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Optimism, Pessimism, and UCLA Football
Somehow, someway, UCLA will play football in 2020. The question now becomes whether we should feel good or bad about that.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Yes, on one hand, I’m referring to the journey we’ve collectively taken as a community, leaving our former domain and creating this new home at The Mighty Bruin, right as a global pandemic shut down all sports. Always know that I am thankful for every single one of you who followed us here, continued to read whatever we tried to put out, and supported us as we tried to navigate an uncertain landscape. I won’t lie and pretend the journey was not bumpy at times, but that’s what makes the arrival that much sweeter.
But I’m also talking about UCLA athletics, and UCLA football specifically. Just consider that since the shutdown, we had:
The hiring of a new athletic director.
Under Armour suing to get out of an apparel contract.
Not to mention the rise of student-athlete activism in the face of an uncaring NCAA power structure.
And none of that really addresses how UCLA will actually look on the field! Because at some point we all kind of forgot that this is supposed to be Chip Kelly’s show-me year, as the program should be at the state where his players are starting to produce results, and Year 3 is generally a good data point for whether a coach will succeed at a job. But the tumult of the past 8 months (though it has felt like decades) has thrown all of those offseason expectations out the window.
On some level, we should feel grateful to have UCLA football back in our lives. Hell, we should be grateful that UCLA is even having a game this week - as of writing, two Pac-12 games have already been canceled due to COVID. But now that we have UCLA football back, all of the hopes and fears associated with this program have come roaring back to the forefront. So I’m going to address a few of the ones that stand out to me as something of a season preview.
Third Year DTR
Pessimism - I do not blame UCLA fans who are concerned about Dorian Thompson-Robinson heading into the season. Frankly, it makes sense on a fundamental level. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was improved in his second year as the Bruins’ signal-caller (his first as the top option) but it was an improvement that came in bits and spurts and featured plenty of backsliding. It’s a hard year to really quantify as good or bad; how do you square away the Washington State performance with the fact that he led the nation in unassisted turnovers?
There is every possibility that the DTR we saw last year is, in fact, the DTR that we will get this year. It absolutely does not help that Thompson-Robinson lost a ton of developmental time due to the pandemic, but even beyond that, a truly-successful UCLA season would require DTR to take the kind of third-year leap that Cade McNown had, especially with do-everything running back Joshua Kelley off to the NFL. That feels….wildly optimistic, even in a best-case scenario. Compound that with the fact that UCLA does not really have any options behind DTR, and things could get very bleak very fast for the Bruins.
Optimism - Here’s the thing about last year: Dorian Thompson-Robinson played much better than his stat lines would suggest.
One of my common criticisms of the UCLA offense last year was how often offensive success hinged on DTR making repeated extraordinary plays. On some level, it felt similar to the Josh Rosen years, where Josh was a clearly-excellent quarterback held back by a subpar supporting cast. For DTR, he was a good, developing quarterback held back by a subpar coaching staff and scheme. DTR might have led the country in unassisted turnovers last year, but more often than not those turnovers occurred because he was pressing to make a big play to help the team. A subpar offensive scheme and a defense that bled points like a sieve is not a conducive environment to develop a quarterback in.
So does that all change? Possibly not, but there were enough signs last year to believe Thompson-Robinson could make a leap on his own this year. The biggest hurdle would be to cut down on his turnovers, but that could make a huge difference over the long run, and reports from practice (what little there are) have mentioned that there is an increased focus on ball security from DTR. Thompson-Robinson has at least focused on improving himself this offseason, from flying to Dallas for QB coaching to scheduling player-run route drills with the receivers. He’s being a more active leader on the team and seems to have earned the complete faith of the coaching staff. All told, there is enough smoke to believe DTR can make the leap.
Revamped Offensive Line
Optimism - Despite this line replacing three starters from last year (technically four considering Michael Alves did not play much before medically retiring), this unit does not lack for experience. Sean Rhyan started all of UCLA’s games last year as a true freshman left tackle, while Duke Clemens started most of the year at left guard once Alves went out (he is moving to right guard this year). Alec Anderson has started games over the past few years, and Sam Marrazzo and Jon Gaines saw playing time last year at different points. That feels like a crucial departure from previous years, as this is the first season under Chip Kelly where a true freshman was not forced into starting the season due to a lack of depth. Plus, there is youth here - Marrazzo is the oldest of the bunch as a redshirt junior, while everyone else is a redshirt sophomore or younger. Youth isn’t ideal, but it does inspire confidence that this group can grow together for a few years still.
Pessimism - This will probably be where most end up, and it’s completely understandable. Of UCLA’s five starters, only two of them inspire unquestioned confidence, as Sean Rhyan lived up to his 4-star billing in his first year, and Duke Clemens played above and beyond expectations as a true freshman (though his move to the right side will be interesting to watch). The other three spots are a bit more dicey. Anderson is probably the safest bet of the three, as he has prior experience and has shown to be capable in the past, but he existed as a swing lineman last year, so you’re stuck hoping he can continue to be consistent on the outside. Marrazzo is a former walk-on, which isn’t the worst thing in the world and he has more than earned his playing time, but you do wonder how he holds up over an entire season. Gaines is the biggest question mark here, as his experience is the most limited of the group, and the fact that UCLA brought in a grad transfer in Paul Grattan doesn’t make you think the coaching staff is completely confident in Gaines at the moment.
But the youth highlighted in the optimism section underscores that, yet again, UCLA is forced to reconfigure its offensive line due to defections. One of the defections was known in advance, as Boss Tagaloa was set to graduate after last season. The others were major blows - Christophany Murray had started since he was a true freshman and was the biggest surprise of Chip Kelly’s initial recruiting class, while Jake Burton was an NFL prospect that had locked down the right tackle spot. That’s a ton of talent and experience to lose all at once, and despite their struggles, it’s hard to see this new group performing better.
Optimism - Ok, honestly it’s hard to imagine things getting worse.
Let’s start this section by being upfront about a few things. First: the defense has been a disaster for two years. I don’t think any UCLA fan would really dispute that idea. But more importantly, the defense was a disaster in different ways in the past two years. A lack of pass-rushing ability has been consistent under defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, but UCLA featured a weak defensive line and strong secondary in 2018, only to watch in 2019 as the line improved just in time for the secondary to implode. Linebacker play has struggled mightily, and that was before almost the entire depth chart graduated. Simply put, nothing was going well.
So to give credit where it is due, UCLA did make some needed changes. No, they did not make enough in some instances (and we’ll get to that very obvious one in a second), but Chip Kelly made some smart hires in Brian Norwood and Johnny Nansen this offseason. Norwood is bringing his 4-2-5 defense to Westwood, which can better hide UCLA’s shallow linebacker depth while putting their talented defensive backs in a better position to succeed. Nansen, known as a prodigious recruiter when he worked across town, has done a good job of working with Jason Kaufusi to bring in a host of talent, and could be a move that pays dividends down the line by providing the staff with a second strong recruiter on defense.
Then you get to the scheme and players and realize UCLA does actually seem set up for some success. Linebacker is still the weakest spot, but the 4-2-5 defense limits the amount they need while bringing the nickel back spot (where UCLA has plenty of solid talent) into greater prominence. The defensive line should be improved just due to experience, and while the secondary has lost Darnay Holmes, they welcome back Quentin Lake at safety, which should help keep a lid on things. The scheme itself is much more aggressive, especially in the secondary, which should help the Bruins as well. I don’t know if I could say UCLA will be great defensively, but if they can be at least average, that would go a long way towards a successful season.
Pessimism - Ok, so go back and reread that first large paragraph I wrote about the defense up there. It’s ok, I’ll wait.
You back? Good.
Here is where the pessimistic outlook exists: all of those things happened, and yet Jerry Azzinaro is still the defensive coordinator.
That is the root of the pessimism argument, and it is honestly a very sound one, all things considered. Azzinaro has never proven himself to be anything more than a middling coordinator, and his true strength as a coach is on the defensive line. If this were Year 1, the hirings of Norwood and Nansen would look stupendous, as you hire a great coach to help Azzinaro develop gameplans and grow as a coordinator while hiring a great recruiter to get you talent to mold on the defensive line. But it’s Year 3 - instead of looking like savvy hires, they instead look like band-aid fixes to try and delay Chip Kelly from having to fire his friend, because while Nansen will recruit well and Norwood will likely have input on the defensive gameplan (he didn’t get an assistant coach title for nothing), Azzinaro will still be the one calling the plays, and that doesn’t fill one with hope.
And all of that optimism about talent and scheme above masks that this defense has been rather short on results. The secondary possesses talent, but only Quentin Lake and Carl Jones have shown to be dependable in actual games over the course of a season; I have to assume the grad transfer of Obi Edoh was meant to provide some more stability on this end. And the defensive line, despite having talent and experience, is short on results as well - Osa Odighizuwa remains the only guy on the line you have any sort of confidence in, and that is mostly confidence in his ability to be consistent.
In many ways, this defense feels like the natural endpoint for years worth of mismanagement from both Chip Kelly’s staff and Jim Mora’s prior staff. How else does one reconcile the linebacker depth chart, which features redshirt senior Leni Toailoa, redshirt sophomore Bo Calvert, and a boatload of freshmen? Or the defensive end/rush linebacker slot, which looks like it will be manned by a true freshman considering the depth chart is comprised of players who just set foot on campus for the first time. That’s not good, and it doesn’t inspire confidence that there is enough paint to fix this pig.
Third Year Program Leap
Pessimism - You, uh, saw the last two seasons, right?
It’s so easy to be pessimistic about this program heading into Year 3 of the Chip Kelly era thanks to the first two seasons, but 7-17 doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. Really, that’s all that should be said. It’s all I want to say. It’s such a good argument that adding anything else here would be an unnecessary garnish to an excellent entree.
All I will add is that the lack of spring practice, and shortened offseason training in general, should be viewed as a data point pointing towards another lost season. Chip Kelly has constantly used the wholly self-created “youth problem” to explain the growing pains of the past few years, and a lost offseason opens the door for Kelly to potentially break out that old song for the third year in a row. The question will be how receptive everyone is to it a third time.
Optimism - Here me out: it is extremely possible UCLA looks much improved this year.
Even though the “youth problem” of the past two years was self-created, we must acknowledge that this team has been rather young overall. There had been some pockets of older players at various spots, but over the past few years it has been Chip Kelly’s recruits that have manned various positions. And while we have bemoaned poor recruiting by Kelly’s coaching staff relative to UCLA’s historical ability, it must be mentioned that the players that have entered the program are not bad by any means - they are in fact solid players who have the potential to grow. The reason Year 3 was always seen as the leap year for the program was because the program should theoretically be at a place where all the major contributors were Chip Kelly recruits that had been developed by the program and put in the best possible position to succeed. Despite prior results, it isn’t crazy to still see that line of thinking as doable.
But what may help this team is the situation they find themselves in. Yes, this pandemic has not been ideal for UCLA, but it has also not been ideal for UCLA’s opponents either, and the Bruins theoretically have more cohesion than most of their opponents. Consider:
Colorado has a new head coach and quarterback.
Utah is forced to sit out this week due to positive COVID tests, and while that puts their game against UCLA next week into question, it also gives UCLA a prep advantage.
Oregon has lost a ton of talent to the NFL and opt-outs.
Arizona is a train wreck.
Arizona State plays UCLA at the end of a tough part of the schedule. The possibility of them being mentally checked-out by this point is rather high.
Southern Cal…..well, they definitely have a propensity for blowing up at random times.
Now, am I saying UCLA runs the table here? Absolutely not, what is wrong with you and why would you think I would do such a thing. But the schedule does seem more manageable than initially let on, and could open the door for a successful season. If UCLA can end up 4-3, that could allow the program to build positive momentum heading into a potential bowl game and offseason, which could then allow Chip Kelly to make good on his promise to build the Bruins into a contender.
And if it doesn’t, you can just fire him. Seems like a win-win to me.
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