— By Kyle Kensing, The Sports Xchange —
In four seasons as Oregon Ducks head coach, Chip Kelly lost a total of seven games. Last season, the UCLA team that Kelly inherits lost seven — and the Bruins lost eight in 2016.
It’s a whole new ball game for Kelly, returning to the Pac-12 Conference after a five-year hiatus that included stints with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, and a one-season sabbatical from coaching as a television analyst.
Not only does Kelly take over a much different situation at UCLA, which begins a larger rebuilding effort Saturday at Rose Bowl Stadium against Cincinnati, but the complexion of the Pac-12 looks much different.
“When I first came into this league there weren’t many spread offenses and we were the only team that had shiny helmets, and now everybody runs the spread offense and everybody has shiny helmets,” Kelly said.
Hired by former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti in 2007, then-relatively unknown Kelly introduced a sped-up version of the zone-read spread offense as a counter to USC’s physical dominance. The scheme was so successful by the time Kelly ascended to head coach in 2009, programs around the conference eventually began adopting similar strategies in response to the Ducks.
The way forward for UCLA under Kelly is not a simple do-over of what made Oregon successful. A new approach unveiled against coach Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati team, coming off a 4-8 finish in 2017, is a given.
Less obvious is just what that approach will look like. It hinges, in part, on who replaces Josh Rosen at quarterback.
UCLA’s quarterback depth chart features a variety of names, including Michigan transfer Wilton Speight. But 2017 reserve Devon Modster, who filled in for an injured Rosen in four games late last season, and highly touted freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, have been at the forefront of the conversation throughout the offseason.
“We’re confident in the guys we have,” said wide receiver Theo Howard. “Devon … watched Josh, saw what he did, and tried to come into his own as a leader, and he’s still doing that.”
Modster threw four touchdowns with no interceptions last season, and was a standout rusher in high school. Thompson-Robinson showed a dual-threat ability at prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas akin to past Kelly-coached star quarterbacks like Jeremiah Masoli and Marcus Mariota.
“He’s a great kid. We’ve seen what he can do at the high school level,” Howard said. “He can run, he can throw, I’ve seen in player-run practices he can make every throw. And he’s a confident guy. He’s already trying to take on a leadership role and get a connection with the receivers.”
The future of UCLA football certainly will not be etched in stone Week 1 against Cincinnati, but the opener will serve as a preview for the innovative Kelly’s long-term plans.
–RB Bolu Olorunfunmi shared carries with former five-star recruit Soso Jamabo much of 2017. While the Bruins did not have quite the same rushing anemia as in 2016 (113.4 yards per game vs. 84.3), UCLA was a far cry from the multi-dimensional running attacks Kelly oversaw at Oregon.
Olorunfunmi should get the majority of carries Week 1 with Jamabo suspended for game. How much more effective he is than last season’s 47.1-yard per game output will set the tone for UCLA’s revamped rushing offense.
–RB Soso Jamabo was one of six players suspended for the opener because of a violation of athletic department policies, the school announced Monday. The others are: TE Devin Asiasi, DL Osa Odighizuwa, DB Mo Osling, DL Moses Robinson-Carr and OL Boss Tagaloa.
–TE Caleb Wilson was well on his way to a monster 2017, catching for almost 500 yards in five games. A broken foot sidelined him for the season’s second half. Wilson is back, the second-most productive returning pass-catcher behind Theo Howard, and he could be a key cog in UCLA’s new offense.
–Saturday marks the first game ever between Cincinnati and UCLA.