Inside Chip Kelly’s Mind During UCLA Bruins 3-0 Start

The Bruins had an emphatic day of highlights in their resounding victory over tradition-rich but talent-poor, North Carolina Central. UCLA did what they were supposed to do in their 59-7 triumph. A game in which after the first quarter, the Bruins were on pace to score, and probably could have if Chip Kelly set his mind to it, 140 points.

It’s hard to glean too many insights from a game where the talent discrepancy was so vast. A chasm so wide that the Bruins had seven players receive a pass, seven players score a touchdown, 13 players attempt a rush, and 13 players have at least one play greater than 10 yards.

The Bruins racked up 258 yards on just 12 plays in the first quarter, with five of those going for touchdowns. The rest of the game saw the Bruins generate another 456 yards, 364 of which came on the ground, en route to 24 more relatively modest points.

So here we are, the Bruins are now 3-0 and ranked #22 in the country. Dante Moore was once again Dante going 8-12 for 182 yards and two touchdowns in severely limited action. The former scored a busted 67-yard strike to Kam Brown on the game’s very first play and the latter an absolutely sublime 30-yard rope to J. Michael Sturdivant from the left hash mark to the right end zone sideline. That was perhaps the single greatest throw in the history of UCLA football since Josh Rosen’s fake spike and back shoulder dime to Jordan Lasley, culminating the Bruins epic 34-point comeback versus Texas A&M in 2017. All the while Chip Kelly is architecting the third greatest run in the past 35 years of UCLA football, having won 20 of his last 28.

As the Bruins are in the midst of Utah week, here are the top three patterns Kelly has revealed through his schemes that will seemingly play a pivotal role in 2023:

Wider Formations Generating Bigger Plays For Chip Kelly

So much of the Bruins offense the last two seasons involved tight, bunched formations at the line of scrimmage. Tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers such as Greg Dulcich, Kyle Phillips, and Kazmeir Allen, were the dominant aerial playmakers and statistical producers in 2021 and 2022. Case in point, of the Bruins receiving yards the past two seasons, only 57% were generated by wide receivers in 2022 and just 50% in 2021. Furthermore, UCLA generated a relatively harmless 11.8 yards per completion in 2022 and 13.1 in 2021.

Compare that through three games in 2023 and Bruin wide receivers are generating 83% of the passing attack. While the offense is averaging a staggering 17.1 yards per completion. Part of that is Moore’s passing sophistication, even as a freshman, over five-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Part of that is having a true NFL first-round pick-caliber receiver in JMS spearheading the offensive verticality. But the results are evident – Kelly is going to wider formations given greater trust in his talent, and those formations are resulting in deeper routes with more explosive plays.

Specialists As Supplements

The quarterback “controversy” ended about two quarters into the season. But the fascinating development is who will be getting more time in backup and package situations. While Ethan Garbers is a better thrower than Collin Schlee, he’s not as good a thrower as Moore and not as good a runner as Schlee. Thus, Kelly is valuing Schlee’s running ability, which is the best in UCLA’s quarterback room, as the skill to build certain change-of-pace packages around much like the 2006 Florida Gators did with Tim Tebow while Chris Leak was the starting quarterback on that title team.

It doesn’t matter to Kelly that Garbers is the better overall player than Schlee, the fact that Schlee has one singular talent, running, that’s the best in his position group to the tune of 95 yards and two touchdowns on just five carries, is what Kelly is maximizing above all else.

A similar pattern is emerging at running back, where the two-headed monster of Carson Steele and TJ Harden will do the lion’s share of work on the ground. But Anthony Adkins seems to have surpassed Colson Yankoff as next in line at the position given his ability to run power in between the tackles and particularly in short yardage, is the best UCLA has. It doesn’t matter that Yankoff is a more versatile and all-around better running back. Yankoff has advantages over Adkins in quickness, outside burst, ability to catch, willingness to play special teams, and serve as a blocker. Adkins does only one thing better, but it’s the best at his position group and that’s what Kelly values.

Finally, after JMS, the next three leading receivers, Logan Loya, Josiah Norwood, and now Brown, have all demonstrated the ability to stretch the defense over the top, and that’s why they’re getting touches. It doesn’t yet matter to Kelly that Kyle Ford is bigger, more physical, has softer hands, can get open more easily, and is a bigger matchup problem. Those former three are the fastest on the team and that one singular skill is what Kelly is maximizing. Psychologists say, that after a certain point, it’s better to double down on your strengths and attempt to improve your weaknesses. Chip Kelly is living that mantra in 2023.

Defense’s Jackpot Strategy

The principle of venture capital is to make 100 bets and 1-2 will be such massive winners, that they will significantly outweigh the costs incurred from the other 98. To a certain extent, Kelly and D’Anton Lynn are playing that approach with the Bruin defense.

Seemingly gone are the days in college football where sound, consistent, situational football defensively wins championships. Now, offense is king and defense doesn’t need to be anywhere near dominant, rather occasionally disruptive. If the defense can find a way to generate the requisite 4-5 stops for an elite offense to have enough margin for error, the chances of confetti falling from the sky go way up.

The way a defense can quantitatively show disruption is through two metrics: sacks and interceptions. Outside of extreme instances, tackles for loss no longer have the same impact they once did. Losing 1-3 yards on a play doesn’t put an elite spread offense significantly behind schedule the way it used to with a run-heavy or even West Coast attack. Furthermore, forced fumbles are a bit of a random event, given the actual shape of the football not being completely round and thus the way it touches the ground is not deterministic in nature.

Thus, only sacks and interceptions are a strong proxy for “disruptive plays.” In 2022, the Bruin defense had 28 sacks and 11 interceptions for 39 total disruptive plays over 13 games, averaging exactly 3.0 per game. In 2021, they had 26 sacks and 12 interceptions for 38 total disruptive plays in 12 games, averaging 3.17 per game. But so far in 2023, the defense has already generated 10 sacks and six interceptions for a total of 16 disruptive plays in just three games, averaging a whopping 5.33 per game. This swing big strategy seems to be the perfect formula complemented with an elite offense to generate jackpot victories in today’s modern, offensive frenzied game.

It remains to be seen if this mind of Kelly becomes a beautiful one for 2023.