It’s been a long wait, but UCLA Football finally returns this weekend. The Pac-12 plans to play a shortened 7 game season with only in-conference opponents. There will be no fans or marching bands at the games. (Fortunately, this is not likely to be a disadvantage for UCLA considering how few fans came to their home games last year.)
Chip Kelly enters the all-important third year for a college football coach, and things are especially urgent considering how poorly Kelly’s first two years went. It’s certainly tough to be optimistic if you’re a Bruins fan right now. But then again, it’s a new year, and we know that anything can happen in the Pac-12. The Bruins will have their shot, and they actually open up the season as favorites against Colorado.
So with that, let’s take a look at this year’s team and what we can expect for the Bruins moving forward during this unusual 2020 football season.
UCLA Bruins 2020 Season Preview
Let’s start at the quarterback position, where we have a known commodity in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The No 2 overall dual-threat QB from the 2018 class has certainly not lived up to his recruiting status. His Bruins tenure has been up and down, to say the least. DTR is a twitchy athlete with a plus arm and wheels, and at his best, he’s shown an impressive ability to fit the ball into tight windows. But too often, he has struggled with accuracy, consistency, turnovers, mechanics, and pocket presence.
However, we know the kid can play, and entering his third year as a starter in this Chip Kelly system, I would expect him to fully take the reins and go. God knows it’s now or never for him. Kelly has been patient with DTR–at times too patient–but he now has a new recruit waiting in the wings in Parker McQuarrie. It’s going to be Parker’s team eventually, so DTR better make this last opportunity count.
Unfortunately, as flawed as DTR has looked at times, Kelly’s scheme certainly hasn’t done him any favors. Kelly seems insistent on incorporating complex pro-style route concepts into his offense, despite the lack of fit with many of his young players. DTR is best suited for a simple, quick-paced spread option offense, and some of his best work has come when the Bruins have been down and Kelly has had to get out of the way on offense in order to just run hurry up. Ironically, that’s the system that made Kelly famous in the first place, but that’s a conversation for another day.
At running back, the Bruins will have to replace Joshua Kelley, who has been their best offensive player since Kelly (Chip) came to town. Expect to see a lot of Demetric Felton, who has shown that he is dangerous as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Martell Irby and Kazmeir Allen also return, and you also have a few freshmen in addition to Brittain Brown, the transfer from Duke. Kelly likes to rotate his backs and is pretty unpredictable when it comes to doing so, so it’s hard to know what the breakdown of carries will look like here.
At WR, Chase Cota, Kyle Phillips, and Jaylen Erwin return, and Logan Loya also joins the mix. They were a bit inconsistent last year, but it’s certainly a talented group. The only problem is it’s not clear if there’s a traditional, big-bodied, No 1 WR in the mix. Let’s also not forget about Evidence Njoku, who just transferred from Miami and certainly has the bloodlines.
The offensive line has some new faces, so that’s certainly a question mark, and they did struggle last year. So overall, there are some question marks, and it’s not the most insanely talented unit, but there are pieces to work with here if the offense can just find some consistency and avoid mistakes.
Jerry Azzinaro’s unit was downright pitiful last year, and he was brought back with a raise, much to the chagrin of many Bruins fans. If Kelly ends up not making it in SoCal, this will be a big reason why. Kelly never has been much for coaching defense, but it’s hard to see this unit getting any worse than they were last year.
Unfortunately, UCLA lost all their starting linebackers from last year. Bo Calvert does return, and Damian Sellers is probably Kelly’s most important recruit. UCLA is also switching to a 4-2-5 defense, so we’ll see what that looks like and if it does anything.
The bottom line is this unit desperately needs to turn things around, and now.
Chip Kelly has had a lot of youth across the board during his first two years. He basically cleaned shop on the roster when he arrived, and he was left with one of the youngest teams in the country. Now, these players are not so young anymore. They’ve had time in the system, and Chip Kelly has all his guys in the building. It’s time to see results.
As I said, anything is possible in the Pac-12, and maybe the Bruins will surprise us. They’ve basically hit rock bottom, so it’s tough not to imagine some improvement simply by pure chance.
But with such a short season, there’s very little margin for error. So it’s going to be tough. But at the end of the day, this year will tell us a lot of what we need to know about whether Chip Kelly is the guy for this program moving forward. Especially with a new AD coming in, it would be hard to justify keeping Kelly around if this year looks anything like his first two.