Two games in to the Chip Kelly era and UCLA Bruins fans are at each other’s throats. What a time to be alive.
To be absolutely fair to everyone involved, this was all something we should have seen coming. Chip Kelly arrived to Westwood with a lot of hype, bringing with him the best resume for a UCLA football coach since.....well, I’m not really sure. Tommy Prothro would be the best comparison, since most other head coaches hired since did not have a wealth of head coaching experience like Dick Vermeil Terry Donahue and Karl Dorrell or what they had wasn’t very encouraging like Jim Mora. Not even John Wooden could claim to have the pedigree that Kelly possessed when he arrived on campus for the first time. That, very clearly, led to increased expectations for what UCLA could do in the first year. After all, UCLA wasn’t exactly devoid of talent and the team had shown resiliency in clawing to a 6-6 regular season last year despite injuries to a few key players, including star quarterback Josh Rosen being knocked out for a few games.
The problem, as the first game against Cincinnati made clear, was that this wasn’t going to be a quick turnaround and the hype of Kelly’s arrival had blinded UCLA fans to the systemic rot left behind by former coach Jim Mora. Now, it’s unfair to blame every problem on Mora, but it’s hard to look at so many of the problems with this team and not see his fingerprints in places. Consider:
- Recruiting issues - This is not to say Mora failed as a recruiter. There is undeniable talent at a host of positions (quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end, secondary) that will see play at the next level. Chip Kelly has Jim Mora to thank for players like Caleb Wilson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson (committed summer of 2017), Jaelan Phillips, Nate Meadors, Darnay Holmes, and others. The recruiting issues sit more along the fact that, too often, Mora ended up star-chasing rather than figuring out what players would work best at the position. This goes doubly when you look at the two positions that have really underperformed in recent years and are the big weaknesses of the current team: offensive line and inside linebacker. The offensive line’s decimation, at this point, feels well-documented, but the key was constant mis-evaluations of players at both positions, leaving the current squad feeling rather barren. And, again, misses at key moments left UCLA where it is today; I’ve spent most of the past 3 years looking at Roquan Smith play for Georgia and wondering what he would have looked like in the blue and gold.
- Development - This was a constant bugaboo during the Mora era, but one of the underlying concerns during the good times was that UCLA players did not seem to get better. Brett Hundley was essentially the same player his redshirt junior year as he was his redshirt freshman year, Myles Jack stayed the same uber-athletic outside linebacker for 3 years, and on down the line. And the same mistakes kept occurring - the dropped passes, missed tackles, and personal fouls were unending (to say nothing of UCLA’s never-ending ability to fail at stopping a mobile quarterback). These aren’t issues that were going to resolve themselves in a few practices.
Combine those two things together and you have a recipe for disaster, where there’s a lack of playable depth at multiple positions and the players that are there are working on breaking some extremely bad habits.
What you’re seeing at UCLA is an attempt at shifting the entire culture of the football program. Nothing says this more than the boatload of players who have left the program since last December, but also consider the suspensions handed out to start the year. One of the more frustrating aspects of the Mora era were the “shadow” suspensions, where players would mysteriously not play in a game, only for it to be revealed that the player had broken a team rule and been suspended. There was no rhyme or reason to when these would occur, to the point where it felt as though they were spread out to minimize their impact. To contrast, the suspensions handed out this year were straight, to the point, and all occurred at the same time. It sets a better level of accountability for the team and players.
At the same time, it’s hard not to look at all of this and not become a bit agnostic towards Chip Kelly’s successes. After all, this isn’t the first time this decade that a new coach has come to Westwood and attempted to change the culture of the football program. If anything, some UCLA football fans have become altogether numb to the idea of a coach preaching of culture change.
I absolutely get it.
The hype surrounding the program absolutely did not help matters, especially in the immediate aftermath of Kelly’s hiring when every national pundit was quick to point out how much UCLA had “won” the offseason. UCLA fans became primed to expect good things, and quickly, and the dashing of those expectations after decades of failing to live up to expectations naturally led to resentment.
That’s how you end up with two camps of UCLA fans. In one corner, the optimists, perfectly willing to trust in a process that they don’t know will work, with nothing but their belief in previous history to buoy them. In the other corner, the pessimists, fans who have become disillusioned with the program to the point that two losses, one against a clear CFP contender on the road, are clear signs that the new plan is a failure. Neither side seems willing to engage in good faith with the other, which honestly shouldn’t be that shocking, but here we are.
Given what we’ve seen from Chip Kelly so far, it looks UCLA’s offense is going to be very different from what Kelly ran at Oregon. The offense being utilized at the moment really requires talent at multiple positions, especially on the offensive line, that UCLA doesn’t currently have. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t look like the talent needed to make the offense work is on the horizon at this point, based on the Bruins’ current recruiting efforts.
Given what I mentioned above, everyone needs to recognize that this is a full-on rebuilding job that will take time, probably more time than even the most patient of us would have anticipated. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that there have been some troubling signs both on and off the field that should be monitored.
Allow me to break it down.
An elite coach should be able to turn around a program in up to three years. Obviously, this depends on the level of talent present prior to the coach arriving, such as Urban Meyer taking over a loaded Ohio State program, but, in general, you have an idea whether things can be turned around in that time frame. This way, you get three recruiting cycles (well, an abbreviated first one plus two more) to get in players that fit what you want to do while also accounting for the players left behind by the previous coaching staff.
To this end, Chip Kelly’s program actually is on track to compete in three years. Yes, the offensive line is currently in trouble, but three years gives the staff time to get more bodies in and develop the ones that are there. Plus, Kelly was already given a head start at the most important position, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson has shown enough flashes and growth in just two games to say that he could be the real deal, maybe as soon as next year.
The best coaches at college also tend to be relentless recruiters and bring in top talent on an annual basis. So far, this is the area where UCLA has been lacking the most under Kelly. Yes, the last recruiting cycle was abbreviated, but just looking at the 2019 cycle, there is a real lack of top-end talent that UCLA has committed or leads for, especially at the two positions, offensive line and inside linebackers, which have shown to be true areas of need. Academic restrictions also should not be an excuse for a lack of talent, as schools like Stanford and Michigan manage to do just fine despite also having similar academic levels.
On that same level, the truly elite coaches are not wedded to a system, but are willing to adapt to the personnel they have. Last week, Michael Lombardi released a passage from his book Gridiron Genius about Bill Walsh, which featured this bit that stands out:
Quarterbacks have to be slipped into systems that best feature their skills. Very, very few players can make a bad fit work. Too often, though, teams think that the player makes the system rather than the other way around. It sends them hunting for a guy with obvious tools — a gun for an arm, mobility — around whom they figure they will build an offense.
Simply put: the best coaches put their players in the best position to succeed and aren’t afraid to innovate. Just to take a college coach, let’s consider Nick Saban. Yes, Saban gets a lot of flack for having more talent on Alabama than entire conferences, but the criticisms do ignore that Saban is always willing to change things up. Just look at his offense, which started out as the ideal ground-and-pound system, but has shifted in recent years to incorporate more spread concepts, including option plays to take advantage of the superior athleticism of Jalen Hurts. He’s also willing to take chances. Forget the most recent example of subbing in a true freshman quarterback in the National Championship game and go back to 2016, where Saban took a calculated risk and ran an onside kick that shifted the championship game against Clemson in his team’s favor.
This also brings us to the offense at this point: it’s not great. UCLA fans have chosen to look at it one of two ways - either Kelly is running plays to build up experience regardless of the results or Kelly has let his poor NFL experience affect his approach to the college game and has lost his feel for the game. I feel there is more of a third stamp which is that Chip Kelly is not putting his existing personnel in the best situation to succeed and it could backfire tremendously, if it repeatedly does not work. It’s not a secret that the system Kelly is running at the moment requires experienced, top-end talent and it will become increasingly difficult to acquire that talent when Kelly, billed as an offensive genius, has to go into recruits’ homes and sell them on the program when the only thing recruits see is poor play. Recruits want to see themselves put into the best position to succeed and, despite being early in the season, UCLA does not seem to be doing that at the moment. Recruiting is very much a “what have you done lately” business, and Kelly’s staff has not shown the recruiting level to overcome a poor first impression.
You’ll notice I’ve left the defense out up to this point. That’s because the defense is the only thing anyone seems to agree on, which is that the aggressive style of defense is perfect for the type of athlete UCLA tends to bring in. It also fits into the larger pattern in college football. Unless you’re an Alabama, teams usually do not possess the kind of talent to make a conservative defense work, so forcing the issue and being aggressive is the way to go. Recognize a team’s strength and work to take it away and, in so doing, force an opposing offense to try and beat you with their weakness. It’s simple stuff, but UCLA fans have not seen anything like it for awhile. So, it’s a breath of fresh air.
All of this is said while also recognizing that there are a lot of things Kelly is doing that are, in fact, really good. I think most UCLA fans are able to recognize that the coaching staff is maybe one of the best in UCLA history just from a development standpoint, that the new strength and conditioning program looks amazing and well-thought-out, that the focus on the science of sports is helping to reduce injuries even though you can never truly eliminate them because, at the end of the day, football is still just bodies flying at each other at high speeds with a veneer of organization, and the quick practices are a smart way of utilizing the practice time allocated by the NCAA.
But, even with all of that, I still believe things will turn around.
Spencer Hall wrote a piece in the aftermath of Florida’s loss to Kentucky, which broke a 31-year winning streak by the Gators, that I think applies equally as well to UCLA. Florida had been coasting by in recent years, using a superb performance (in this case, their defense) to mask program deficiencies. Once that started to slip, the rot at the center of the program became more clear. Bringing in a new coach was never going to provide an instant turnaround for either Florida or UCLA, because both programs had been living on credit for awhile and the bill was becoming due. Just take this passage:
Treat these like scrimmages. This is not a competitive football team, so relax. We lost to Kentucky, but the Wildcats [have] been working hard to get better for six years. This team’s been doing that for about eight months or so. This is absolute worst because the last thing we want in the world is to endorse hard work and patience. Hard work and patience are boring. Sometimes they don’t even pay off. The college football timeline is littered with rebuilds that never rebuilt, turnarounds that never happened, and dynasties that fizzled before they even set fire to a single village. This could be that, and no one can disprove you at this point for thinking that because it is September 10th, and the season and Dan Mullen’s tenure is exactly two games old.
You could replace Kentucky with Oklahoma or even Cincinnati and it would fit perfectly.
Look, I get being impatient. We’re UCLA fans. We’ve been patient for about 20 years now since UCLA last made a Rose Bowl. But this program was not in a good place when Chip Kelly took over and we should recognize that fact. I also think it’s absolutely fair to question some of the decisions being made by Kelly and the staff and doing so doesn’t make you any less of a fan. At the end of the day, UCLA fans are going to have to learn to live with being patient, at least a little while longer.