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UCLA Football: Bruins' 2020 Spring Preview

UCLA Football: Bruins' 2020 Spring Preview

UCLA Football: Bruins' 2020 Spring Preview

From 2012 through 2014, UCLA won at least nine games in back-to-back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. However, one important milestone eluded Jim Mora's teams: a Pac-12 championship.

After a late-season collapse in 2015, a dismal '16 with Josh Rosen injured, and a middling '17, Mora was dismissed. Chip Kelly's long-anticipated return to college football after he spent a few years in the NFL came to fruition with UCLA's surprise introduction of the former Oregon leader.

Kelly transformed Oregon's offense upon his arrival as coordinator in 2007, introducing a hybrid hurry-up spread that kept defenses back-pedaling. After his ascent to head coach in 2009, the Ducks won three straight Pac-12 titles — the third after beating UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game — and came a Michael Dyer broken tackle away from a national championship.

Things have not gone quite as smoothly at UCLA. The Bruins finished 4-8 in 2019 after a 3-9 debut campaign, which opened with the worst start for the program since '41. Year 3 approaches with prominent question marks up and down the roster.

5 Storylines to Watch During UCLA's Spring Practice

1. Who's up at running back?

One facet of Kelly's successful Oregon teams that translated to UCLA in his first two seasons: outstanding running back play. But with Joshua Kelley on his way to the NFL, the Bruins have a big hole in their backfield. Kelley rushed for 1,243 yards in 2018 and 1,060 a season ago, the latter despite playing through injuries.

UCLA's next leading rushers in 2019 were Demetric Felton, a wide receiver; and quarterbacks Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Austin Burton. Kazmeir Allen, the next-most productive running back, rushed 13 times for 63 yards. Martell Irby carried 10 times for 34 yards.

The bad news for the Bruins: There's a decided lack of production at running back. The good news? Two years ago at this time, the FCS walk-on transfer Kelley was an unknown commodity.

2. Felton's role

Felton commanded the national stage in UCLA's historic, comeback win over Washington State last September. The dynamic playmaker is a threat out of the backfield or lining up in the slot, and the question for him ahead of 2020 is how he'll factor into the offense with the Bruins losing Kelley and tight end Devin Asiasi, one of the team's top pass catchers.

Felton caught 55 passes, second on the team, and rushed for 331 yards. He functions more as a change-of-pace ball carrier than an every-down back, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see an uptick in his usage one way or the other. He could develop into UCLA's version of former Oregon star De'Anthony Thomas.

3. Defense in need of repair

A positive for UCLA in its 3-9 finish to the 2018 campaign was the defensive aggressiveness it showed after a dismal '17. In 2019, the Bruins regressed to No. 11 in the conference, allowing 34.8 points per game.

Kelly retained coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, leaving the third-year UCLA coordinator to retool his defense. The Bruins return plenty of production on that side of the ball, including budding defensive line star Osa Odighizuwa, but UCLA's lack of depth looms large heading into spring.

4. Dorian Thompson-Robinson taking the next step

A ballyhooed prospect in the 2018 signing class, Thompson-Robinson checked all the boxes when compared to past Kelly-coached quarterbacks. He was thrust into the starting lineup quickly as a freshman, the result of Michigan transfer Wilton Speight sustaining a Week 1 injury. When Thompson-Robinson took his own injury midway through 2019, hurting his shoulder, Speight returned to the lineup and played well down the stretch.

Thompson-Robinson showed progress upon his return in 2019, seeming to really turn a corner in the Washington State comeback. But he went out early with injury at Arizona and was somewhat up and down upon his return. He threw at least one interception in every game save one thereafter and was picked off 12 times on the year. Thompson-Robinson also fell short of a 60 percent completion rate in each of UCLA's final three games.

UCLA's progress in 2020 may be directly tied to Thompson-Robinson's growth in Year 3.

5. Incoming talent

Spring practices should be interesting with the Bruins bringing in seven early enrollees. The defense, in particular, gets a boost that could translate to the fall, adding linebackers Caleb Johnson and Choe Bryant-Strother, and defensive ends Mitchell Agude and Myles Jackson.

Johnson and Agude are both junior college transfers, adding some additional experience that could translate well in association with the early practices.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.