli-like “pass” on a pass/fail scale for Chip Kelly.

Markybcool: Chip obviously gets a grade of incomplete. He has a lot of work to do, but I think that he started to lay a foundation this season. The foundation consists of getting coaches on this team that can coach up the players that they have, and the first example of that was Justin Frye and the work he did with the offensive line. This group seemed to improve each and every week and I credit a lot of that growth to the coaching.

Now, comes the next part of Chip’s job, securing recruits that fit his vision for the UCLA program. So far, if we base current recruiting on the star system, Chip is behind the proverbial eight ball, but I will hold out any grading of recruits until they arrive at Westwood.

So, overall, there is no sugarcoating this year for Chip, it was a disappointment, a UCLA team cannot finish 3-9 and have the season be seen as anything other than a disaster.

AnteatersandBruins: First, I have to commend Orlando for his Spicoli reference. Spot on. I’d give Chip a C for the year, if only because you grade easier in a rebuilding year. UCLA had one of the youngest teams in the country with a new coach and an entirely new system. We saw massive improvements on offense, but not so much on defense and definitely not special teams. I’m not saying the defense didn’t progress, because sometimes I think we forget how bad our defense had been in the past. We got lucky that Speight was there to bail us out and I’m really glad he got to beat Southern Cal. He definitely earned it. Modster’s transfer wasn’t surprising, but in my opinion, selfish (see: Jalen Hurts).

If we’re 3-9 next year, hell no, he gets an F. But, for now, I’ll remain faithful that Chip knows what he’s doing.

Dimitri Dorlis: To steal a concept from Bill Connelly, this was one of the most “Year 0” years I’ve ever witnessed, as Chip Kelly really stripped the program down to the frame and began to rebuild it how he wanted. The year was less about on-field results and more about creating a cohesive program, which was going to rankle the feathers of more than a few fans, but it was a necessary step considering where the program has been for the past few decades.

Conceptually, a lot of what you’re seeing change around the program has been a positive. The change in strength and conditioning, the focus on sports science, the upgrades to the nutrition program, and more business-like atmosphere are the kind of changes that pay dividends down the line. More importantly, on the field UCLA finally has that thing we have always harped on Jim Mora teams for lacking: an identity. On offense, the team now has an adaptable system that can beat you in a variety of ways, all based on having a genius calling plays. The defense, which is more of a work in progress, also has an identity of being much more aggressive and attacking. Whether that aggression has been effective is another story, but you can at least chalk that up to inexperience.

There are still some potential pitfalls, of course. Recruiting has been a constant source of frustration for Bruin fans and, despite the recent commitment of Sean Rhyan, the current haul still appears to be underwhelming. You’d like to see the staff be more aggressive during the season on that front. On the field, the inattention paid to special teams cost the team both points and games and that absolutely has to change. And, yeah, the overall record wasn’t great by any stretch (though having one of the top 5 youngest teams in the nation go against the hardest schedule of the year probably didn’t help).

Even with the end results, it’s hard not to feel positive about the direction of the program. I’m not expecting a huge recruiting haul this offseason, but the continued development should lead to better days ahead.

Joe Piechowski: I think, overall, Chip earned a C for this year. He beat Southern Cal. That alone raised it a full letter grade. Without that win, it would be a D or lower.

The positives were the progress the team made overall and the groundwork that has been laid for the future success. Of course, the hiring of Justin Frye bears repeating as one of the best hires Kelly made. The negatives include the play of the defense and the special teams.

6. The Extra Point - Sound off!

orlandobruin: Whatever the positives, this was undoubtedly a tough season to be a UCLA football fan. Hopefully, we as fans can cherish the win over Southern Cal and look back on 2018 as perhaps the first step back to relevance and respectability for this program.

Markybcool: There is a lot of work to do to turn this program around and I still have faith that Chip Kelly is the right man for the job.

AnteatersandBruins: I’m pissed that you can no longer buy general admission season tickets. What the hell??!!??!! We can’t even get that place half full and now they’re making it more difficult for their most faithful to get in the door? Come on. About as stupid as a too many men on the field penalty after a timeout. Oh wait, we’ve done that too...

Dimitri Dorlis: There’s an saying that goes “may you live in interesting times”, and certainly that applies to UCLA fans at the moment. As a whole, we are watching our football program be rebuilt and hoping it turns out alright, which is a terrifying thought to consider. But you have to credit UCLA for actually trying something new rather than do something uninspiring, as has been the modus operandi for awhile now. If this works, UCLA could dominate for years. If it doesn’t, UCLA could be set back into a hole that could take a long time to climb out of. Here’s hoping for the former.

Joe Piechowski: The foundation has been laid. Now, it’s time to continue building the program. Recruiting needs to improve ASAP. This year’s class needs more bodies. The addition of Sean Rhyann is a good start. But, one player doesn’t make a recruiting class. Chip and the staff need to get to work on improving the class.

Finally, the Victory Bell belongs on the field during home games. I’ve been trying to find out for several weeks why it wasn’t on the field for the Stanford game, especially considering the fact that it was in Lot H before the game, but I haven’t received an explanation yet as to why it wasn’t on the field. I know Bruin Report Online tweeted that the coaching staff didn’t want it on the field, but no one has confirmed that either. It needs to be on the field for the San Diego State game next September.