It's the most wonderful time of the year, and before everyone sends out their wish lists, Bruin fans should think extra hard about what they want to find in their stockings Christmas morning.
UCLA football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) is about to face off against No. 18 NC State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) in the Holiday Bowl, obviously a fitting bowl for this time of year, and a welcome one just since it's been four years since the program made the postseason. A win is surely priority No. 1, but this is about more than the immediate short term – the Bruins will be around long after Tuesday's contest in San Diego, and the health of the team depends on several key turning points this offseason.
So while Santa Claus may not be able to physically deliver contracts, coaches and transfers, here is what fans should be hoping and praying for in the coming days.
A new running back
There is a non-zero chance that Zach Charbonnet returns for a second year in Westwood, but that is far from a certainty. Brittain Brown, on the other hand, has exhausted his eligibility, so UCLA could very easily be down their top-two ball-carriers come next year.
With those two out the door, the Bruins would be losing 346 of their 389 running back touches, and Ethan Fernea graduating accounts for another 10. That means nearly 92% of UCLA's backfield production will be gone, and there wouldn't be much experience left on the roster.
Keegan Jones led the remaining backs with 95 yards on 28 touches this season and walk-on Brian Kowall chipped in 24 yards on 5 carries. Deshun Murrell didn't get any snaps as a true freshman this fall, but he was a highly-rated prospect coming out of high school in Alabama.
Tomarion Harden, a running back signee from Inglewood (CA), is the lone freshman back coming in this offseason. While his high school production and 6-foot-2 frame demonstrate how he could be a factor at some point in college, leaning on a true freshman would be a new path for coach Chip Kelly and company.
For as much success as the Bruins have had running the ball over the past four years under Kelly, he didn't recruit or develop any of the lead backs from start to finish. Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton were on the roster before he arrived, and Brown and Charbonnet were transfers.
Having DeShaun Foster as running backs coach is going to help tremendously in this transition period, whether the team is going to have to lean on young guns Murrell and Harden or bring a new face into the picture.
The combination of Murrell and Harden would be fun to watch, but with Kelly in a win-now mindset, it's more likely that he picks through the transfer portal for a veteran instead of committing to the two of them outright. Cal's Christopher Brooks has already committed to Purdue, and six of the seven top-ranked running backs in the portal, according to 247Sports, have already picked their next school.
Maybe it's Arizona State's DeaMonte Trayanum, maybe it's TCU's Zach Evans or maybe it's some combination of Murrell and Harden. Regardless, UCLA is going to need a new reliable back in house as soon as possible.
A change at defensive coordinator
It's no secret that the Bruins have faltered greatly on the defensive side of the ball since Jerry Azzinaro joined the staff.
As defensive coordinator, Azzinaro has yet to produce a unit that ranks even in the top half of the country in scoring or total defense. His failures on the field have been discussed ad nauseam, and his attitudes towards recruiting and the media certainly don't do him any favors.
Azzinaro's contract is set to expire in February for the third-consecutive year, and although it seemed like he would surely be gone a month ago, there is buzz around his eventual return on another one-year contract. Kelly hasn't signed his extension yet – more on that in a bit – and it's unknown what exactly the holdups are in that negotiation, but it wouldn't be unprecedented if the athletic department wanted Kelly to make a change at defensive coordinator as part of his next deal.
At this point, it would be very unlikely that UCLA went out and poached a top-notch defensive coordinator. While making a change just to make a change isn't a recipe for success, almost anyone would be an upgrade from Azzinaro.
The next defensive coordinator could already be in-house – maybe it's defensive analyst and former Cal and USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast, or maybe it's assistant head coach and former Navy co-coordinator Brian Norwood. If not, there are big-name former head coaches like TCU's Gary Patterson, Washington's Chris Peterson or Washington's Jimmy Lake.
Either way, the defense has a chance to at least be passable next year with improved schemes and in-game coaching. Striker Qwuantrezz Knight and defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia have already announced they are leaving, and defensive lineman Datona Jackson, linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath and cornerback Obi Eboh are out of eligibility, but there are recruits and transfers out there who can fill those holes admirably.
Having five or six returning starters isn't bad, and there's probably going to be less turnover on that side of the ball compared to the offense.
Now, all the Bruins need is a defensive coordinator who can make the most of them and finally turn things around after years of frustratingly poor team performances.
A true quarterback competition
From a fan perspective, there are few things more engaging than an internal quarterback battle.
UCLA hasn't had one in years, though – Wilton Speight versus Dorian Thompson-Robinson in 2018 is really the closest thing they've come in the past decade. Thompson-Robinson, Josh Rosen and Brett Hundley had three years as the unquestioned starting quarterback, and in many ways, that's good for the stability of an offense from year-to-year.
On the other hand, keeping a close eye on spring and fall camp practices to see which signal-caller stands out the most is always an entertaining storyline, and the Bruins could be facing one of those dilemmas in 2022.
Ethan Garbers spent 2021 as the team's backup after transferring in from Washington, and he stepped up and started in place of Thompson-Robinson against Utah on Oct. 30. His performance that night in Salt Lake City, while it didn't bring the Bruins a win, was admirable, and he's shown solid promise throughout the year.
UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel committed to UCLA on Dec. 16, though, and he was the Knights' starter the past three years before going down with an injury in September.
With Thompson-Robinson presumably going to the NFL, either Garbers or Gabriel are going to be the starter next season. Neither one should be handed the reins, and it certainly doesn't seem like Kelly would be the kind of coach to fall into that trap anyways.
Let Garbers and Gabriel duke it out in practice and see which one comes out on top. Gabriel is shorter and only experience in an RPO system, but has a bigger arm and more reps under his belt. Garbers has less big-play potential, but knows the offense better and has proved himself as a reliable decision-maker.
Whoever wins should ideally feel comfortable in the spot and not be forced to look over their shoulder all season, since that kind of pressure and instability could do more harm than good. But in terms of picking a day one starter, Kelly should take his sweet time and see exactly what he has at his disposal instead of calling the race before it begins.
A clear plan for the future
For what feels like three offseasons in a row now, the question marks remain prevalent for the Bruins.
Some people want to fire Kelly, others want him extended. The reasons for people to lean either way are more than justifiable, as his tenure through four years hasn't been as black and white as some like to make it seem.
But what will hurt the program is constantly living year-to-year, in more ways than one.
Kelly is perpetually on the hot seat, and an extension won't solve that outright. The Bruins shouldn't commit to him for six years with minimal wiggle room just because they want security, but they should go one of two ways with the contract discussions.
One option is to lock him in for a few years with concrete parameters about staffing, budgets and so on, so he can put together a solid multi-year plan and sell recruits on something well-drawn out. The other option is to structure his contract in a way that gives the team an out after next season if he can't meet expectations – expectations that are set now and aren't dependent on the outcome of a single game in November.
Set a hard goal, and if Kelly can't get there, move on. This program can't afford to go another year with minuscule recruiting classes and deteriorating fan interest.
Kelly relying so heavily on the transfer portal means that if or when he gets the boot, the next coach is going to be working with next to nothing in the ensuing rebuild. So if there are feelings that Kelly isn't the guy for the long term, make the change sooner rather than later to get a head start on that rebuild.
Wavering and sitting in the middle for a third or fourth straight year won't do anyone any favors, and it's best if everyone is on the same page and the goals and thresholds are clear from the get go.