The UCLA seniors, and possibly a handful of NFL-bound juniors, have played their final college game. The incoming recruits are on the way.
As the Bruins officially embarked on coach Chip Kelly’s era Wednesday, the returning players might have wondered where they fit into the picture next season.
Kelly got his first live-game look at the players he will inherit while sitting in a Chase Field suite Tuesday to watch UCLA’s 35-17 loss to Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl at Phoenix.
A coach known for his offensive intellect is expected to make considerable changes on defense given that unit’s season-long struggles.
UCLA gave up 344 yards rushing to the Wildcats, showing the need for an overhaul and raising a host of questions. How might linemen Marcus Moore, Osa Odighizuwa, Chigozie Nnoruka and Greg Rogers be utilized if Kelly and new defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro make the expected transition from a 4-3 defense to more of an attacking 3-4 alignment? Might Kelly be tempted to use dynamic cornerback Darnay Holmes on offense?
Will linebacker Mique Juarez be able to make the kind of impact that was anticipated when he arrived in 2016 as one of the nation’s most highly coveted recruits? Juarez, a redshirt last season while dealing with personal issues and used almost exclusively on special teams this season, entered the Cactus Bowl in the third quarter as part of a goal-line stand that stopped the Wildcats three times inside the three-yard line before quarterback Alex Delton surged into the end zone on fourth down. Juarez also took a direct snap on a fake punt and ran for 11 yards and a first down.
There will likely be some position switches and potentially some departures as a result of Kelly identifying the players who can play in his system and those who can’t.
“I feel very confident in the guys that came under [coach Jim] Mora, they’re going to start adjusting to Chip Kelly,” senior defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner said Tuesday after his final college game. “They’re all going to start adjusting well and they’re all prepared to follow in the lead of Chip Kelly and I’m excited for the future of UCLA.”
Kelly will also have to select a starting quarterback if, as expected, Josh Rosen gives up his final season of eligibility and leaves for the NFL. Redshirt freshman Devon Modster showed nice touch in the first half against Kansas State, completing 10 of 14 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns, before regressing a bit in the second half as the Bruins lost a 10-point lead and managed only four first downs.
Modster will be challenged for the starter’s job by incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who could thrive in the spread offense Kelly likes to run because of his ability to run as well as pass.
Receiver Theo Howard appears poised to continue as a mainstay under Kelly and speedy hybrid receiver-running back Demetric Felton could be among the players who find their roles increased.
“I don’t know all of what’s going to happen yet in terms of like his offense and stuff like that,” Howard said of Kelly, “but I definitely think he’ll be able to find ways for all of us to be able to use our talents. … I think we have a lot of guys who are on the team already that will step up. I definitely think we have a good receiving class and all these other recruits that are going to come in have a promising future.”
Two of those recruits referenced that future after the bowl game. Defensive tackle Atonio Mafi retweeted Thompson-Robinson’s post that mentioned the season opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 1 at the Rose Bowl, adding “All that matters now #SaveTheDate.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch