It’s only one game. But the Bruins resounding 44-10 victory over the Rainbow Warriors from Hawaii last Saturday at the socially distanced (we’ll get to that later) Rose Bowl demonstrated a focus, discipline, and cohesion UCLA fans have been yearning for since Chip Kelly announced his Westwood arrival. Now, it’s hard to tell from just 2+ quarters of first-string football whether the Bruins are justifiably hopeful or the Rainbow Warriors are just hapless, but what’s obvious is the identity of this team is in vintage Chip Kelly’s image.
Baby Bears or Baby Ducks?
While UCLA’s academic history originated as a satellite campus of UC Berkeley, its football future is originating as a satellite team of the University of Oregon. The 2021 Bruins look eerily similar in roster construction to Kelly’s great 2009-2012 Oregon Ducks that went a staggering 46-7, went to four consecutive BCS bowls, and averaged a dizzying 44.7 points per game during that stretch. Not yet as talented, not nearly as successful of course, but similar.
Everything at Oregon started with a two-headed running game. That was Oregon’s bread and butter. In fact, in Kelly’s four seasons, he had three variants of it: LeGarrette Blount and LaMichael James, to James and Kenjon Barner, to Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. We can already see one game in that the Bruins will be a run-first team with their two workhorses, Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown.
Charbonnet’s debut with three touchdowns on only six carries had flashes of Randy Moss’ three-catches-for-three-touchdowns epic national coming-out party on Thanksgiving night 1998 in Dallas. Charbonnet’s three scoring runs each showed a different dimension of his game. His first 21-yard TD along the right side of the offensive line demonstrated a straight-line burst not many thought he had given his frame. Charbonnet’s second 47-yard TD showcased his ability to follow a convoy and then flat out bulldoze smaller defenders daring to tackle him high. His third 21-yard TD unleashed the patience and quick feet with two consecutive jump cuts, a la Le’Veon Bell, before scampering into the end zone. Couple him with Brown, a smooth runner that takes what the defense gives him, and the Bruins have their dynamic duo running base.
Complimenting the running game at Oregon was always a highly athletic and explosive dual-threat QB that could execute those vaunted run-pass options (RPOs). Kelly again had three variants of QB at Oregon: Jeremiah Masoli to Darron Thomas to Marcus Mariota. Now, there isn’t an argument alive that can reasonably compare Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Heisman winner Mariota, but DTR has the raw talent, athleticism, and upside to have the results of a Thomas or Masoli, he just needs the consistency. Easier said than done.
All Bruin fans in the “this is the year DTR puts it together” camp have had to walk with their heads down this week after a pathetic performance. Outside of going 4/4 on the first drive of the second half culminating in a smooth delivery to Kazmir Allen down the right sideline for a 44-yard TD, DTR was 6/16 for 57 yards against an overmatched defense. DTR is maddening at times, most of the time. He has clearly been the most talented Bruin QB the past four years, time and again beating out players that aren’t as explosive or multi-dimensional. But it hasn’t translated to game-over-game on-field performance. This is Kelly’s ongoing greatest challenge: harnessing DTR’s talents productively, the way he did with similar skill sets of the troubled Masoli or the unproven Thomas.
The biggest misconception of the high-flying Ducks offense over those years: that they were chucking it all over the yard to five-star receivers. Hardly, it was the tight end that was the anchor of the pass offense. From Ed Dickson to David Paulson to Pharaoh Brown, those tight-end seam routes and middle-of-the-field zone soft spots is what opened things up for their skilled guys to operate laterally in space.
Enter Greg Dulcich, who is on the 2021 Mackey Award watch list and has been proclaimed by many as college football’s next great tight end. Dulcich was quiet last week, mostly because a.) the run game was so productive, b.) DTR wasn’t sharp and c.) Kelly didn’t want to put too much on film going into LSU week. But make no mistake, Dulcich will have his imprints all over this season.
Lastly, Kelly’s great Oregon teams were accompanied by Nick Aliotti’s aggressive 3-4 defense. The Bruins 4-2-5 defense, in stifling Hawaii to 1.2 yards per rush, might be slightly different schematically, but it’s identical symbolically: ultra-aggressive, flying to the ball and relying on a defensive front with more gear than girth. Qwuantrezz Knight plays awfully like former Duck All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and linebacker Carl Jones Jr. seems to be a mirror image of Oregon great Kiko Alonso.
Chip Relying On Non-Blue Chips
Oregon only signed five 5-star prospects in Chip Kelly’s four recruiting classes combined. The 5-star west coast arms race between the Ducks and USC today forcing the Trojans to coin the slogan “take back the west” is a post-Kelly phenomenon due to his success in that era. Kelly doesn’t have the aura of Nick Saban, the charisma of Pete Carroll, or the salesmanship of Jimbo Fisher. Kelly is a calculus professor deep down; he just loves the beauty in the x’s and o’s. He relished taking overlooked 3-star guys focused on perfecting their crafts and developing them into hidden gems. Whoever needed a little bit extra selling, well, he relied on Oregon’s sublime Nike-everything facilities, flashy uniforms, and up-tempo offense for that.
At UCLA, he has taken a similar path, finding players along the roads less traveled, courtesy of the NCAA’s more lenient transfer policy in recent years. In fact, just about every major contributor on Saturday was a transfer. Charbonnet from Michigan, Brown from Duke, Knight from Kent State, Mitchell Agude from Riverside City College, and Datona Jackson, with his spectacular one-handed interception, from the College of the Desert.
Flying Under The Radar
Based on the Rose Bowl’s paltry attendance of 32,982, UCLA isn’t just flying under the radar, it’s hiding under the sheets of the radar. The overhead views of the iconic stadium looked more like an interactive seminar on the best practices of social distancing, rather than a football game. This is a massive problem AD Martin Jarmond will have to address immediately. But ironically, it’s exactly why Chip Kelly came to UCLA and why he has been afforded to stay until year four to finally architect a team on his terms.
Chip just isn’t an attention seeker, he’s an attention evader from a small town in New Hampshire. It’s one of the reasons he flamed out so quickly in massive sports cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco; his reluctance to engage with the media. It’s also one of the reasons UCLA was so attractive when Florida and Tennessee were equally coveting him. Lose a game in Gainesville or Knoxville, and it’s six days of incessant, panicked, doomsday scenario media coverage because those are the only sports teams in town. Lose a game at the Rose Bowl while the Dodgers are world champions, the Lakers have seven former All-NBA players as LeBron is crafting his LA legacy, and the Rams have a new quarterback playing in the most expensive stadium in the country, and you can go unnoticed.
Go 10-21 in the SEC? Pack your bags and hope they don’t slash your tires on the way out of town. Go 10-21 at UCLA, and you get one last chance to see it all come together.
What It All Means
If the Bruins beat LSU on Saturday, Kirk Herbstreit will look like Nostradamus. The Bruins only being a 3-point underdog shows a combination of Vegas being impressed by their inaugural performance coupled with the unknown of LSU’s offense. The Tigers are led by All-American cornerback Derek Singley Jr., have their entire defensive line returning, and new DC Daronte Jones will enable LSU to return to their 2019 form schematically. In short, points will be much harder to come by and a heavy dose of “Good DTR” to Dulcich will be paramount. But win or lose, this is the season fans, boosters, and Jarmond should judge Chip on because everything is on his terms. The roster, the pipeline, the environment…you could say he’s all chips in.
Zach Charbonnet Featured Photo Credit: Kirby Lee – USA TODAY Sports