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UCLA Sports

UCLA is hoping a growth spurt comes in time for matchup with Colorado

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UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches his football team go down in defeat against Fresno State on Sept. 15 at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The text message reached Chip Kelly’s phone this month, with one UCLA loss down and two to go amid the Bruins’ worst start to a football season in 47 years.

“Water the bamboo,” read the encouragement from Mike Bellotti, Kelly’s former boss and mentor.

The words were familiar to the UCLA coach. Kelly had used that expression while he was at Oregon to explain a team’s imperceptible growth similar to that of the Giant timber bamboo.

“If you water [this type of] bamboo in the first year, nothing happens,” Kelly said late in the 2009 season. “If you water it in the second year, nothing happens. If you water it in the third year, nothing happens.

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“If you water it in the fourth year, it grows 90 feet in six weeks.”

Nobody associated with the Bruins (0-3) intends to wait four years for success — much less the first victory of the Kelly era — but the team’s patience remained palpable as it prepared to open Pac-12 Conference play Friday evening at Folsom Field against Colorado (3-0).

Kelly appeared to be sticking with his most celebrated true freshman through visible growing pains that included a lost fumble and two interceptions in his most recent start.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson remained with the first team during the portion of practice that was open to the media, putting him on track to start against the Buffaloes unless Kelly changed course late in the week.

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“A lot of things can happen between now and Friday,” Kelly said Tuesday, the last time he met with reporters.

One potential development would be Wilton Speight, the graduate transfer quarterback, reclaiming the starting job he lost when he suffered a back injury in the season opener. Speight appeared to be fully recovered this week in practices for the first time since he was hurt.

But that doesn’t guarantee a return to the field given that Kelly said he would play the quarterback he felt gave the Bruins the best chance to win. If the coach sticks with Thompson-Robinson, Speight will resume his role as a veteran mentor.

The true freshmen who populate every skill position on UCLA’s offense and a hefty chunk of the defense have been embraced by their older counterparts, preventing class divisions among players recruited by Kelly and those brought in by predecessor Jim Mora.

Freshman inside linebacker Bo Calvert said his transition from outside linebacker was eased by upperclassmen Lokeni Toailoa, Krys Barnes and Tyree Thompson, each of whom readily gave advice and answered his questions.

“The great thing is that nobody is afraid to share anything they know,” Calvert said. “It’s not like anybody is holding anything back, trying to keep it from any other guy, so it’s a collective effort to get better together and that’s something I really like.”

The Bruins dubbed their extra time off during the nearly two weeks between games as Improvement Week, focusing on aspects that needed tweaking. There was a long list. The team committed four turnovers against Fresno State, continues to struggle to run the ball and has not generated much in its return game.

Improving the collective spirit doesn’t appear to be an issue. Several players said the messages circulating on the team’s group chat were lighthearted and constructive amid the darkness of a winless start.

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“No negativity,” long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker said.

Kelly hasn’t altered his approach or unveiled any sort of emergency plan. He maintained a stoic demeanor in practice, twirling a whistle around his hand as he watched his players.

“We spend the same, consistent amount of time on everything we do,” Kelly said. “There’s not a change. You don’t say, ‘We lost a game, so let’s go do this now. We won a game, let’s change and do this.’

“We’ve been very consistent in our approach with these guys and they’ve been very consistent in their approach and it’s still a game about fundamentals and still a game about blocking and tackling and getting off a block and staying on a block, so it’s still just the same consistent model that we have here.”

Tight end Caleb Wilson said the consistency was comforting for a young team still trying to find its way in the season’s early going. The coach’s words have been familiar, day after day, loss after loss.

“Come to work each day and just get a little bit better,” Wilson said of Kelly’s message, “and we’ll keep building and growing as a team.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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