Year 2 of the Chip Kelly era arrives with intrigue and uncertainty
Chip Kelly's return to the Pac-12 was welcomed with great anticipation and lofty expectations. The rebuilding process he began at UCLA proved a much different project than inheriting the successful foundation Mike Bellotti set at Oregon.
UCLA endured its worst start in more than seven decades, and Kelly tallied more losses his first year in Westwood than he garnered during his entire head-coaching tenure in Eugene. The 2018 campaign provided its share of hardships, but it wasn't all negative for the Bruins kicking off this new era. UCLA won three Pac-12 games, including a come-from-behind thriller against rival USC. The Bruins also took a few of its opponents to the wire down the stretch, showing marked improvement over the course of the season.
Spring football arrives with UCLA having some positive momentum on which to build for 2019.
5 Storylines to Watch During UCLA's Spring Practice
1. The quarterback question
Ballyhooed recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson won the starting quarterback job right out of the gate, beginning a roller-coaster ride of a debut campaign. His father criticized Chip Kelly publicly after UCLA started 0-3, then a shoulder injury as the Bruins started to progress relegated the youngster to the sideline. Michigan transfer and veteran Wilton Speight was behind center for some of the Bruins' crowning moments, most notably leading the win over USC.
Thompson-Robinson showed promise in 2018 but lacked consistency. His passing was up-and-down (he completed just over 57 percent of his attempts while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt), and he was used sparingly as a ball carrier. UCLA's success in Year 2 under Kelly is tied directly to Thompson-Robinson's Year 2 progress, with the rising sophomore a clear choice to start come fall — barring a complete shock in the months to come.
2. Rebuilding the offensive line
Perhaps the biggest story of UCLA's 2018 season was the breakout performance for running back Joshua Kelley, though the FCS transfer-turned-Bruin record-setter wouldn't have had his monster campaign without an offensive line that exceeded expectations. Line play has been a consistent struggle at UCLA, and the 2019 forecast is murky heading into spring with Andre James NFL-bound, and Justin Murphy transferring.
The UCLA front isn't without some building blocks, though. Boss Tagaloa, who moved from defensive line to center last season, transitioned nicely. Michael Alves also returns at one guard spot, with Christaphany Murray at the other. The interior's going to be a strength heading into spring, but the tackle positions leave more pressing question marks.
3. Finding pass rushers
UCLA ended 2018 tied with Oregon State for the fewest sacks among all Pac-12 defenses (15). One of the most promising potential pass rushers, Jaelan Phillips, transferred to Miami after playing in just four games. The Bruins also lost Chigozie Nnoruka to Miami; Nnoruka did not accrue any sacks in 2018 but had two in '17.
That's the bad news. The good news is UCLA returns the majority of its sack production from Keisean Lucier-South, Lokeni Toailoa, and Osa Odighizuwa. The trio combined for 10 sacks a season ago and will be the leaders again in 2019 — though they'll need support if coordinator Jerry Azzinaro is going to employ a more aggressive defense.
4. Playing time in the secondary
Defensive back was the decided strength of UCLA's roster in 2018, featuring standout starters and plenty of depth. Despite losing Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors, the secondary should again be the deepest position group at UCLA. Spring should offer an early barometer for the rotation, with rising stars jockeying for more prominent positions.
Darnay Holmes is back as the star of the unit. Both Elijah Gates and Quentin Lake came on strong in the second half of last season; both should factor into the defense heavily in 2019. Spring will also be important for integrating up-and-comers like Stephan Blaylock at safety, and Jay Shaw in the stacked cornerback rotation.
5. Special teams
Kelly scoffed at the concept of a dedicated special teams coordinator last season, which became something of a recurring theme with various special teams gaffes piling up late in the season (most notably at Oregon).
Roy Manning, who doubled as special teams coach last year, is gone. Derek Sage will now take on the task along with coaching tight ends. The Bruins' special teams will undergo some other changes from a season ago, including replacing outstanding punter Stefan Flintoft.