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Chip Kelly has UCLA Football on the Right Track...Right?

The opening loss to Cincinnati brought more questions than answers, which is a troubling sign to start Year Two.

UCLA v Cincinnati Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

I learned early on writing here that you should try to avoid writing while angry. It tends to lead to a lot of incoherent thoughts and, I’ll be honest, the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats left me with a LOT of incoherent thoughts. The UCLA Bruins looked like they had regressed all over the field and, realistically, they should have lost by much more than they did. Angry me would have written a post-game commentary that would have had enough swears that Joe would have messaged me to say “You know we can’t run this, right?”

So, I went home from the watch party I was at, took some time to self-reflect, and I just kept coming back to the same question:

This is all going to work out in the end, right?

Because this is now Year Two of the Chip Kelly Experience at UCLA, and the early (and again, I stress early) returns are not great. Recruiting has been, to put it mildly, bad for the past few years. On-field results have been lacking, with a win over a reeling Southern Cal team being the only relative bright spot so far. Attendance plummeted over the course of last season. Now, after this first game, it’s hard to see that trend reversing in 2019.

There are, as always, mitigating factors that should be discussed. The Jim Mora era left the roster in a terrible state that really did necessitate some level of rebuild. This last game did feature UCLA going without a ton of starters, including workhorse running back Joshua Kelley, reliable receiving option Theo Howard, and shutdown corner Darnay Holmes. The team is still “young.” Kelly has repeatedly stated that there are 87 freshmen and sophomores and 48 new players this year.

Bu,t after the performance we just saw, those feel more like excuses to justify the amount of paycheck Chip Kelly is cashing. Because taking a critical look at all of those issues reveals some glaring flaws in the logic. For example:

  • The Jim Mora roster was certainly a problem, but recognizing that should also come with the recognition that Chip Kelly has not done much to rectify the problem and has in fact exacerbated it. Recruiting has not fixed glaring depth issues at linebacker and offensive line. Issues that are again coming to the forefront this season. And it doesn’t address the fact that the major pieces that were missing in this game including Kelley, Howard, and Holmes, are all guys brought in by Jim Mora. Even Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had one of the worst games imaginable, was a Jim Mora commit who stuck with his commitment after the coaching change. Demetric Felton is a converted slot receiver who got the majority of running back touches over all of the running backs Kelly has recruited to UCLA so far. That’s not a good sign!
  • Yes, UCLA was missing key pieces. But just this past week, Kelly said that this was the healthiest camp he’s ever had. So what happened? Well, for one, Kelly was obviously lying as a form of gamesmanship, which is his right even though it clearly had no effect on the Bearcats’ plan of attack. But, for another, all those recruiting issues and running off of talent led UCLA to a position where they don’t have a ton of playable depth, where if a few offensive lineman go down, the Bruins are forced to start a true freshman for the second year in a row and a redshirt freshman who was projected to be a long-term project. That’s not sustainable!
  • That 48 new players stat is super misleading. UCLA only signed a recruiting class of 21 players, below the max number, and only brought in 3 transfers on top of that. So, Kelly is adding 24 new walk-ons to that number of new players, which is a ridiculous way of looking at it. Same with the freshman and sophomore numbers, which have to include almost half walk-ons at this point. Inflating the numbers the way he has is crazy and it’s a wonder that none of the beat writers have actively called him out on it.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s performance in this past game was almost indicative of the problems UCLA fans had. All throughout the offseason, we heard rumblings from the coaching staff about all the progress he had made, about how he was on the cusp of taking a leap in his game. DTR himself put out a series of videos advocating the same thing. Which all makes sense! The Year Two leap is one of the biggest ones a quarterback can make and UCLA fans were optimistic that DTR was in line for a leap that would take his game to the next level. So, when it came time to show all of this improvement, here’s what we got:

8 of 26 for 156 yards, 2 interceptions, 2 fumbles (unforced both times), QBR of 5.9

That’s a leap, but it’s not a leap forward. It’s a leap backwards. DTR was never this bad last season and, in fact, he had moments where he flashed the ability to become a solid quarterback. But he could do nothing right in this game, as the first fumble on the opening drive seemed to break his ability to play football. Nothing came easy the rest of the game. Those yardage totals are even inflated by Felton taking a 10 yard pass and then running it 65 extra yards for a touchdown. Take that away and those totals become even more bleak.

The more distressing part is that Coach Kelly should have seen some of this coming. I mentioned in last year’s Eye Test against Cincinnati that the Bearcats made a gamble after the 1st Quarter to load the box to stop the UCLA rushing attack and dared DTR to beat them over the top. It worked extremely well then. So, it shouldn’t have been a huge shock that Cincinnati would use the same strategy again. Yet UCLA never had an answer for it. The Bearcats were able to generate pressure at will against the UCLA offensive line and DTR reverted to looking like a deer in the headlights. At no point did UCLA take advantage of the talent they have at wide receiver to provide their struggling quarterback with some safety valves. At no point did they call plays to take advantage of the aggression of the Cincinnati defense. At no point did it look like there were any adjustments the coaching staff wanted to make beyond “play better.”

Well, there was one adjustment. The opening drive featured a lot of pre-snap shifts that seemed to catch Cincinnati reeling. So, of course, they were used sparingly for the rest of the game.

I’m honestly not sure why DTR was allowed to continue to play in that game. At no point did he look capable of leading the Bruins to victory. Even the first drive, which was UCLA’s most consistent, was highlighted by poor throws and shaky execution. Yet DTR was allowed to continue to play. What does this say about the back-up quarterbacks? Are they truly that much worse than what DTR showed in this game? Was Devon Modster truly that much worse than DTR in 2018? Would Wilton Speight have even retaken the starting job last year had DTR not gotten hurt?

Is Chip Kelly just too stubborn for his own good?

The common refrain from UCLA fans last year was “It’s a process, but Chip Kelly has the team on the right track.”

The logic is pretty sound and it’s something I agree with. The roster Kelly inherited was not suited to his needs, or even to that of a regular college football team. So, it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Recruiting would start out rough, in part, because UCLA did not have much to sell recruits in the way of results and, in part, because the football staff had more teachers than salesmen. That would be fine because they were such good teachers that the two and three stars could be coached up to play at a five-star level. Meanwhile, the schemes that would be implemented on both sides of the ball would be so good that they could negate talent disadvantages. UCLA would start slow as a program, but the quality would ramp up, eventually bringing in higher-caliber recruits and turning the program into a juggernaut.

Of course, the natural follow-up question is: What happens if it goes off-track?

In order for the process to work, UCLA has to show it is getting better but, more than that, it has to show tangible results. Chip Kelly can go on and on about how much more he cares about growth, but if he goes into a recruiting visit with “yeah, we only went 4-8, but we really grew as the season went on!” then he’s going to get laughed out of the room. And he can’t go into a recruit’s living room and say “I can get you to the NFL” when the Bruins only had one draft pick last year and it was with the very last pick. This year’s prospects don’t look much better with Darnay Holmes and maybe Joshua Kelley looking like the only real options so far.

This is a huge problem and is not one that is easily solved. It would be one thing to say “Chip Kelly just needs to coach better” but that doesn’t really get at the root of the problem. Even after that debacle, I still believe Chip Kelly understands how football works and is a good coach. But he has to know, at the very least, that he can’t really afford another poor season. In order for his grand experiment to work, he has to be able to ramp things up so that in Year Three, when the schedule should be at its most kind for the foreseeable future, UCLA can make some kind of noise on the national stage. Any deviation from that progress line and UCLA is suddenly looking at a situation where their head coach managed to put them on self-imposed sanctions. It’s bleak and I get why people don’t want to consider it.

That said, we’re very quickly reaching a point of no return for many UCLA fans, who have had to deal with decades of malfeasance that has been allowed to fester in the football program. UCLA fans, for one brief moment, saw their school hire the biggest name on the block, pay him an appropriate amount of money, and could feel good about the future of their program. Even after a 3-9 season, there were enough signs that UCLA was on the right path, that Chip Kelly still had it, and that things would improve. All it took was one game to shatter that growing mystique.

So, UCLA is still on the right track, right?