UCLA football finds itself in a much better place now than the last time it underwent a coaching change. Jim Mora pulled the Bruins out of the doldrums upon his arrival in 2012, reaching a Pac-12 Championship Game in his first season and igniting some College Football Playoff talk by '14.
But after three consecutive seasons with at least nine wins, UCLA stumbled through a three-season regression that ultimately cost Mora his position. His efforts on the recruiting trail and contributing to the university's new football facility leave the program in a stronger state than when he arrived, positioning UCLA for success in the future.
That future begins with the arrival of a new head coach, and some new players sure to generate optimism among the Bruins fan base.
1. Chip Kelly
The obvious starting point not only for 2018, but the coming years of UCLA football is the arrival of Kelly as head coach. Kelly arrived in the former Pac-10 a little more than a decade ago as a then-unheard-of offensive coordinator at Oregon. His implementation of a sped-up, spread offense with innovative zone-read elements elevated a program flourishing under Mike Bellotti into a pace-setter for the conference.
Oregon won the first of three consecutive Pac-10/12 championships under Kelly in his first year as head coach, 2009. The Ducks peaked under Kelly with a trip to the BCS Championship Game at the end of the 2010 season, and returned to the title game two years after his NFL departure with the same infrastructure in place.
Players Kelly recruited and helped prepare like Marcus Mariota — the second Heisman finalist of the Kelly/Mark Helfrich era and Oregon's first-ever winner — maximized their potential in the system.
Kelly's immediate success at Oregon and innovative approach should have UCLA faithful excited for Year 1.
2. Dorian Thompson-Robinson
UCLA loses a celebrated quarterback in Josh Rosen, but the former 5-star recruit is replaced by a high-4-star prospect with lofty expectations of his own. Thompson-Robinson remained committed to the Bruins through the coaching change.
Thompson-Robinson starred at prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas last season, a high school program that produces numerous Div. I prospects each year, and even sent a head coach into the FBS ranks (UNLV's Tony Sanchez). Thus, the learning curve between high school and college should not be too steep for his promising prospect.
Thompson-Robinson's arrival gives UCLA a good problem to have in the offseason, as he must beat out returning Devin Modster for the starting job. Modster showed plenty of potential in relief of Rosen last season. A dual-threat star in high school, Modster has qualities reminiscent of recent Oregon quarterbacks like Mariota.
3. Defense (Seriously!)
Without mincing words, the UCLA defense was horrible in 2017. The Bruins finished dead last nationally against the run, and were the worst defense against the rush from a power conference in well over a decade.
UCLA needs improved defensive effort to factor into what should be a wide-open Pac-12 South. There's a long way to go, obviously, but injuries and other issues forced a variety of youngsters to play throughout the season. As a result, the Bruins head into 2018 with a youthful yet experienced defense, particularly in the front seven.
Linemen Jaelan Phillips (above, right), Keisean Lucier-South, Chigozie Nnoruka, Osa Odighizuwa, Rick Wade, Boss Tagaloa and Marcus Moore were all either freshmen or sophomores in 2017. Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes gained invaluable experience at linebacker this past season, and will help anchor that unit in 2018.
(Top photo by Don Liebig, UCLA Photography; courtesy of uclabruins.com)