It is difficult to paint a third consecutive sub-.500 season in rosy terms, but for the first time since a Chip Kelly team took the field for UCLA, there is a sense of optimism about the program. Part of it has to do with a couple of surprising victories in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and a lack of blowout losses (the four defeats came by a total of 15 points) — and even more to do with what the Bruins have coming back for a 2021 season.
That includes 19 starters, which is one of the highest marks in the country. This is simply not a roster in flux as it has been for much of Kelly's tenure, but an experienced group that knows what is expected.
The flip side is that while these same Bruins have shown flashes from time to time, far too often they've committed self-inflicted mistakes that have hampered sustained progress in Westwood in the Kelly era. Clean up those issues, and UCLA fans might return to the Rose Bowl with genuine hope for the Powder Blues to make a little noise in the Pac-12 South this season. If they don't, Kelly (10–21 at UCLA) might find his already-warm seat getting even hotter.
Previewing UCLA's Offense for 2021
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was handpicked to be Kelly's quarterback of the future, but he has so far delivered only mixed results. The dual-threat did show progress as a passer in his third year as a starter (65 percent passing, 8.1 yards per attempt, 12 TDs, four INTs), but DTR will have to showcase better decision-making and consistency for the team to take the next leap. Staying healthy has been an issue, but backup Chase Griffin proved to be a capable fill-in and could be a change of pace at times.
Both quarterbacks will play behind an offensive line that is the Bruins' strongest in years and brings back all five starters. Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson are a pair of reliable tackles, and center Sam Marrazzo has been a bright spot on the interior. There could be competition throughout the season at both guard spots, but offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Justin Frye will have no problem with that scenario if it helps elevate the unit's play even further.
Brittain Brown will likely get the first crack at running behind that line, but the backfield has a number of different options, from highly rated Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet to speedsters like Kazmeir Allen. TE Michael Martinez is a key blocker for that group and will be utilized in conjunction with Greg Dulcich, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last season and just might be the top threat in the passing game.
That's not to say Thompson-Robinson lacks options at wide receiver because he certainly has weapons on the outside even if the production has not been stellar. Kyle Philips leads the way, but the hope is that youngsters such as Logan Loya or transfers such as Kam Brown (Texas A&M) supplement a group that has a chance to develop into a reliable group of playmakers.
Previewing UCLA's Defense for 2021
The Bruins lose only one starter on the defensive side of the ball, but it's a big one. The absence of defensive end Osa Odighizuwa from the Bruins front is significant; the first-team All-Pac-12 performer was UCLA's most consistent defensive player for much of his career. The hope is that with so many players returning, Odighizuwa's production can be replaced across the board by guys like Otito Ogbonnia and Mitchell Agude.
Both linebacker spots are manned by solid performers, but the hope is that Caleb Johnson (a team-high 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks last year) and Bo Calvert are able to grow even more comfortable in the Bruins' 4-2-5 scheme with a full offseason of work. Alabama transfer Ale Kaho will provide depth and has the athleticism to challenge for the starting gig once he gets acclimated.
The secondary likewise returns intact but will need to meld the talent and experience into a cohesive unit on the field. The group was weak against the pass in 2020, ranking 114th nationally in allowing 274.1 yards per game. Qwuantrezz Knight is the vocal leader on the back end and lines up all over the field. The Bruins will need the best out of a group that has very solid players like Obi Eboh and Quentin Lake.
Previewing UCLA's Specialists for 2021
Nicholas Barr-Mira was a pleasant surprise handling kicking duties last year, connecting on 6-of-7 field-goal attempts as well as all but one of his 31 extra points. Fellow freshman Luke Akers, the son of former NFL kicker David Akers, averaged 43.1 yards per punt and put half his 24 punts inside the opponent's 20, but he still has room for improvement. The return and coverage units were firmly in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 and will need to improve.
The Bruins navigated stringent COVID-19 restrictions, scheme changes and roster flux and yet still managed to look improved on the field in 2020. Nobody is expecting a conference title in 2021, but the time for head-scratching losses is over for Kelly and his program. Making it to a bowl game and becoming competitive in the division race is a realistic bar for the Bruins to clear given the depth and experience in Westwood.
National Ranking: 37
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