This is how the UCLA Bruins defenses have ranked in the five years since Chip Kelly arrived in Westwood:
Total Defense: 102nd, 112th, 69th, 73rd, 87th
Passing Defense: 88th, 129th, 113th, 108th, 117th
Scoring Defense: 104th, 116th, 73rd, 73rd, 90th
Can New Defensive Coordinator D’Anton Lynn Turn it around?
Those numbers aren’t good! In 2018, UCLA was the second-to-worst pass defense in the entire country. The improvement in scoring defense and total defense is good, but the numbers still aren’t anything to write home about.
As you can see, UCLA has never ranked above 69th in total defense, 88th in passing defense, and 73rd in scoring defense. The pass defense numbers are particularly egregious as UCLA has been in the triple digits of pass defense ranking for four straight seasons. Scoring defense is important, but considering that it’s a throwing league, pass defense is much more indicative of a successful defense. UCLA’s run defense numbers are better, but a lot of that is because when you’re so bad at defending the pass, teams have no need to try to run it.
UCLA needs to be better on defense, plain and simple. You can’t expect your offense to be perfect every week. You can’t expect to win games just by outscoring teams. Whether you’re trying to hold onto leads or trying to mount a comeback, your defense needs to be able to make key stops when it matters. And it sure feels like UCLA’s defense has failed at that more often than they’ve succeeded under Kelly.
I personally suspect this is more of a ‘Chip Kelly’ problem than it is with any particular coordinator. Yes, it is true that both of Kelly’s past defensive coordinators he brought with him from the Eagles (where his defenses also weren’t very good). This gave the impression that Chip Kelly was someone who was valuing his personal relationships over good coaching. And this very well may have been true.
But at his core, Chip Kelly is an offensive coach. Yes, in the past, his defenses have suffered from the tempo he plays at. But he doesn’t really run at the same speed-driven offense that he ran at Oregon, and the NFL is a different beast. Besides, most teams run tempo these days. At the end of the day, I just don’t think Kelly coaches defenses very well.
It’s far from uncommon to have coaches that are specialists on one side of the ball with deficiencies on the other side. You see it with Lincoln Riley all the time. Even though his offenses are consistently among the best in the country, his lack of defense still prevents his teams from winning championships. Sean Payton is an NFL example of a guy that always had great offenses but bad defenses. And, of course, there are coaches who are the opposite as well. But at his core, Chip Kelly has never been a defensive guy.
So the question then becomes, can you change? And that’s where D’Anton Lynn comes in. He’s the third defensive coordinator UCLA has had in as many years. But I don’t view that as a bad thing. When you’re struggling in some area, you have to go outside of your comfort zone to try to make a fix. And that’s what Chip Kelly is doing with this hire.
D’Anton Lynn has never been a defensive coordinator before. But, he’s had plenty of experience on that side of the ball, coaching defense in some capacity in the NFL since 2015.
Lynn is the son of former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. He’s only 33 years old, and he grew up playing defensive back–quite successfully–at Penn State before ultimately being unable to make it in the NFL. His most recent position was as safeties coach for the Baltimore Ravens, where, if the development of Kyle Hamilton is any indication, Lynn did a great job. UCLA provided several instances of his past success as a coach in their press release for his hiring.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that Lynn will improve the defense in Westwood. First and foremost, he’s young. This is a far cry from UCLA’s previous two defensive coordinators, who were both in their sixties when they were hired.
Having a guy who very recently played can provide a better perspective and infuse new energy into the program. He’s likely a guy that players will be able to relate to. Yes, not enough experience isn’t good, but bringing in younger guys at the coaching level has proved to be a good thing in this sport. That’s especially so when doing things the way you always have done them hasn’t been working.
On top of that, outside of his coaching experience on defense at multiple stops, is the fact that he most recently was with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are one of the best-run organizations in the NFL, particularly when it comes to defense. It’s a good place to look for coaches.
Truthfully, this situation reminds me a lot of what Jim Harbaugh did at Michigan after the 2020 disaster of a season. Harbaugh overhauled his coaching staff significantly, and in doing so, brought in guys that were much younger than his previous coaches. Michigan’s incumbent defensive coordinator, Don Brown–another defensive coordinator in his 60s, like Azzinaro and McGovern–had been at Michigan for a long time. He had a ton of success there, but the game had moved past his blitz-heavy man coverage scheme in a league where spread passing offenses were becoming more and more the norm. Harbaugh brought in Mike MacDonald from the Ravens to replace Don Brown, and the results were apparent immediately.
In the same sense, Kelly is now bringing in a younger coach from the Ravens organization to address a recurring issue that he himself has been unable to fix.
I can’t say whether or not D’Anton Lynn will be successful as UCLA’s new defensive coordinator. Bringing in a coach at a new position–especially one who has never called plays before–is always an unknown.
But I do believe there’s reason to be optimistic. The famously stubborn Kelly identified a weakness and addressed it by doing the opposite of what he has done in the past. Instead of bringing in people you are familiar with, Kelly brought in a new, younger voice from one of the best organizations in the NFL. There’s not a lot to lose with this hire, but there sure is a lot to gain. For that reason, UCLA fans should be excited to see what Lynn can do at this level.