CU opponent preview: UCLA’s rebuild under Chip Kelly continues

Buffs head to Rose Bowl Nov. 2

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
With 18 returning starters and a familiarity with Chip Kelly’s systems, UCLA should be improved and experienced by the time they host CU on Nov. 2 at the Rose Bowl.
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The hiring of Chip Kelly as head football coach after the 2017 season made UCLA one of the most intriguing teams in the Pac-12, and the country, a year ago.

It didn’t take long for the spotlight to dim, however. The Bruins were awful during an 0-5 start to the season and finished 3-9.

Heading into Kelly’s second year, the spotlight isn’t as bright, but the Bruins are still one of the most intriguing teams in the Pac-12. This month, Buffzone.com is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on UCLA, which will host the Buffaloes on Nov. 2.

Kelly’s return to college football wasn’t anything like his previous stint. From 2009-12, he led Oregon a 46-7 record and he nearly won the national title in 2010. He turned that into a gig with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, taking them to back-to-back 10-6 seasons in his first two years.

It’s been a while since Kelly has won, however. In his last three years of coaching – with the Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and UCLA – he is a combined 11-32.

Growing pains were expected last year with the Bruins, but few expected the debut season to be so rough. The task of changing the culture, combined with an inexperienced roster, made for a rough season.

For Bruins fans, there is plenty of reason for optimism going into Kelly’s second season. The team now knows Kelly and his expectations, and those inexperienced players a year ago have valuable game time under their belts, as 18 starters return.

By the second half of last season, the Bruins were already showing signs of life. They went 3-4 down the stretch and two of the losses came by one score. They rolled past rival USC in the process.

This season, Kelly will likely rely on sophomore Dorian Thompson-Robinson to run the offense. As a freshman last year, he split time with Wilton Speight (who has graduated), but he’s the only experienced quarterback this year. He’s a talented dual threat who should be better with experience.

“I’ve been really impressed with Dorian’s mindset, in terms of he’s always striving to improve every day and that’s what we’re trying to get from everybody,” Kelly told reporters after the spring game in April.

UCLA found a star last year in running back Joshua Kelley. He didn’t play much until Week 4 – at Colorado – and then exploded and was one of the nation’s best backs the last two months of the regular season.

At receiver, the Bruins are deep with talent; senior Theo Howard is an all-conference caliber player leading the group. Up front, four starters return, including one of the best young linemen in the conference, guard Chris Murray.

On defense, the Bruins were forced to play a lot of freshmen last year, and they struggled. UCLA was 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed (34.1 per game) and total defense (444.9 yards per game allowed). Those youngsters are among 10 returning starters and the defense is expected to improve. Senior linebacker Krys Barnes, junior cornerback Darnay Holmes and junior safety Quentin Lake are among the best in the Pac-12 at their positions and should lead that side of the ball.

General improvement is expected. Kelly is no longer new to UCLA and many of his players are no longer new to him, to the team, or, in some cases, new to college football. This may not be a team ready to compete for a Pac-12 South title, but a return to bowl eligibility is realistic.

“We’re all benefits of the experience and the only time you get experience is time served,” Kelly said in the spring. “Those guys have taken advantage of that. I think our guys are really doing a good job of progressive learning, not making the same mistakes twice, learning from what they did, what’s the correction we’ve got to make and then let’s move forward.

“I think our guys have made a lot of really good strides in the last year.”

UCLA Bruins  

Date with CU: Saturday, Nov. 2, time TBA, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Head coach: Chip Kelly, 2nd season (3-9; 49-16 career)

Series: UCLA leads 10-4

Bruins in 2018: 3-9, 3-6 in Pac-12

Returning starters: 18 – 8 on offense, 10 on defense

5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):

TE Devin Asiasi, Jr. (6 catches, 130 yards, 1 TD)

WR Theo Howard, Sr. (51 catches, 677 yards, 4 TD)

RB Joshua Kelley, Sr. (225 att., 1,243 yards, 12 TD; 27 catches, 193 yards)

RG Chris Murray, So. (12 starts – nine at right guard, three at center – as true freshman)

QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, So. (112-of-194, 1,311 yards, 7 TD, 4 INT; rushing: 50 att., 68 yards)

5 defensive players to watch:

ILB Krys Barnes, Sr. (85 tackles, 10 TFL, 6 PBU)

CB Darnay Holmes, Jr. (48 tackles, 11 PBU, 3 INT)

S Quentin Lake, Jr. (67 tackles, 5 PBU, 2 INT)

OLB Keisean Lucier-South, Sr. (46 tackles, 4 sacks, 11.5 TFL, 6 PBU)

DE Otito Ogbonnia, So. (21 tackles)

Notable: UCLA has not gone consecutive seasons without a bowl appearance since 1989-90. … Joshua Kelley finished ninth in the FBS in rushing yards per game (113.0). Chip Kelly has had a running back finish top nine in each of his five seasons as a college head coach. … Four starters are back on the offensive line, including junior Michael Alves (25 consecutive starts). … Redshirt freshman Alec Anderson and true freshman Sean Rhyan  are battling for playing time at tackle and one of them could land the starting spot on the left side. … Kicker J.J. Molson is back. He made 14-of-19 field goals and all 35 extra points. … Maryland grad transfer Wade Lees takes over at punter. He averaged 40.9 yards and landed 28 inside the 20-yard line last year for the Terrapins.