To say optimism was running high in Westwood following the hiring of Chip Kelly would be an understatement as vast as Los Angeles itself. After all, the Bruins didn't just hire somebody who had turned the Pac-12 on its head with a 46–7 record at Oregon; they also beat out other college football powers for his services and had high hopes that conference championships and big wins would follow in short order.
It didn't take long for reality to hit, though. The program that Kelly took over was far from the ready-made one he inherited at Oregon a decade ago. UCLA didn't prove to be merely a rebuilding job but rather a complete overhaul that would test the patience of its coaching staff, players and fan base as the Bruins lost their first five games — their worst start since 1943.
Under the rubble of that ignominious start, however, were a few signs of life. Underclassmen stepped up, and mental mistakes that regularly plagued UCLA teams were less prevalent. There were close games against Arizona State and Stanford late, plus a thrilling victory over crosstown rival USC that served as the highlight of Kelly's debut campaign. It was still far from the lofty win totals some had predicted, but there’s certainly nowhere to go but up for the powder blues in 2019.
Previewing UCLA's Offense for 2019
Kelly made his name on innovative tempo and unique concepts with the spread offense, but his first year in charge of UCLA was hardly a facsimile of his high-flying days at Oregon. The Bruins were 98th in the country in scoring and failed to crack the top 50 nationally in virtually any major offensive category in 2018.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was widely praised as the future at the position, but the present maybe came a bit too early, as he was thrown into the fire under center just two quarters into the season. An injury limited his effectiveness (57.7 percent passing, seven touchdowns, four interceptions) during seven starts, but the staff is hopeful that the offseason will allow "DTR" to fully develop into the type of player who can beat you through the air or on the ground.
It helps, of course, that he'll have a supporting cast full of speedy playmakers. Tailback Joshua Kelley was a revelation in the backfield, accounting for 1,243 yards, 289 of which came against USC. He’ll be spelled by undersized Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby, but Kelley will be the focal point of the offense and should contend for first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Senior Theo Howard will be the top option in the passing game (677 yards, four touchdowns last year), but the team will need to find more production from a deep — yet young and unproven — group of wideouts behind him. Even though terrific tight end Caleb Wilson is gone, don’t be shocked if you see more than one tight end on the field as well, with top options Devin Asiasi and Jordan Wilson.
The interior of the offensive line will be a strength, with center Boss Tagaloa and both guards back in 2019. Sean Rhyan, the top-rated recruit in the 2019 class, could be in the mix to play early on, but depth is far from ideal up front.
Previewing UCLA's Defense for 2019
UCLA gave up 30 or more points in all but three games last year and can thank Oregon State's ineptness for preventing the Bruins from ranking dead last in the Pac-12 on defense. UCLA could not get off the field when it mattered most and failed to apply much pressure at all on opposing quarterbacks (119th nationally with 1.25 sacks per game).
But there are still some quality pieces returning on this side of the ball. The secondary has a chance to become one of the better units in the conference behind Darnay Holmes, Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates, while the linebacking corps has a number of different looks to throw at opponents. Key to the entire group could be senior Keisean Lucier-South, a former five-star recruit who finally started to show flashes of that potential with 46 tackles and four sacks. Josh Woods returns after missing all of 2018 with a knee injury to add further depth to a pretty experienced group.
Up front, Osa Odighizuwa and Atonio Mafi anchor a defensive line that simply has to get more push upfield but has enough size to pose a problem for opponents.
Previewing UCLA's Specialists for 2019
Tight ends coach Derek Sage adds special teams to his responsibilities this year and has his work cut out for him after plenty of poor outings hampered efforts a season ago. JJ Molson is a reliable placekicker, but the Bruins need to find a new punter while also shoring up the (often disastrous) return and coverage units. The answer at punter could be Maryland graduate transfer Wade Lees.
Scratching out six or seven wins to return UCLA to a bowl game is a realistic aim as Kelly continues to overhaul the roster and program at large. Competing in the Pac-12 South will require progress on defense with the talent on hand finally matching production, while seeing further gains on offense behind the backfield of Thompson-Robinson and Kelley.
Improvement may not come as quickly as initially expected, but the Bruins can build on some of their momentum from last season to use the 2019 campaign as a building block for greater things going forward.