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Commentary: Chip Kelly is gambling he doesn’t have to match Lincoln Riley’s electricity

UCLA coach Chip Kelly during looks on during a game against Hawaii.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly during looks on during a game against Hawaii on Aug. 28, 2021, at the Rose Bowl.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)
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Last week at UCLA football practice, I asked Chip Kelly about Lincoln Riley’s “next-level” use of the transfer portal — a reference that anyone who is remotely engaged in following college football would understand.

“I don’t know what you mean by next level,” Kelly responded. “We’ve taken portal kids since we’ve been here, whether it’s Zach [Charbonnet], Obi Eboh or Cam Johnson. There’s not a team in college football that doesn’t use the portal. So I think it’s the level that everybody is using right now.”

Uh huh.

The funny thing about Kelly at this point in his career is that I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he was blissfully unaware that Riley had brought in 13 transfers during the four months he’s been the head coach at USC in an attempt to revamp a roster that had fallen well below the Trojans’ standard.

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Given Kelly’s head-in-the-sand outlook, it must have been purely a coincidence that the rousing “Superman” theme by John Williams played Thursday as the Bruins began their stretching at 8:50 a.m. At another coach’s program, that song choice very well could have been a strategic nod to the fact that Caleb Williams, the hyped-up new quarterback for the rival across town, carries the nickname “Superman” and welcomes any comparison to the Man of Steel. But not at Kelly’s program.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly understands the need to build on last season’s 8-4 mark. He hopes Dorian Thompson-Robinson will help him achieve that goal.

March 31, 2022

Kelly’s job changed dramatically Nov. 28. It seems he either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care, and I’m not sure which reality is worse for UCLA.

Any talk of Kelly’s improving trajectory fell flat when USC athletic director Mike Bohn flexed the long-forgotten Trojans might by convincing Riley to leave one of college football’s blue bloods for another. For four years, Kelly had been surviving like a bottom-feeding fish off the carcass of the sunken Clay Helton era.

Looking back, it couldn’t be more clear that Kelly lucked into Helton as an adversary. And he mostly squandered that gift, leading UCLA to an 18-25 record, which got spruced up enough with last year’s 8-4 mark to get him a questionable four-year contract extension.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly shakes hands with USC coach Clay Helton after a game.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly, left, shakes hands with USC coach Clay Helton after a game Nov. 23, 2019, at the Coliseum.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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The 38-year-old Riley appears downright bloodthirsty compared with the 58-year-old Kelly, whose demeanor comes off more like, “If you guys still want me around, then sure, I will continue to coach your team.”

Obviously, Riley is going to be a much more relentless recruiter than Kelly, but it’s still jarring to look at the 2023 recruiting class and see zero commitments for the Bruins and three five-star prospects pledged to the Trojans.

One week into new USC coach Lincoln Riley’s first spring, transfer quarterback Caleb Williams is a great fit but questions linger at other positions.

March 27, 2022

And, no surprise, USC, with Riley and Williams driving its story line, is about to draw way more national attention than UCLA in Year 5 with Kelly. While the USC spring game is going to be broadcast on ESPN on April 23 with Kirk Herbstreit on the call, UCLA will be showcased on the Pac-12 Network the same day.

But the programs now feel as if they’re living on different planets culturally too. I attended each team’s practice Thursday, and, while Riley has shown he will not shy away from massive expectations to win on Day One, Kelly looks ill when having to discuss anything beyond that day’s practice.

“We’re not talking about expectations,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about Thursday. We’re short-term thinkers concerned about today.”

It wouldn’t hurt for Kelly to step out from his coach-speak cocoon every once in a while and state the truth: The Bruins must take another big step this season, and that should be the expectation.

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UCLA, with fifth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson back, better win the Pac-12 South Division crown in 2022 if it’s ever going to happen under this regime.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is happy to have returned to UCLA, putting off a shot at the NFL to attend to unfinished business in Westwood.

March 29, 2022

Because Riley won’t slow down for anyone.

Riley, who was expected to be closed off to media, has been the opposite, pushing himself to be the ambassador the program has been missing. He talked with reporters for 20 minutes after Saturday’s practice, going into detail about the ways he and his staff are teaching their new players accountability.

Each Trojan began the spring with a plain cardinal helmet, the gold Trojan decal removed. Riley said the number of players who have been “gold plated” with the decal has reached the low double digits.

“We felt like this is one of the most iconic programs, one of the most iconic jerseys, helmets, uniform combo there is,” Riley said, “and we felt like that decal should be earned, not just given because you have a spot on the roster.”

First-year USC coach Lincoln Riley checks his notes during spring practice March 22.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Riley has had former Trojans players come back to award the gold-plated designation. Former standout safety Taylor Mays enjoyed the honor last week.

Riley was asked whether there’s a scenario in which some players have the decal for the season opener against Rice while others don’t.

“I doubt we’re gonna put a player out there that hasn’t earned that in our program,” Riley said.

At USC’s practice Thursday afternoon, after years of watching the pride slowly drain from the program, it was nothing short of surreal seeing Riley and Williams sporting cardinal and gold, horsing around with Riley’s two young daughters as the day’s work came to a close.

Darwin Barlow, Travis Dye and Austin Jones are among the elite USC running backs pushing for carries and a chance to shine in Lincoln Riley’s offense.

March 31, 2022

“Practices have been fun,” Riley said. “I’ve a lot of times not wanted practice to end, and I get the feeling I’m not the only one out there that feels that way. I do see the quality of the ball improving each day.”

Kelly and the Bruins will continue to focus on their own improvement in Westwood, not developments on the southwestern edge of downtown. Kelly said he did not reach out to Riley when he was hired but has interacted with him on a few virtual Pac-12 coaches’ meetings.

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As a young offensive coordinator, Riley looked up to Kelly, who was truly in his coaching prime at Oregon.

“They were doing a phenomenal job offensively at that point,” Riley said, “doing some really unique things, especially in the run game and in terms of tempo and all that. He’s absolutely someone you watch from afar and admire. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him then and now.”

The end of the college basketball season Monday night signaled the beginning of what will surely feel like a never-ending buildup to this coming college football season. The story of Riley and USC will take up a significant slice of the intrigue, whether Kelly chooses to take notice or not.

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