The first on-field activities of the Chip Kelly era usher in a new look at UCLA
Springtime elicits imagery of a world in bloom; a newness to all that's around us.
The metaphor fits UCLA football, which has new, on-campus facilities; new players in a variety of positions; and a new coaching staff overseeing the direction of the program. The first steps toward a new-look brand begin with spring practices, serving as a formal introduction to the Chip Kelly era in Westwood.
Kelly was hired in November to replace Jim Mora, who led the program to a 46-32 record over six seasons. The Bruins kicked off Mora's run hot, winning at least nine games in the first three seasons, but finished below .500 each of the past two campaigns. On the 20-year anniversary of its last conference championship, the UCLA athletic department now entrusts Kelly to work similar magic with the Bruins as he did in four seasons with the Oregon Ducks.
Kelly finished an incredible 46-7 at Oregon with three conference championships and an appearance in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
5 Storylines to Watch During UCLA's Spring Practice
1. Offensive changes
Every program in the former Pac-10 Conference during the 2000s sought the same thing: a neutralizing quality to compete with USC. Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti was the first to find that, calling on a relative unknown from the University of New Hampshire named Chip Kelly. Kelly came to Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2007, immediately transforming the Ducks' look for the better.
He succeeded Bellotti as head coach in 2009, and by '10, had the nation's most prolific scoring offense, utilizing a sped-up version of the spread that incorporated elements of zone-read quarterback play. Kelly's system was revolutionary at the time — so much so, it's been duplicated around college football in the half-decade since Kelly left for the NFL.
UCLA isn't exactly a program in need of drastic overhauls offensively. With the exception of an injury-plagued 2016, the Bruins have been explosive. However, the creative Kelly should have some innovations in mind, the first glimpses of which will be seen in the spring.
2. The quarterback situation
With Josh Rosen bound for the NFL, a new quarterback assumes the reins of UCLA's offense. Returning backup Devon Modster gets first crack in the spring, but highly touted 2018 signee Dorian Thompson-Robinson piques plenty of interest.
Thompson-Robinson appears to be the quintessential, dual-threat quarterback for the system Kelly ran at Oregon. However, Modster's two-way credentials should not be overlooked. In his junior season at nearby Tesoro High School, Modster rushed for 680 yards with 12 touchdowns. He was originally recruited alongside Khalil Tate to oversee Arizona's run-heavy offense, before changing course to UCLA.
In relief of an injured Rosen last season, Modster showed off impressive arm strength. His familiarity with returning teammates and a head start could give Modster a leg up in the quarterback competition — provided he delivers in the spring.
3. Defensive changes
UCLA's run defense in 2017 was the worst for a power program in almost two decades. Of all the issues plaguing the Bruins a season ago, that was the most clear and greatest detriment to the program's overall success.
Longtime Kelly assistant Jerry Azzinaro has his work cut out for him, but that's not anything new. Azzinaro spent the 2017 season at Cal as an assistant to Justin Wilcox, coaching the line for a defense that was one of the nation's very worst in the season prior. Improved play up front contributed to the Golden Bears' jump from No. 127 against the run to No. 64. UCLA would love to make similar progress in Year 1.
4. Bolu and Soso
Oregon's excellent and multifaceted rushing attack under Kelly — featuring such noteworthy names as LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner — offers promise for a UCLA backfield in need of a jumpstart. UCLA returns a pair of talented running backs in Bolu Olorunfunmi (above, right) and Soso Jamabo, both of whom have shown glimpses of brilliance but never been able to sustain their production.
In 2016, UCLA's rushing attack was the second worst in the nation. Last season brought improvement, but it was still a far cry from the days of Noel Mazzone overseeing the Bruins' offense. The new regime might have the solution to unlock the running-back tandem's full potential — and, likewise, Olorunfunmi and Jamabo may be the ideal duo to launch a more run-oriented attack.
5. A fresh start
The arrival of a new coaching staff generates new-found enthusiasm for most college football programs, and UCLA should be no exception. In fact, Kelly's impressive track record at Oregon is likely to have Bruins fans especially giddy for the immediate future.
However, the coming campaign, including spring ball, also is a cause for excitement within this coaching staff — Kelly in particular.
Despite a fast start, Kelly's NFL tenure took a nose dive. A return to the college game welcomes opportunities for innovation from the renowned tinkerer. This fresh start back in the college game provides Kelly a chance to get back to what he's done best in his coaching career.