For all the talk in recent years around quarterbacks arriving in Westwood as potential saviors (Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen), UCLA football received its biggest jolt in years when the Bruins beat out Florida and other top programs in the battle for Chip Kelly last winter. I’ve lived in Southern California for close to 20 years, and this is the first time UCLA has generated more buzz than its crosstown rival USC. Kelly was last seen on a college sideline dominating the west at Oregon, where he went 46–7 and finished with the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 2 teams in the country over his final three seasons. Now he takes over a program that last finished with a single-digit ranking 20 years ago, when Bob Toledo led the 1998 Bruins to No. 8.
Kelly opened spring ball with his first UCLA team on Tuesday. Here are five takeaways as a new era begins in Westwood.
1. The volume was turned down with a purpose. Rap blared through the speakers at 7:15 a.m. when the Bruins opened practice early Tuesday morning, but when things really got underway, the music was cut way down and you could hear Kelly and his staff being very specific about things like alignment and footwork as they stressed details to their new players, some of whom are on their fourth offensive system in four years.
2. This is not a deep roster, especially on offense. Kelly has to find a new quarterback, revive a dormant run game and work with defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro to fix a unit that finished in the bottom 15 in the FBS in yards and points allowed per game. It’s no stretch to say that not one offensive player at Tuesday’s practice would have started on Kelly’s last Oregon team in 2012—even cracking that Ducks two-deep would be a tall task. (Talented former five-star DE/OLB recruit Jaelan Phillips was in a yellow jersey and only did conditioning work as he recovers from a wrist injury.) Don’t be shocked if a bunch of the incoming freshmen compete for starting jobs on offense in the fall. Four-star receiver Kyle Phillips was the only freshman practicing Tuesday, but more newcomers are expected for the second half of spring football.
3. The Bruins have been woeful up front for a long time now. One position move that potentially could help remedy that is shifting starting defensive tackle Boss Tagaloa, a four-star prospect in 2016, to center. “Hopefully it is a permanent switch,” left tackle Andre James said of Tagaloa’s transition. “He looked fantastic [Tuesday]. He’s just a natural out there.”
4. Kelly isn’t just one of football’s most innovative offensive minds. He also blazes his own trail when it comes to player development, especially as it relates to sports science. One of the changes Kelly has made at UCLA was adding a second meal for his players, which was different from recent years.
5. There is some genuine excitement about the new era in Westwood. “I feel like we’re just tired of losing,” James told me. ”We’re trying to get back on track and I feel like this coaching staff is what we need right now to get back on track.”