Chip Kelly returns to the Pac-12 six years after leaving Oregon
Editor's note: The sixth in a series of articles previewing the Pac-12 football teams in reverse order of their predicted finish in the preseason media poll. Today, No. 7 UCLA.
Seeing Chip Kelly wearing UCLA’s Adidas gear, even the all-black ensemble the coach wore to Pac-12 media day, is going to take some getting used.
Especially in Eugene.
Kelly, who posted a 46-7 record in four seasons at Oregon, is the new face of the Bruins.
“I grew up in kind of the Chip Kelly era, so it’s definitely going to be interesting to see,” said Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, whose Ducks will welcome Kelly and the Bruins to Autzen Stadium on Nov. 3. “I wish him nothing but the best at UCLA and I’m excited to see both our teams play. …
“It just adds to the competitiveness of the Pac-12. It’s already a really competitive conference and it’s going to be even more competitive now.”
UCLA wide receiver Theo Howard, who was verbally committed to Oregon at one point during his recruiting process, hopes Kelly’s offense will look like it did when he was leading the Ducks to Rose Bowls and a national championship game appearance.
“I used to love watching Oregon, especially De’Anthony Thomas, a guy from L.A., and Marcus Mariota,” Howard said. “They had so many weapons there, and coach Kelly was able to do an amazing job with them. I heard somewhere that he had a 46-7 record overall in college football. That just shows the amount of success he had there.”
Kelly is not expected to win 86.8 percent of his games with the Bruins over the next four seasons as he did after being promoted to replace Mike Bellotti in 2009.
UCLA, which fired Jim Mora a day after his team lost to rival USC for the third consecutive season, is picked to finish fourth in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason poll.
“I think it’s totally different, twofold,” said Pac-12 Network analyst Nick Aliotti, who was Kelly’s defensive coordinator at Oregon. “One, I think the cupboard is probably bare at UCLA. I haven’t seen them practice, but from what I saw last year, Chip will do a good job coaching them up with his staff and all that, but I don’t think they have enough guys.
“And number two, I don’t want to pat ourselves on the back, but when Chip took over at Oregon he had a staff that remained intact and it was kind of just like a new CEO coming in. We all kind of knew what we had to do so he didn’t really have to get us on the same page. I think this is a harder task. I don’t expect much in year one. I believe we’ll see progress every year, but it will take a few years.
Including walk-ons, Kelly’s roster includes 52 players listed as freshmen (35 true freshmen, 17 redshirt freshmen) with only eight seniors and two graduate transfers.
“Some people look at it as a negative. I see it as a positive,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of youth, and it will be fun to get them going in the right direction.”
With Josh Rosen leaving early for the NFL, the quarterback competition is headlined by Michigan graduate transfer Wilton Speight, true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and incumbent backup Devon Modster.
Speight isn’t a dual-threat quarterback like Darron Thomas or Mariota, but Kelly has had the 6-foot-6, 232-pound senior watching film of Nick Foles and Sam Bradford, two pocket passers he coached in the NFL.
“I’ve been able to throw with Wilton now for two months and I think he’s met my expectations,” Howard said. “He’s a guy who has a lot of experience. He played at Michigan, he was on the national stage, played big-time teams like Ohio State. In terms of me throwing with him, he can make all the throws. …
“The first thing that probably stood out to me when I met him is he’s kind of a leader, he’s a vocal guy.”
UCLA returns its top three rushers — Soso Jamabo (565 yards), Bolu Olorunfunmi (446 yards) and Brandon Stephens (182) — from 2017. Six of the top nine pass catchers are also back, led by Howard (52 receptions, 594 yards, four touchdowns).
Standout tackle Andre James, who has made 20 consecutive starts, anchors the offensive line, and dynamic tight end Caleb Wilson, who had 15 receptions for 208 yards against Texas A&M before getting injured last season, is on the Mackey Award watch list.
But one advantage Kelly’s offense won’t have is the element of surprise.
“When I first came into this league there weren’t many spread offenses, and we were the only team that had shiny helmets,” Kelly said. “Now everybody runs the spread offense and everybody has shiny helmets. I think the game itself has changed, so I think you have to change with it.
“I’ve had a great experience since I left Oregon from a football standpoint. Being around the NFL for four years, and then last spring being out and getting a chance to study the game will help me.”
UCLA returns seven starters on defense for former Oregon assistant Jerry Azzinaro, who is Kelly’s defensive coordinator and in the process of implementing a 3-4 scheme.
The Bruins ranked 117th in points allowed (36.6 ppg) and 123rd in yards allowed (483.7 ypg) in 2017.
“If we’re going to be successful at UCLA, it really starts on the defensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “One thing people don’t realize or maybe just gets kind of gets glossed over is when we were really good at Oregon it was because we were really good on defense.
“Our offense got a ton of notoriety. But Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Terrance Mitchell, all guys playing in the NFL right now, were tremendous defensive football players. They just didn’t get enough credit.”
The first road game of the Kelly era at UCLA is on Sept. 8 at Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. The Bruins host Pac-12 favorite Washington (Oct. 6), as well as projected contenders Arizona (Oct. 20), Utah (Oct. 26), USC (Nov. 17) and Stanford (Nov. 24), at the Rose Bowl.
“I’m excited when I look at our schedule,” Kelly said. “I think UCLA, USC and Notre Dame are the only three schools that have never played a I-AA (FCS) team. That’s part of something that they hang their hat on, and I agree with that. I’d love to play all great teams.”
Kelly said facing Oregon in Eugene will be difficult. Ducks fans will have mixed emotions about the reunion, too.
“It will be a big game and it will be rocking and rolling,” Aliotti said. “I’m interested to see if they boo Chip or cheer him when he gets in.”
Coach: Chip Kelly, first year (46-7 at Oregon)
Key players: QB Wilton Speight, QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, WR Theo Howard, OT Andre James, LB Keisean Lucier-Smith, S Adarius Pickett
2017 record: 6-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12
2018 projection: The Bruins are picked to finish fourth in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Fresno State
Plays Oregon: Nov. 3 in Eugene
Full schedule: Sept. 1 vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 8 at Oklahoma, Sept. 15 vs. Fresno State, Sept. 28 at Colorado, Oct. 6 vs. Washington, Oct. 13 at California, Oct. 20 vs. Arizona, Oct. 26 vs. Utah, Nov. 3 at Oregon, Nov. 10 at Arizona State, Nov. 17 vs. USC, Nov. 24 vs. Stanford
Thursday’s preview: Arizona