Expectations for Chip Kelly's first season as UCLA head coach were immediately tempered in 2018, the result of a slow start seven decades in the making. A combination of schematic overhauls, injuries and playing the nastiest schedule in college football — all three of UCLA's non-conference opponents won at least 11 games — harshened UCLA's growing pains.
By the end of the season, however, the Bruins showed marked improvement. The foundation for a breakout 2019 is set. UCLA must replace some key contributors, but the returning corps could make this a surprise challenger to likely preseason Pac-12 South favorite Utah.
1. Year 2 of Chip Kelly
In the John Bacon book Three & Out, Rich Rodriguez recounted an adage he had once heard from Bobby Bowden: Lose big in Year 1, lose small in Year 2, win small in Year 3, win big in Year 4. The nature of college football today (and an underlining theme of Bacon's book, a highly recommended read) dictates that coaches get the losing out of the way faster.
UCLA lost big in Year 1 under Kelly. The Bruins' 0-5 start matched the program's worst since the 1940s. But 2018 evolved at a somewhat accelerated pace. After the historic losing skid to kick things off, the Bruins played progressively better in the back half of the campaign. They won three Pac-12 Conference games from Oct. 13 to Nov. 17 and took both Arizona State and Stanford to the wire in that time.
Kelly's vision for UCLA football gained some clarity by season's end. With an offseason to build upon those principles, the Bruins should kick off 2019 more comfortable than they did a season ago. They won't have to wait until mid-October for that first win next season.
2. Joshua Kelley's return
UCLA lost a pair of important contributors on offense, with tackle Andre James and tight end/leading receiver Caleb Wilson pursuing the NFL draft. However, Kelley's decision to come back for another campaign, after emerging as an unlikely star, provides UCLA with a cornerstone for 2019.
Kelley rushed for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns, providing UCLA with the answer at running back missing since Paul Perkins left the program in 2015. He's proven to be the type of rusher on which the offense can lean on while developing the passing game.
3. Playmakers back on defense
UCLA's defense was one of the worst in the nation in 2017, most notably against the run where it allowed more yards per game than any power program in the 21st century. Jerry Azzinaro made schematic changes that paid dividends in his first year, however, and many of the defense's top performers come back for another season.
One of the most notable is defensive end/outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South, a former 5-star recruit, who began meeting his lofty potential in 2018. Lucier-South, linebackers Krys Barnes, Josh Woods, and Lokeni Toailoa, and defensive linemen Osa Odighizuwa, Odua Isibor, and Rick Wade were responsible for the majority of run-stopping and pass rushing; all return.
The secondary must replace some standouts, most notably Nate Meadors and leader Adarius Pickett. But Darnay Holmes has already shown himself to have star potential, while youngsters Elijah Gates and Quentin Lake shined down the stretch in 2018.