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UCLA Football Coaching Staff Reset
A quick update on who's gone, who's new, and who is depressingly still here.
So UCLA football did not play a bowl game last week, which was really fun for me, the person who got the news while driving through Mission Viejo en route to the game. At least we were able to make the most of it - after driving to the stadium to get tacos like we originally planned, I took my brother to the San Diego Zoo, which was very nice even if the weather was miserable and none of the animals really wanted to be there. Plus the Gaslamp District was still open, so the night was pretty fun. Perfectly acceptable San Diego trip, which makes one wonder why NC State fans were complaining, beyond the fact that they lack the creativity to find any sort of fun in one of the more beautiful cities in the country.
Anyway, I wanted to take some time to reset a bit with UCLA football, specifically the changes that have taken place so far this offseason. We’re going to take a closer look at the coaching staff to see who’s still here, who’s gone, and who has jumped in to replace them.
Gone from UCLA
Johnny Nansen, Defensive Line Coach - Nansen is now gone from UCLA, having accepted the defensive coordinator position at Arizona under former UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. I understand the idea behind this one - Nansen is an excellent recruiter, and Arizona lacks talent in a major way. I’m unsure how Nansen will actually do as the person in charge of the Arizona defense, as he has never held the position outside of one year of high school football in 1998, but he has been in the coaching game for twenty years so maybe he has picked up some idea of how to run a defense (at the very least, the past few years should have taught him what not to do). But Fisch’s goal here is clear: improve Arizona’s talent as much as possible.
Nansen’s loss can at least be minimized in the coaching department - I’d be hard-pressed to say that UCLA’s defensive line got noticeably better when he was in charge compared to previous DL coach Vince Oghobaase - but Nansen brought more effort in the recruiting game, especially in the Polynesian community. UCLA seems to have recognized that fact with the replacements they have lined up (more on them later).
Jason Kaufusi, Outside Linebackers Coach - Same idea here. Kaufusi followed Nansen to Arizona, where he will serve in a similar role to the one he had at UCLA. Kaufusi and Nansen formed the bedrock of UCLA’s defensive recruiting efforts, so their loss was not ideal, especially considering some of the coaches who are still on staff and collecting a paycheck despite subpar efforts. Outside linebacker play had improved under Kaufusi, who specifically seemed to work with the rush ends, but Fisch isn’t hiring him because he’s an excellent position coach. He’s being hired because he’s a good recruiter, and that’s what Arizona needs more than anything else right now.
Derek Sage, Tight Ends Coach (Reportedly) - This one is not as official as the other two, but it has been reported that Nevada will hire Derek Sage as their offensive coordinator under new coach Ken Wilson. Nevada has only made one official assistant hire since Wilson’s hiring, but I can see the appeal for Wilson in hiring Sage. Wilson has some familiarity with Sage as both coached at Washington State in 2017 under Mike Leach, and Sage is coming off a few years learning Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense at UCLA, one where tight end play was routinely excellent. Sage’s recruiting at UCLA has been a bit uneven - his best recruit out of high school was likely Mike Martinez, but he did help get Devin Asiasi to transfer from Michigan - but his on-field coaching has been excellent, turning Caleb Wilson and Devin Asiasi into NFL Draft picks, and developing a walk-on in Greg Dulcich into one of the best weapons in the conference. Sage has been one of the more underrated coaches on this UCLA staff, and his departure feels like it could be bigger than people will want to admit.
New to UCLA
Ikaika Malloe, Outside Linebackers Coach - Officially, Malloe has been hired as a defensive assistant coach, but the understanding is that Malloe will take over Kaufusi’s spot as outside linebackers coach. Malloe is a fascinating name for UCLA to bring in because he’s excellent at developing defensive line talent (including Vita Vea, Greg Gaines, and Levi Onwuzurike) and has defensive coordinator experience, albeit that was in a co-defensive coordinator role the past few years under Jimmy Lake. Still, it’s hard to look at Chris Petersen’s run with Washington and not believe that Malloe was instrumental to the success there, and even during this nightmarish last season for Washington, Malloe still had the Huskies’ defensive line as strong as ever.
Chad Kauha’aha’a, Defensive Line Coach - A few days later, UCLA announced the hiring of Kauha’aha’a, again as a defensive assistant but widely believed to be taking over the defensive line position. Kauha’aha’a is another interesting name with a wealth of Pac-12 experience, including stops at Utah (where he was defensive line coach for Star Lotuleilei) and Oregon State, and some Big 10 experience as defensive line coach at Wisconsin. He also spent 2019 with Southern Cal under current UCLA defensive analyst Clancy Pendergast, but wasn’t kept around when Todd Orlando took over which, frankly, should be a cause for celebration if I was Kauha’aha’a (because Todd Orlando is bad at his job, you see). The common theme of Kauha’aha’a’s career is improved play from the defensive line while he is there before moving on to the next job. I did find it interesting that a lot of his career involved coaching under Gary Anderson, serving as his DL coach at Utah State, Wisconsin, and Oregon State.
Crucially, both Kauha’aha’a and Malloe help reestablish the Polynesian pipeline that any West Coast school truly needs to be successful. UCLA has done really well in recent weeks as far as bringing in transfers from the Hawaiian islands, and having access to the Polynesian communities should be a major strategy of the UCLA program going forward regardless of who the coach is.
Surprisingly Still at UCLA
Jerry Neuheisel, Wide Receivers Coach
Ryan Gunderson, Quarterbacks Coach
DeShaun Foster, Running Backs Coach
Justin Frye, Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach
This is not meant as a slight against these four coaches, more just shock on my part that other programs haven’t tried to scoop up one of the coaches of an elite offensive unit. Justin Frye was the closest to leaving; reports tied him to potential openings as Indiana’s offensive coordinator and Fresno State’s head coach, but ultimately he is still at UCLA. Ryan Gunderson feels like a hot name, and likely could have ridden a good year from Dorian Thompson-Robinson into a coordinator position somewhere, but at the very least he could be in line for a promotion after next season if Ethan Garbers proves up to stuff. Neuheisel and Foster, I have to imagine, will be hard to pry away from their alma mater unless they get an offensive coordinator promotion.
Still at UCLA, Somehow
Don Pellum, Inside Linebackers Coach
Brian Norwood, Defensive Backs Coach
Jerry Azzinaro, Defensive Coordinator
I’m lumping all three of these guys together, because it is still crazy to me that they have a job. Don Pellum has been useless for four years, while Brian Norwood put a fresh coat of paint on a defense that is still bad while somehow making the secondary worse.
The biggest offender here, however, is Jerry Azzinaro. Even the national media, who seemed to push for Chip Kelly’s return for another year at UCLA, were willing to admit that Kelly needed to let his long-time friend go in order to find more success, and yet here we are in January and Azzinaro still has a job. Worse still, the fact that UCLA is hiring new defensive assistants could be a sign that Kelly is planning on either keeping Azzinaro on as defensive coordinator or replacing him with Clancy Pendergast, which would be a less-than-inspiring replacement.
From a statistical standpoint, it is hard to justify keeping this group around. UCLA ended the year with the 76th best defense according to Bill Connelly’s SP+, while Football Outsider’s FEI has them a little better at 68th. The 384.4 YPG allowed put them 70th in the nation, with a 5.48 YPP allowed putting them in the same spot. The worst part is, this is likely the best it will be for UCLA under Azzinaro going forward - there might be an uptick in some of those stats based on a really poor non-conference schedule next year, but the defense isn’t going to magically get better after four years. Frankly, it is organizational malpractice that this group is still around, and the only thing I can think of keeping them around currently is the fact that the next section is still unresolved.
Chip Kelly: Still UCLA’s Coach (?)
Time for an update on Chip Kelly’s status! The last time we checked in here, Chip Kelly’s name was being thrown around as a potential replacement for Mario Cristobal up in Oregon. I suggested at the time that the Kelly rumors were nothing more than a leverage play by Kelly and his new agent Jimmy Sexton to try and pressure UCLA and athletic director Martin Jarmond into offering a better extension than the one currently on the table. Turns out that was pretty accurate! Oregon was not actually interested in Chip Kelly beyond due diligence, and ultimately hired Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
Well, Sexton seemingly went back to John Canzano to try and get leverage again. Canzano commented on Jon Wilner’s well-written explainer on the ongoing Chip Kelly extension saga by stating that both sides were far apart in negotiations, and I have a sneaking suspicion that his sources on this matter did not come from the UCLA athletic department.
Here is where I note that Chip Kelly’s buyout goes away on January 16th. That does not mean UCLA could fire him and pay nothing - they would likely have to pay out the final year of his contract - but not having to pay an extra $9 million to let go of an underachieving coach is no small thing. Kelly and Sexton are seemingly aware of this fact and know that any leverage they have for a contract extension is rapidly shrinking, which is how you end up with Canzano trying to spin this as a UCLA problem. But between the unsigned extension and persistent rumors that Baylor coach Dave Aranda has yet to sign an extension with the school (reportedly because he wants the UCLA job), you have to assume this is coming to a head in the near future.
My read on this is that Chip Kelly will ultimately sign a short extension that will have a small raise but will reign back his complete control of the program. I’m sure people will be upset about the raise, but it’d be standard procedure and would set UCLA up to be able to offer a higher base salary to the next head coach without having to get the Board of Regents involved (although I have reached the point where I do not think salary will be a major hurdle for UCLA athletics going forward, and any objections from the Board will be on character grounds). But after poor attendance figures and a lack of truly-impressive results, I can’t imagine Jarmond will offer an extension that doesn’t include some conditions, and I have to imagine one of those conditions is a new defensive coordinator.
But, all of that goes out the window on January 16th, and as we slowly inch towards the big day, the question of Chip Kelly’s continued employment at UCLA will loom larger and larger.
Can’t wait for this all to become useless speculation 24 hours after I post it like last time!