Hard as it is to believe when looking at the final 4–8 record, there was a point in November when UCLA controlled its fate in the Pac-12. While that said plenty about the muddled division race, it also was viewed as the sign of life that many were hoping to see when former wunderkind Chip Kelly was hired as head coach.
Alas, it soon became clear that the team’s destiny was not to compete last year — much less make it to a bowl game. The “Baby Bruins” didn’t grow up so much as show a few, fleeting flashes. Overall progress was modest at best.
Such is the backdrop for a significantly turned-over roster as pressure mounts on the coaches to show improvement. UCLA’s destiny may still be to compete for the league title. Or it could simply be to play out the string at a sparsely attended Rose Bowl. Where the program lies on the food chain will be easily determined during a critical campaign that looms as a tone-setter for the rest of the head coach’s tenure.
Previewing UCLA's Offense for 2020
Though many expected a Year Two leap under Kelly, the truth was somewhat more muddled on offense. The Bruins scored a bit more (26.7 ppg) and converted third downs better, but otherwise they regressed in key areas. One can partly blame inexperience and injuries, but the bottom line was there was inconsistency across the board.
Hoping to lead the way is third-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The dual-threat QB was supposed to be an ideal triggerman in Kelly’s system but has so far been unable to display the kind of accuracy (career 59 percent, 28:16 TD/INT ratio) needed. For the team to get over the hump and become a consistent offensive threat, it will need more out of the most important position on the field. If “DTR” can’t do that, then former Washington transfer Colson Yankoff might get the nod behind center.
Taking the load off the QB is another open-ended question, especially without spring practices to evaluate things. Demetric Felton is the leading returning rusher but is a converted receiver who is best lining up all over the field. There’s hope that Duke grad transfer Brittain Brown can turn into a backfield bell-cow, but he is returning from a season-ending shoulder injury, so it might be on Kazmeir Allen to showcase his career 5.8 yards-per-carry average (in limited opportunities) more consistently.
One strength could be a solid receiving corps. Slot man Kyle Philips set a school record for catches (60) by a freshman. Junior Chase Cota provides size on the outside, while Jaylen Erwin has a chance to develop into a go-to guy. Four-star recruit Logan Loya enrolled early, and 6'5" redshirt freshman Charles Njoku may be in line to see plenty of action as well.
Up front, the offensive line remains a jumble. Jake Burton and Sean Rhyan are solid building blocks at tackle, while Duke Clemens figures to float between starting guard and center. After that, question marks abound. The team could very well have two converted defensive linemen play prominent roles.
Previewing UCLA's Defense for 2020
Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro was retained to sort out the UCLA defense despite the team giving up 34.8 points per game in 2019. To make matters worse, there will be virtually an entirely new slate of names at the second level of a group that has always had talent but has rarely put it all together at the same time.
There are solid building blocks to work with. Osa Odighizuwa will go into his third and final year as the team’s top defensive lineman. There could be decent depth behind him if everybody recovers from injury, with some like Tyler Manoa continuing to see added playing time. The Bruins made progress defending the run but will have to hope another year of seasoning in the trenches will allow for a more productive pass rush.
On the back end, top corner Darnay Holmes is gone, but virtually everyone else returns for new DBs coach Brian Norwood. Ex-Stanford starter Obi Eboh will provide an experienced hand on the outside, while the safety spots are deep enough to allow more nickel and dime packages.
The potential problem area is at linebacker after losing all four starters. There’s hope that Carl Jones can make a sophomore leap and that highly touted freshman Damian Sellers can make an early impact. Juco addition Caleb Johnson plus veterans Leni Toailoa and Bo Calvert could help buy the youngsters some time.
Previewing UCLA's Specialists for 2020
There will be a new kicker (likely freshman Luke Akers) and punter (Collin Flintoft) for the Bruins, and both will be seeing the field for the first time. While that is a looming Achilles heel, the good news is that the return and coverage units should be solid after making large strides last season.
The jury remains out on Kelly in Westwood, but progress has been made addressing some underlying issues with the program, including churning the roster significantly. Now, however, is time for the Bruins to show progress in the win column. The non-conference slate is manageable, and given upheaval around the Pac-12, getting to a bowl game is a minimum bar to clear. Truly competing for the division title in late November might still be a little too much to ask, but if that is UCLA’s true goal, then substantial strides will need to be made in 2020.